After years of medical woes, Mediate finally 'back' on track

SAN DIEGO -- The rulebook is filled with enough complexities, but now we are faced with having to consult a doctor's dictionary to get through Monday's U.S Open playoff.

Tiger Woods' knee has been all the rage at Torrey Pines, but Rocco Mediate is even more of a medical marvel.

It is something along the lines of a miracle that Mediate can even hit a golf ball, let alone do so with enough power and precision to have a shot at the world's No. 1 player in an 18-hole tussle for a major championship.

He has the scars to prove it.

Mediate was walking the fairways as an analyst for The Golf Channel at the start of the 2007 season, so uncertain was he of his future. Now he is one day from golf immortality -- albeit he'll have to overcome Woods to reach it -- at age 45. Mediate could become the oldest U.S. Open champion in history -- and perhaps the chattiest.

"It was the most amazing day of golf I've ever experienced," said Mediate after his even-par 71 at Torrey Pines looked good enough to win the 108th U.S. Open until Woods tied him with a birdie on the 18th hole. "[Monday] is going to be pretty amazing, too, but today was absolutely remarkable. I've never been there like that before. And I just found out what it's all about."

Mediate, ranked 158th in the world, has won five times -- a couple of months' work for Woods -- in a PGA Tour career that dates to 1986. His last victory came at the 2002 Greater Greensboro Open. Woods has won 30 times since then.

And Mediate's best finish before now in a major championship was a fourth at the 2001 U.S. Open. Woods, of course, will be going for his 14th major title.

"The thing that's the most amazing is the man I'm going to play has won 13 of these," Mediate said. "It's amazing how much it takes. I gave all of what I had today, and I can't complain."

No, but Mediate could wonder. About how his career might have been different if his back had not gone bad in 1994. Or whether he might have won the 2006 Masters had his body not broken down in the final round after he had taken the lead.

Mediate, who played college golf at Florida Southern and remains close friends with teammate and two-time U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen, won twice before the back trouble started. He ruptured a disc and needed surgery in 1994, limiting him to just six tournaments and just 18 the following year. He needed a special medical extension from the tour in order to play in 1996.

His back would plague him on and off for the next decade. Oh, Mediate won three more tournaments. He had four straight seasons of winning a minimum of $1.3 million, including two years that topped the $2 million mark.

Then came the 2006 Masters. He led the tournament when he stepped to the ninth tee Sunday at Augusta National, then saw his approach shot clank off the flagstick and bound off the green. That is when his back went out and "I almost didn't make it up the hill." By the time Mediate got to the back nine, he was nearly done, dunking three balls in the water at the 12th and sinking to an 80 and a tie for 36th.

He spent most of the rest of the year and 2007 trying to retool his swing under the guidance of longtime guru Jimmy Ballard and with the help of a physical therapist named Cindi Hilfman, who was waiting for Mediate on Sunday evening, ready to go to work again.

"It's a constant battle," said Hilfman, who works for the golf performance program Fitness Golfer.

"I was in pretty bad shape," Mediate said. "And I met a woman who saved me. Made me able to play again and found the problems, and all of a sudden I've had one setback since then. And it was a disc; no one could have prevented that.

"That's what made me able to keep going. She denies that vehemently, like she didn't do anything. But I certainly wouldn't be sitting here if I wasn't fixed, for sure. And on this type of golf course, you have to be.

"A lot of things happened … talking about was I ever going to play again or do this or have a chance to win one of these. … So all that stuff. I can't really believe I'm sitting here. Really can't."

No matter what happens Monday, Mediate will be in next year's Masters and U.S. Open. He'll climb the U.S. Ryder Cup team standings. And he'll make at least $810,000, which would increase to $1.35 million if he wins.

He has a chance because of some help from Woods, who started double-bogey, bogey to cough up his 2-stroke advantage. Mediate fell behind on the back nine when Woods birdied the 11th hole, but a bogey by Woods at the par-5 13th coupled with a birdie by Mediate at the 14th gave the underdog the advantage.

Mediate was unable to get what would have been a clinching birdie on any of the remaining holes, then watched Woods drain his clutch 12-footer at the 18th to set up the playoff.

All the way, Mediate appeared to be having a blast. He smiled and waved to the crowd, joked with his caddie, acted as if it were just another round of golf. And he seemed to have no fear of Woods, whom he jokingly chided upon seeing him afterward: "You better watch yourself tomorrow, pal." Even Tiger cracked up.

"I get to play for the national Open against the best player on Earth, that maybe has ever played," Mediate said. "How much more could you ask for? Sure I would have loved to have a birdie [to win outright], but I didn't, so I get to play [Monday]. I couldn't be happier with what happened today."

A victory over Woods would be likened to some of the game's great upsets, such as Jack Fleck over Ben Hogan in a playoff at the 1955 U.S. Open. But for Mediate, after all he has endured, just being here is an upset.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.