Story by Rod Antone | Photography by Getty Images
Somewhere in Kapalua, pro golfer Rocco Mediate is probably barefoot right now.
He’s been practicing golf like that for years; says it helps his balance to feel the grass beneath his feet.
But kicking his shoes off doesn’t mean Mediate’s taking it easy. He’s come to Maui to compete in the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, hosted by Kapalua Resort’s Plantation Course January 3 through 9. Mediate took second to Ernie Els the last time he played in the event, back in 2003, when it was called the Mercedes-Benz Championship.
“I love that place—the course, the hotel, the people, everything,” says the twenty-five-year golf veteran. “I know that course like the back of my hand. It’s going to be great.”
Then he adds, “I still think, sometimes: ‘Holy crap, I can’t believe I pulled it off!’”
The Hyundai Tournament of Champions is exactly that: a competition among pros who have won PGA tournaments the previous year. Although he is one of the best putters in golf, Rocco Mediate hadn’t won a tournament since 2002, and almost had to go back to “Q-School,” the PGA’s qualifying school.
But at the Frys.com Open last October, Mediate holed out for an eagle for four straight days, setting himself up for a dramatic victory. The win earned Rocco $900,000 and a two-year Tour exemption, which means Mediate is qualified to play in any PGA tournament until the end of 2012.
For the forty-eight-year-old Mediate, the exemption means everything. He wants to keep playing at the professional level until he’s fifty, at least.
“It’s amazing. I get to do what I want to do for the rest of my golf life,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean I want to relax, I’m here to compete.” After years of back problems, including a ruptured disk and major surgery, Mediate says he’s “physically better than ever.”
And when he’s feeling good, Mediate can compete with the best. He proved that when he tied with a guy named Tiger at the 2008 U.S. Open, before losing at the nineteenth hole in sudden death. Taking Tiger down to the wire shot Rocco up in the rankings and won him legions of fans, but it wasn’t the way he wanted to be remembered.
For a guy like Mediate, second place to Tiger Woods is still second place.
“It was a great time in my career, but I’m glad it wasn’t my last hurrah. I’m loving this life on the PGA Tour. The only person who can stop me is me.”
Mediate talks about trying to get to seven events, maybe ten, in the next couple of years. He talks about having a shot at one of the majors. He talks about earning another chance to go up against one of the top players on Earth, and this time coming away with a win.
For now, he’s playing barefoot with the sun on his shoulders, Kapalua the first stop of a two-year dream.