Let me start by saying that I’m an adamant Tiger Woods fan. I root for him in every tournament no matter what, even if he is the bear and everyone else is the salmon. I think he’s one of the most mentally tough athletes to ever compete in sport, and I admire him for that.
His performance this weekend at the U.S. Open was nothing short of spectacular. To battle the world’s toughest competition, both golfers and course, with one leg hobbled through 91 holes in the span of four days and still come out on top is unbelievable. Literally. I can’t believe he did that.
But despite Tiger’s gutty, jaw-dropping performance all weekend long, I found myself in a weird place after he sunk that birdie on the 72nd hole to force a playoff against Rocco Mediate.
All of a sudden, I was rooting against Tiger.
Through 72 holes of regulation I had pulled for Tiger. I had cringed as he buckled after tees shots, I had pumped my fists when he sank eagle upon eagle, and I had stood up and shouted angrily at the T.V. when he piled on the double-bogies.
But now, my allegiance was shifting. Suddenly, without any prior notice, I was becoming a Rocco Mediate fan.
It came as a slight surprise to me that I could switch my usually ardent loyalty on such a whimbut as anyone who watched the Open this weekend could tell you, Rocco made it easy.
In all the years I’ve watched sports, I’ve never gravitated to an athlete as quickly as I did to Rocco. Before Saturday afternoon, I had never heard of the man named Mediate. Now, just 24 hours and 18 holes later, I was pulling for the Pennsylvania native over one of my favorite athletes of all time.
How did this happen? How did Rocco win over me and millions of other golf fans—don’t lie, you know you were rooting for Rocco—over the course of a few Southern California sunsets?
I’m not sure, really. Maybe it was his utter genuineness, through the ups and downs of the extended weekend. Or the innocence, perhaps, of all the U.S. Open pins secured to his hat because he loves the tournament so much.
Maybe it was the way he aimlessly wandered around the clubhouse after his round Sunday afternoon, not sure what to do with himself as Tiger prowled his 16-foot birdie putt that would eventually force a playoff.
Whatever it was, it worked. Witnessing Tiger’s quest for undeniable greatness was no longer as important to me. I was hooked into Rocco’s unimaginable underdog story.
Rocco Mediate, a 45-year old journeyman with five career victories in 20 years on the tour, was on the verge of toppling the best golfer to ever play. Talk about David vs. Goliath.
And what a fun pairing to watch, too. You had a hyper-focused Tiger, paying attention to absolutely nothing besides his next shot, paired up with Mediate, a guy who couldn’t help but smile and soak up every bit of the glory of an 18-hole playoff against the best on the planet. They were worlds apart as they strode the course together on golf’s biggest stage; but somehow they managed to shoot the same score.
So on to the sudden-death playoff it was, and every part of me hoped for 17 straight pushes and another dramatic 18th green showdown. I had never watched golf so intently, and I couldn’t get enough. My own LSU Tigers were playing in the College World Series and I didn’t care. Rocco vs. Tiger was too enthralling.
Unfortunately, Rocco’s miraculous ride stalled on the first sudden-death hole, giving Tiger a well-earned, well-deserved 14th major championship. I was disappointed, but grateful for the chance to watch such a historical competition.
In the end, it was a heartbreakingly close loss for Rocco, one that will undoubtedly stand as the centerpiece of his lengthy PGA tour career. But eventually, the agony of defeat will fade, and Rocco will realize what a wonderful treat he gave the world of golf.