It was over.
Deep rough, just in front of the grandstand. His hopes of winning the most important tournament in his life crushed, Rocco Mediate still had a smile on his face.
And a joke up his sweater vest.
Mediate, who pushed Tiger Woods harder in any major championship ever — 16 holes further than Bob May — was facing a drop zone and an impossible chip. A miracle par would extend the sudden death U.S. Open playoff to a second hole after Mediate had already matched Woods’ even par 71 on the 18-hole playoff.
Through the entire day, whether he was up by one shot or down by three to the greatest player golf has ever known — and he was both — Mediate carried with him a jovial grin and an aw-shucks attitude in his golf bag of tricks, which included three straight birdies on the back nine to take the slightest edge on Woods with three holes to play on Monday.
When it was over, however, Mediate was without the glass slipper on his foot.
You’d have hardly known it by watching him.
Before his 20-foot par attempt on the seventh hole stayed high and trickled past, staying at sea level and handing Woods his incredible 14th major title and first on a reworked knee, Mediate made one more indelible impression on what we can hope was a new legion of up-and-coming golfers watching.
Facing the deadly pitch with virtually no green to work with, Mediate picked his ball up from in front of the grandstand, and before his free drop, mocked a throwing motion to the green, drawing laughter from the gallery. He mimed an underhand approach to get a smile out of USGA director Mike Davis before finally plopping the ball down on his destiny.
The miracles had run out on Mediate, adding to the lore of Woods, who certainly deserves this major championship, maybe moreso than many others. He definitely had to work for this title — the 30 on his second nine on Friday, the improbable 13-to-18 stretch on Saturday and the clutch 12-foot birdie on 18 Sunday, not to mention the hardest push from a playing partner in his career on Monday.
But while we would all love to have Tiger’s game and would love our kids to emulate his work ethic and drive, it is Mediate who taught us all a lesson this week.
In a sport where so often four-letter words are not just acceptable, they seem encouraged (who can forget the “highly technical golf terms” line in Tin Cup?), Mediate, like his short draw off the tee, showed us all another way to play.
While Woods could be seen throwing his club not once, but twice after his layup on 18 from the fairway bunker — a whole 15 minutes before his double-fist-pumping birdie — Mediate was still Bill Murray-lite as his championship dreams were being crushed like a Woods tee shot.
Mediate’s game was in top form this week — two weeks actually; he won a playoff in sectional qualifying just to make the Open field — and by listening to the players and commentators this week, his demeanor is always in great shape. It is why is he so well-liked on Tour. So how much his attitude has to do with his golfing success is probably something that can’t be measured.
But one could imagine how much it would help the kids competing out there on the local links, or any of us. If Rocco Mediate — the man who was in contention at the 2006 Masters until taking a 10 on the 12th — can stare down five-plus rounds of the U.S. Open, the last 19 holes of which come pushing the world’s best player, lose the tournament with a loose bogey, and yet still laugh, then just why in the heck are we taking this game so seriously?
Thanks, Rocco. Tiger Woods won the U.S. Open, but you won our hearts.