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Ashway: Rocco vs. Tiger, the last Open at Torrey Pines
Denton Ashway
DENTON ASHWAY

It was David against Goliath. Except that Goliath was playing on a broken leg.

That sums up the 2008 US Open Golf Championship. This week, the Open returns to Torrey Pines for the first time since that memorable encounter between Rocco Mediate and Tiger Woods.

If you’re a fan of the underdog, Rocco was your man. In almost every respect, Rocco was the anti-Tiger. He had a well-rounded, unathletic body, an easy-going manner, and entered that Open with a perfect record in majors: he had never won. He had amassed only five Tour wins.

Entering that Open, Woods had won 13 majors. He had also won six times at Torrey Pines during the Tour’s annual stop there, including an eight-stroke romp earlier in 2008. He had also won six Junior World titles there.

The only thing in Rocco’s favor was that Tiger was playing with a double stress fracture in his left tibia.

Well, that plus the fact that he had me in his corner. I met Rocco back in the early ‘90s when I volunteered as a marshal at the Atlanta Classic. One year during the Friday round, I was in command of the third tee, a generally quiet spot overlooking a scenic but nondescript par-three.

All day long, players trudged up to the tee box totally absorbed in themselves, giving me as much notice as the lone, scraggly pine also guarding the tee. If I was lucky, I received a faint nod of acknowledgement.

With one exception. Rocco Mediate.

He was the first of his group to mount the tee. He looked at me, grinned, tugged at his soaking wet shirt, and said, “Man, how do you stand this humidity?”

It was around 10:30 on a spring morning, and Rocco looked like he had just stepped out of a sauna. “Aww, you get used to it,” I replied. “And the humidity goes down as the sun goes up,” I lied, hoping the prospect of future relief might be a boon to Rocco’s play.

Our conversation continued until the rest of his group arrived. Rocco left me with the impression that he’d have been quite happy to continue chatting, and maybe even play a few holes with me had the tournament not intervened.

After the final group of the day had passed me by, Rocco was still the only player who had spoken to me. From that point on, I was a big fan.

So, when Rocco reached the midway point of the 2008 Open one shot off the lead, I was thrilled for him, though I doubted it would last. Tiger was also one shot back.

But Rocco hung in there. For two days. And by Sunday evening, he was in the clubhouse, alone at one-under. Tiger had a tricky 12-foot birdie putt on 18 to tie.

“Anybody else out there, I got the trophy, guaranteed,” Rocco told Ryan Asselta of Golf.com in 2016. “But it wasn’t. It was him. So I’m looking, going, ‘He’s making this. So I’ve got to get ready for tomorrow.’”

That set up the last 18-hole Monday playoff in Open history. “Everybody and their mother knew that I was going to get killed,” Rocco continued. “Except for me. And when I woke up Monday morning, I knew I was going to win, because I was better than him through the air. US Opens are all about through the air. Where the ball was going. Fairways and greens. And I had him.

“I remember saying in the press room the night before the playoff, ‘Look, you guys think I’m going to get my butt handed to me. And I totally understand. But we’re going to give you a show tomorrow.”

That might have been the biggest understatement in Open history. Rocco walked off the 10th green three down. Undaunted, he told his caddie, “If I do exactly what I want to do in these last eight holes, I got him.

“And when I got to 16, I was one up. I wasn’t surprised. I played absolutely like I wanted to play. And then, at 17, good par. He made a good par. At 18, I cannot reach the green. He hit it on the green. Two putted.”

That sent them into sudden death. It began at the seventh hole, a dogleg right, which played against Rocco’s natural draw. “I hit a little bit left on seven. Game over. I mean, it was awful. It bothered me for a long time.

“I didn’t lose because I choked, or because I wasn’t that good. I made a mistake in the playoff. That bad swing happens. I can live with that. We went 91 holes. I wish we were still playing. That’s how much fun it was.

“That was the most fun day I ever had playing golf against anybody. Especially the best player that ever lived in our national open.

“I mean, how do you draw that up?”