SAN DIEGO - It was supposed to be the feel-good story of golf. The journeyman underachiever with back problems, he of the 5 career victories, going against the greatest player of his, or any, generation. Even his name, Rocco, was just a couple steps away from that of America's most famous fictional underdog, Rocky.
Indeed, when Rocco Mediate teed off for the playoff round of the U.S. Open on June 16, 2008, he likely had many Americans pulling for him. After all, Tiger Woods had played this game before. In many of his 13 Major victories, he had been the favorite, both sentimentally among fans and statistically among oddsmakers. Sports fans tend to love dominating performances, even if they won't admit it, but they also love the underdog. So Mediate was easily the fan favorite in this playoff.
Along with the fan support for an emotional boost, Mediate also had, for perhaps the only time in his career, the physical advantage. Woods had undergone arthroscopic knee surgery that April, and as he cringed and grimaced his way through the four rounds, it was apparent to everybody watching that he hadn't completely healed from that surgery and he was playing at much less than 100 percent. After the tournament, Woods revealed that in his rehab from the surgery, he had suffered a double stress fracture in his leg. Everybody knew he was hurt, but nobody knew it was that bad.
Still, that didn't prevent Woods from sinking one of the biggest putts of his career that Sunday. With Mediate holding a one-shot lead in the clubhouse, Woods and Lee Westwood found themselves with medium-length birdie putts on the 18th hole to force a playoff. Westwood missed his 15-footer, but Woods' 12-footer snaked in, going halfway around the lip of the hole before dropping.
The Monday playoff was a battle of attrition between two men who knew about perseverance. Mediate hadn't won a tournament of any kind since 2002, and had missed upward of five years in his career because of back problems. For Woods, the perserverance was more in the present, as he was playing his fifth round of golf in as many days on a leg he shouldn't have even been walking on.
Halfway through the playoff, things seemed to be going the way everybody expected, with Woods taking a three-shot lead. But Mediate stayed patient, kept believing, and took a one-shot lead on the 15th hole. There the score remained until the 18th green, when Woods once again found himself with a medium-length birdie putt needed to force a tie. Once again, the indomitable Woods sank the putt, forcing a sudden death playoff hole. A par for Woods was enough to top the bogey of Mediate, and Woods had his 14th Major victory.
For Woods, it was the most difficult and unexpected victory of his tremendous career. Only after having surgery on his knee and missing the rest of the 2008 season did golf fans truly appreciate how difficult his accomplishment was, and only then did he start getting the credit he deserved.
For Mediate, the ending wasn't the one he had hoped for. The fairy tale didn't have the storybook ending. But for people who wanted to compare Rocco to Rocky, it shouldn't have been a surprise. After all, in the movie, Rocky stands up to the champ, doesn't flinch, and becomes America's hero. And he loses.