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Rocco Mediate having fun again at Torrey Pines

The 2008 U.S. Open runner-up shoots 74, 10 behind leader Stewart Cink. Tiger Woods shoots even par on the South, Phil Mickelson 69 on the North.

January 23, 2014|Bill Dwyre

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LA JOLLA — The guy in the signature black sweater vest here Thursday, walking the fairways of the Farmers Insurance Open, looked familiar.

Oh, there was a little hitch in his get-along, perhaps a little more roundness near the belt. But the irons still fired at the pin and the velvety putting touch, on greens that demand nothing else, were the same.

This was Rocco Mediate at Torrey Pines South. How can we ever forget? Why would we even try?

It was the 2008 U.S. Open. The U.S. Golf Assn., had done what it does with such consistency and delight — turned this seaside golf course into a scoring nightmare. Tiger Woods would handle it, as he always did those days and as he always does at one of his favorite golf courses.

But even though Woods won, in as dramatic a 19-hole Monday playoff as you'll ever see in golf, Mediate might have been almost as big a winner that day. The paycheck wasn't the same, but the exposure that golf fans got to the charm and warmth of Mediate, and the intangible residuals for him, made the '08 Open a signature moment in the sport.

And that is so for more than the fact that it also was Woods' last major title, a subject that has now haunted perhaps the game's greatest player for going on six years.

Mediate chatted with the gallery Thursday during a two-over-par 74. He smiled, slapped people on the back, somehow turned this huge moment and huge pressure into fun. If Phil Mickelson is the most prominent non-winner of the U.S. Open with his six runner-up finishes, Mediate is close behind.

That has become so much the case that he is trying not to talk about '08 a lot anymore, so he can focus on what he is doing now. Which is still playing golf and playing well.

He just turned 51, has won twice on the Champions Tour, including his first time out last year at the Allianz, and again later in the year at the Shaw Classic. Last week, on the Big Island of Hawaii, he led the first day after shooting nine under and finished fifth.

But the chance to play at Torrey Pines is always something special, and when the sponsors invited him, he said yes. That's even though he had a little personal scheduling problem.

He got married Monday, to the former Jessica Somers, on the beach at Kona.

"It was wonderful," Jessica Mediate said Thursday. "It was just a small, private ceremony. But Tom Lehman and Bernhard Langer were sitting on the beach nearby, so they can be counted in the attendance.

"Then we got on a plane and headed for Torrey Pines. He loves it here."

Mediate was more specific.

"I really love it when the course is set up like it is now," he said. "I like hard and fast more than soft and slow."

His 74 was on the much more difficult South. Pat Perez's five-under 67 was the best effort Thursday on the South, as 15 of the top 16 scores, including Stewart Cink's leading eight-under 64, were on the North. Mickelson had a three-under 69 on the North, Woods an even-par 72 on the South.

Mediate will get his shot at the easier North on Friday. With a 68 or 69, he has a chance to make the cut.

That brings up the problem of his injured hip, which he had to drag around a bit here Thursday.

"I probably shouldn't have played," he said. "But then, that makes what I did not a bad round. In that sense, it was a pretty good day."

There was no question, despite the sore hip, that were he to make the cut, injury be darned.

"Will I be out there?" he said. "Oh, God yes."

That fire in the belly is part of the Rocco Mediate that is forcing him to separate himself from Tiger and '08. He bristled at a fan who made a comment loud enough to hear about Mediate's appearance here being "a swan song."

"What a stupid thing to say," Mediate said later. "I'm 51, I feel better than ever. I have confidence in what I can still do. I don't feel at all like I've lost a step. Tomorrow, I'll get it around."

His best moment was on No. 1, his 10th hole, a 450-yard par four. He drove it long and in the middle. His playing partners approached short and were in the trap in front. Mediate was 20 feet above the hole, facing a slippery putt. He stroked it gently and it seemed to roll forever, dropping in on its last rotation.

Birdie, Mediate.

It was 2008 again.

He was smiling, talking to his caddie, cheering on his playing mates. The only difference was the audience. In '08, he was surrounded for days by masses of people, who hung on every word and cherished every smile.

This time, the crowd was 21, not counting the sportswriter.

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