SI Vault
 
SHE'S GOT HIS BACK
MICHAEL BAMBERGER
December 16, 2008
After years of back pain and journeyman status, Rocco Mediate rode his everyman persona to the cusp of a U.S. Open championship and won the hearts of golf fans everywhere, all because he met a person who adjusted his spine, reorganized his life, beat back his demons and taught him how to trust
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
December 16, 2008

She's Got His Back

After years of back pain and journeyman status, Rocco Mediate rode his everyman persona to the cusp of a U.S. Open championship and won the hearts of golf fans everywhere, all because he met a person who adjusted his spine, reorganized his life, beat back his demons and taught him how to trust

View CoverRead All Articles
1 2

"You've never done that before," Hilfman said, "played for a charity of your own." Her own speech, sometimes peppered with locker-room cuss words, is often like that, super definitive and direct.

Mediate nodded. A nurse came in. Mediate's feet were bare, and he was wearing gray sweatpants, a maroon shirt and a blue sweater-vest bearing the crest of Bel-Air Country Club. Mediate—who grew up in the small western Pennsylvania town of Greensburg, where his father owns a beauty parlor (Linda was a manicurist there)—is not doing any sort of Fresh Prince turn. Still, Bel-Air is as swanky as Los Angeles golf gets, and Rocco is proud to be a new dues-paying member. The nurse took Hilfman's temperature and Mediate observed. The long hospital stay, during which doctors tried a variety of antibiotic protocols, had left Hilfman, a thin woman, thinner yet. She was covered by a cashmere blanket Mediate had brought her. "Ninety-eight point three?" Mediate said, repeating the nurse's announced temperature reading. "That's super, darling. Super. Super."

He's her nurse's aide, and she's his life coach. Rocco was considering changing agents, and Hilfman encouraged him (he did it), and after the Open she told him to contact the author John Feinstein to see if he wanted to write a book about Mediate. ( Feinstein said yes.) She had coached him on the importance of the expression Say what you mean and mean what you say with mixed results. After missing a putt in a Las Vegas tournament last year, Mediate told his caddie, "Throw this f—— putter in the lake." The caddie hurled the offending putter into a greenside pond, and the golfer had to finish the round putting with a wedge. Hilfman, so mad she couldn't see straight, let Mediate have it for that one. Several months later Hilfman urged Mediate to take a club caddie he knew and make him his Tour caddie. He did, and it was that rookie caddie, Matt Atchatz, who worked the U.S. Open playoff at Torrey Pines, right alongside Steve Williams.

HILFMAN FINDS Mediate to be as generous and open and funny as anybody she has ever known but sees his fears and demons too. She said he needed to address his "addictions" to nicotine, in the form of chewing tobacco, and gambling, in the form of online poker. (Mediate acknowledges the chewing problem but not the gambling one, saying he plays "a little online poker.") It makes her ill when she hears Mediate say, "Golf's not that important." She says, "Golf is important—it's the most important thing there is." Rocco Mediate had always been a man, and a professional golfer, with a make-others-happy personality. Can you imagine how empowering it is for him to hear those words, even though he knows they're not true? Mediate says she woke him up out of a midlife, late-career stupor. She helped him find a way to feel that he was playing not only for himself but also for a team. He says he feels as if somebody is watching him, really watching him, for the first time "in my life." She says she has his back, literally and otherwise.

In 2006 Mediate was leading the Masters midway through the final round when his back gave out. He made a 10 on the par-3 12th and went into a long funk. "If you had been there, I would have won that Masters," Mediate said on the Sunday night after the Skins Game.

It was late, and the small hospital off Santa Monica Boulevard was still and quiet, still draped in fog.

" Augusta," his therapist said, "owes us one."

Relive the dramatic action from Torrey Pines at GOLF.com/usopen.

1 2
Related Topics
  ARTICLES GALLERIES COVERS
Greg Hilfman 1 0 0
Rocco Mediate 13 0 1
Golf 5247 0 148
Cindi Hilfman 1 0 0
Tiger Woods 1494 0 30