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Do you know the TV show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition?
Rocco Mediate is going through a life version of it. His makeover began, anonymously, on the Monday before the 2007 Nissan Open, when the veteran touring pro, aching and crabby, met a physical therapist, Cindi Hilfman, who cured first his back and then his head. It peaked, as far as you likely know, on Monday, June 16, when Mediate had Tiger Woods—Tiger Woods!—on the ropes in a playoff for the U.S. Open trophy that went 19 holes before Woods won.
Not since Rocky Balboa lost to Apollo Creed in 15 rounds has a loser been so embraced. Rocco's makeover, often with the public watching, has continued ever since, most recently on the Saturday and Sunday after Thanksgiving, when he starred in the LG Skins Game in the sunshine of the California desert, playing in the same made-for-TV foursome as Phil Mickelson, with the boyish wonder and superwhite teeth and gelled hair. On every tee box, chatting him up, there was Rocco, now 46, head nearly shaven, wide-waisted, teeth yellowed by years of tobacco-chewing, stealing the show.
It takes two long mornings to play 18 holes in the Skins Game, and when the last putt fell on the final hole, Mediate got in his big gray Mercedes and drove hard across the desert. He dropped off his three kids at LAX for their flight home to Seattle and to their single-mom mother. From there, Mediate made his way to a warm room—Cindi Hilfman's room—in a small hospital off Santa Monica Boulevard. Dusk came and went. Rocco did not move. The overnight nurses checked in as a spooky Pacific fog draped the Saint John's Health Center. Rocco did not leave Cindi's side. Somewhere in her thick medical charts are the words "renal failure," and in moments of despair she'll talk about preparing "to leave the physical world." She's had a rare kidney disorder from birth, 42 years ago. Still, her life is full, and she wears many hats: wife, mother, daughter, patient, therapist, friend. For nearly two years now she's been orchestrating Rocco's makeover. Not only the parts you see, with the red light on, but also the real guts of it. Mediate will tell you she can't help herself.
They're a team. Regarding the U.S. Open playoff, Hilfman said, "We had never been paired with Tiger before." Mediate has made himself an expert on Hilfman's medical condition, and it pains him to hear it when she questions—again, on bad days—whether she'll make it to next year's Masters. A kidney transplant could add many years to her life, but Mediate recognizes the chance that a new kidney "won't take."
Their relationship defies shorthand. What they are is immersed in each other's lives. Cindi lives in Los Angeles with her husband and son, and Mediate says Hilfman's husband, Greg Hilfman, an adjunct member of the all-girl rock band the Bangles, is "a great guy." (On the band's website Greg is described as the band's "keyboardist and spiritual adviser.") Cindi has met Mediate's three sons, 18-year-old Rocco, 15-year-old Nicco and 12-year-old Marco. Mediate says it was not his closeness to Cindi that led to his recent breakup with Linda Mediate, whom he married in 1988. Divorce papers have been filed, and Linda recently moved from the family home in Naples, Fla., to Seattle, while Rocco still lives in Naples but has been spending time in Los Angeles at an apartment belonging to a family friend, Bradley Shaw. Mediate is not looking to buy a house in Los Angeles. What he needs to do is sell the house in Naples, for the divorce. Financially, Mediate says he's "O.K., fine," but not nearly as rich as you might guess, given the $14.8 million he has earned in Tour winnings alone. Hilfman is on Mediate's payroll for her back-therapy services. Her work on the golfer's head is part of a twofer.
It was Shaw, a former USC golfer, who suggested to Mediate that he see Hilfman for his chronically problematic (we're talking years and years) back. "What the hell," Mediate responded then. "Everybody else has looked at it." He left their first session mystified and asking, "What happened to the pain?" All Hilfman did, she said, was reposition the quadratus lumborum (a muscle in the lower back) and release a small balloon of trapped lactic acid.
Soon after that 2007 Nissan Open, Mediate started bringing Hilfman to Tour events and, on occasion, into press tents, where she'd answer medical questions about him. She told Mediate, weeks before his epic day with Woods, that he would contend in the national championship if he could learn the true meaning of trust. (She's kind of New Agey.) Mediate told her that he would make her famous. Hilfman—a self-described hippie and a preacher of love—gave him the peace-symbol belt buckle he wore at Torrey Pines and helped persuade Mediate, a lifelong Republican, to vote for Barack Obama. The lodge brothers on Tour are not accustomed to having a known liberal in the locker room, but Rocco couldn't care less. Hilfman's got him all mavericky.
ON THE Sunday night after the Skins Game, in the hospital room at St. John's where she had spent two weeks, Cindi and Rocco talked about a golf school they dream of opening, Imediate Balance, at which Mediate would teach the swing and Hilfman would teach golfers how bodies move and respond to stress. They talked about exotic places they'd like to visit. They talked about the putt Mediate lipped out on the last hole of the Skins Game, a putt that Rocco felt was perfect but Cindi, who watched the ABC broadcast in her room, said was struck too hard. For the Skins Game each of the four players had designated a philanthropy to which 20% of his winnings would be donated, and Rocco was playing for one called Small World Big Life, an organization dear to Hilfman and, as a consequence, to Mediate.
"It was so much harder than I realized," Mediate said, "playing for a charity." There's something intoxicating about the way he talks—it's so lively. You can see the italics in his speech. Small World Big Life seeks to help underinsured and uninsured families facing catastrophic medical expenses. Mediate made $140,000 at the Skins Game, meaning $28,000 will go to the charity.