Sunday, June 14, 2009


Review of Are You Kidding Me? The Story of Rocco Mediate's Extraordinary Battle with Tiger Woods at the U.S. Open by Rocco Mediate and John Feinstein. Little, Brown, 2009.

Rocco Mediate is a pudgy, forty-six-year-old professional golfer with a chronically bad back, a middle-of-the-pack guy who, despite winning five tournaments and earning a respectable $14 million on the PGA tour, was anything but a household name. With sportswriter John Feinstein, Mediate has written a book about the high point of his career and indeed, his life, which was not a famous victory but a stirring loss -- coming in second by the narrowest of margins in last year's U.S. Open to the world's best player and the biggest name of all, Tiger Woods.

In the golf world, it was an epic story, even a tragic one (though more Californian than Greek): bathed in brilliant sunshine and surrounded by cameras, a likeable but all-too-human fellow finds himself in combat with a god and is destroyed, but not before he inspires us with his courage and heroism. Rocco, though, doesn't see it as a defeat. In this autobiography of the Everyman who became, for a few days in June, America's sweetheart, it's not whether you won or lost but how you played the game – which was the spin the media put on it. Rocco wasn't invented by television, but the tube played a huge part in fashioning his image. In his on-course interviews during and after the tournament, he came across as bubbly and outgoing, "a loose and easy motormouth" as he puts it, and golfing America took him to its heart. An anti-elitist bias was obviously working for him: Rocco, of humble blue-collar origins, has nothing to do with the snooty country-club mystique. Johnny Miller, the TV analyst for the tournament, got into trouble when he said that Mediate looked more like "the guy who cleans Tiger's swimming pool" than the guy who was contending for the Open title (a remark that offended not only pool cleaners but, less explicably, Italian-Americans across the country.) Everyone could identify with Rocco's giddy pleasure at being just where and what he was, a man testing the boundaries of what had previously seemed impossible, who was able to savor the moment without the dry mouth and sweaty palms that make so many of Tiger's opponents choke, gasp, and give up. It's axiomatic that having Woods as a playing partner in a tournament makes other players worse; it seemed, during the one-on-one Monday playoff round, that Tiger was making Rocco better -- until the 19th hole when, in sudden death, Rocco faltered and Tiger, as he always seems to, prevailed.

The section of the book that is devoted to a day-by-day and, toward the end, a hole-by-hole and even shot-by-shot account of what happened on the course is an exciting read, even for those whose interest in golf is minimal. John Feinstein, who is given equal author's billing with Mediate, has written many acclaimed books about golf and other sports, including the classic A Good Walk Spoiled and Caddy For Life, a moving account of the bond between the great Tom Watson and his doomed caddy Bruce Edwards as Edwards lost his battle with ALS. Feinstein knows how to capture golf's quirky, maddening beauty and drama, and he tells a story vividly and economically.

But the first half of the book, which details the thirty years in Rocco's life that led up to his moment in the sun, makes for some problems. The loveable Rocco we saw on television in 2008 is not quite the Rocco who grew up rudderless and clueless, who lucked into golf with talent to spare but without the work ethic that Tiger brought to the game. Rocco struggled for many years with back problems that sometimes made it impossible for him to play for months on end, and he acknowledges that his aversion to working out, plus the 60 pounds that he gained over the years, exacerbated them. He married and fathered three sons, but as the book goes on, Linda and the boys gradually fade away, until it becomes clear that he's pretty much walked out on them. Rocco, for all his openness, seems as self-centered as, say, A-Rod; it's often All About Him. Sitting around his hotel room during the Open, Rocco's caddy, who's feeling sick, says he's going out for some water, and clueless Rocco says, "I don't need any water."

Eventually, another woman enters the picture -- Cindi, the personal trainer who did what all the surgeons and doctors couldn't do: trace the source of Rocco's back problems to a tilted pelvis and design a regimen that made him, for the first time in 20 years, pain-free. There was obviously more going on between them than a client-provider relationship: most people don't notice whether or not their trainers possess "the kind of smile that lights up a room." Yet just how close they were is left ambiguous. She flew to tournaments regularly, and "She did become my best friend very quickly," he says. It’s pretty clear that they were sharing hotel rooms by the time the 2008 Open rolled around. Were they lovers? "The simplest answer [to the media's questions about Cindi's role] was that she was his physical therapist," we're told, but the more complicated answer is left to the reader's imagination. Toward the end of the book, in passing, we learn that Linda and Rocco have divorced, and Linda is quoted, poignantly, to the effect that though she wanted Rocco to do well in the Open, "I couldn't help but feel that none of us were there with him -- on Father's Day. That part was tough." Cindi was with Rocco the whole time, despite the fact (never mentioned in the book) that she was and presumably still is married to someone else.

And of course, there's another story about the 2008 Open that Mediate and Feinstein aren't particularly interested in telling: Tiger's Tale. Woods was playing not only with a torn ACL in his left knee but a stress fracture of the leg itself; he had surgery immediately afterwards, and it was his last tournament until the spring of 2009. Mediate and Feinstein, understandably, don't dwell on the extent of the injury; they admit that Tiger was limping and that there was a current of anxiety among the television executives that he would have to withdraw, but what doesn't come through in the book is what we viewers saw every time Tiger took a full swing with his driver: the awesome torque produced as he rotated around his left knee made him stagger and clench his teeth in pain, but he still managed not only to keep the ball in the fairway but to outdrive Rocco by 40 yards.

"Nice guys finish last," Leo Durocher famously said, but there's a big difference between last and second in the U.S. Open ($810,000 in prize money, for one thing) and Rocco gave Woods all he could handle. Tiger called it his greatest victory ever, and, we're told, "In a sense, it was Rocco's greatest victory too." But like every successful sportsman, Rocco wants badly to win every time he tees it up. It's true that "people who knew nothing or almost nothing about golf now knew his name," but those people have short memories, and eventually, the name Rocco Mediate will slide from celebrity status to that of an answer to a trivia question: who was runner-up to Tiger Woods in the 2008 U.S. Open?

It's an answer, though, that the golf world, if not the general public, will remember for a long time to come, thanks in part to the ubiquity of television but in no small way to Are You Kidding Me? What Rocco did on five days last June defined the tournament, the course, and both Woods and himself, adding to Tiger’s legend and building a niche, small but permanent, for the man who described himself oxymoronically but accurately as a "second-tier star."