The Things We Forget, Part 8: Rocco Mediate and Tiger Woods

A lighter moment between the two fierce rivals from June 2008. Getty Images

"The Things We Forget" is a chronicle of 2008 in sports. It is presented in 11 parts. This is Part 8, on Rocco Mediate and Tiger Woods. At the bottom of this piece, you can navigate to the other 10 parts.

In the middle of working on this story, I learned I'd passed an online test that put me in the final round of auditions for Jeopardy! Along with 30 other potential contestants, I was summoned to a Toronto hotel for a written test and a make-believe game. Going into it, I liked my chances. But in the room, I was surrounded by people who knew more than I did, whose brains worked faster, who believed in their heart that they could play the game and win. Jeopardy! was their Super Bowl, and most of them were Mannings.

There was one guy especially: Anthony. Tall with a shaved head and glasses, he was a freelance editor, mostly of vanity-press books—books that their authors had to pay to get published, "books that probably shouldn't be books," Anthony said. He wanted badly to be a writer, but all he had to show for his ambition was three half-finished novels. He was, by most conventional measures, a failure, or at least not a success. In that room, though, maybe for the first time in his life, Anthony had his chance to be great. He stood out there the way Tiger Woods commands a driving range. Everybody knew he was the one.

If Rocco Mediate was known for anything before last summer, it was for being an affable guy with a bad back that had kept him from being what he might have been. He had made a good living and a lot of friends, but now, 45 and nearing the end of his career, he had never been great. He had never actually found himself on a big enough stage to show that he was the one.

Then he teed up his ball at the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, navigated through four rounds of near-perfect golf and found himself the surprise leader in the clubhouse on Sunday afternoon, watching a small TV to see if a one-legged Tiger could sink a 12-foot putt to catch him. "I wasn't thinking, Miss it, miss it, miss it," Mediate said six months later. He was at home in Los Angeles, but Torrey Pines was still etched in his mind. "Of course I wanted to win. I played my ass off. But the kid is probably going to make the putt. Nothing he does surprises me."

The kid made the putt. Monday, it was.

In Sunday's gloaming, Mediate said out loud what we were all whispering: "You guys think I'm going to get my ass handed to me." But that night, alone in his hotel room, Mediate convinced himself that he could win—no, that he would win. "It was no fluke that I shot one-under that week," he said. "I thought if I shot par on Monday, it would probably do it."

He was sleepless that night, from excitement, not nerves. "I hate to wait for anything," Mediate said. "The worst hour is the hour before I get to play. I remember wishing for the sun to come up. I just wanted it to be light out." Mediate watched the sun rise and pulled on a pair of black pants, a red shirt and a black vest. Woods pulled on the same outfit. It was a sign of how close they would remain all day.

More than 12,000 people lined the ropes at the first tee, the rest of the course mostly empty except for the two golfers. Mediate was exactly where he wanted to be: "I just kept telling myself, This is the opportunity of a lifetime. How many times do you get to play with the greatest player who's ever lived for the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines? It's amazing how everything stopped around us. I've heard so many stories from people who dropped whatever they were doing to watch us play golf."

Predictably, Woods took what seemed to be an insurmountable lead into the turn. But Mediate began to pull himself back into it, arising "from the depths of hell," as he put it. "Everybody expected me to get killed, and I loved that feeling. I loved everything about that day. Honest to God, I was just having so much f—ing fun."

Maybe because of that—because "it was just two guys having a blast and trying to beat each other's brains in"—18 extra holes weren't enough. Still tied, Woods and Mediate went back to No. 7, the 91st hole of their tournament. Finally, Mediate tightened and cracked, his drive sailing left and into a bunker. "I would have loved to have played 100 more holes, but that was the end."

In the ways that count the most, though, it still isn't over. Woods called the victory his best ever, then vanished for the rest of the year, his knee damaged beyond quick repair. ("Don't even joke about that," Mediate said when I asked whether he will be remembered as the man who broke Tiger. "I didn't break him. He was broken when he got there.") And Mediate has become our favorite ordinary man who found something extraordinary inside himself when it mattered most.

"Every day, people come up to me and want to talk about it," he said. "It just resonated for some reason. To be honest, I still sit up nights and think about it. What if he misses that putt? What if I make that putt? I'm still disappointed, but I'm not devastated. What Tiger did really was incredible. It was the greatest, most exhilarating time I've ever spent on a golf course. I could win three majors now, and it wouldn't be as good as that. These things just don't happen to guys like me."

But they do. Every so often—just often enough to believe that it might happen to us, too—these things happen to guys like Rocco, to guys like Anthony. They are struck by lightning, and the rest of us feel the current run through us, a charge that comes with knowing what might be possible if only we show up on the right stage in the right light. In a year defined by the world's greatest athletes performing at the top of their game, what many of us will remember best is the one man who seems most like us, living out his dream as though it were ours.

To read Part 9 of "The Things We Forget," on Sidney Crosby, click here.

Other Parts of "The Things We Forget"

Part 1: The Closing of Yankee Stadium
Part 2: Michael Phelps
Part 3: Lance Armstrong and David Tyree
Part 4: Annika Sorenstam
Part 5: Josh Hamilton
Part 6: Venus and Serena Williams
Part 7: The Boston Celtics
Part 9: Sidney Crosby
Part 10: Thurman Munson's old locker at Yankee Stadium
Part 11: The 2008 World Series
Bonus: See the author's receipts from putting together this story.