OMAHA, Neb. – Rocco Mediate loves the U.S. Open, no matter the age bracket. One day it might love him back, though one can never count on that.
Just ask Tom Watson, who won a U.S. Open but hasn’t tasted a triumph in the U.S. Senior Open. Or, for that matter, ask Phil Mickelson, who just last month collected his sixth silver medal in the U.S. Open.
Five years after finishing second to Tiger Woods in an epic playoff at Torrey Pines in the 108th U.S. Open, Mediate got close again, this time in the 34th U.S. Senior Open. On Sunday at Omaha Country Club, Mediate surged within two strokes of red-hot Bluegrass State native Kenny Perry before settling into a tie for third place.
Two bogeys in the last three holes for a 66 and 7-under 273 total make it look as if Mediate might have crumbled as he got within striking distance, but one bogey was the product of perhaps trying too hard when it mattered most and the other, on 18, when he missed a two-foot par putt, perhaps not trying hard enough when the outcome was no longer in doubt.
But, unfortunately, they obscure the fact that Mediate was the only player for much of the afternoon answering Perry’s brilliance with some steely shot-making and the kind of hardheaded determination that almost knocked off Woods in 2008. When he rattled off his third straight birdie at the par-4 15th from 8 feet, Mediate got within two of the galloping leader.
Good run, but not enough. Perry, who closed with a 63 and tied Hale Irwin’s U.S. Senior Open aggregate scoring record of 267, was imperturbable.
“Kenny just went bye‑bye. I needed to be much lower,” Mediate said.
He already was six under for the day, having converted five birdies and an eagle against just one bogey. So there he stood with a 6-iron in his hands at the par-4 16th, assessing how he could get a ball to the back-left hole location just six paces from the edge to make another birdie.
“I knew I was right there,” Mediate said, savoring the thought. “It was just a matter of, I know he's going to still make birdies. I know he wasn't going to go the other way. Tried to swing a 6-iron on 16. I didn't swing it. It was too pretty, actually. I needed to kind of dive in there and get back. I wanted to swing it back in and use that wind a little bit instead of holding something up against it.”
It was an aggressive shot that he didn’t quite pull off, and when he three-putted from the front of the green from about 60 feet, he knew his chances likely were over. But at least he went down swinging.
“Hey, I had a blast,” he said. “I gave it everything I had. … It was good. It was a good final day. It was fun to feel that again. This is my favorite tournament, whether it’s the other Open or our Open, I love it.”
Mediate, 50, who won his Champions Tour debut earlier this year, had been struggling with his putting in recent weeks. His only bogeys on Sunday came when he three-putted. The last was on 18 when he somehow missed from 2 feet, which cost him a share of second place with Fred Funk.
“The last one, whatever,” he said with a shrug. “It happens, I guess. Kind of shocked me, too. I feel like I'm still out there putting.”
He laughed as he said it. Laughed at himself, laughed at the moment, laughed at the fun of grinding again in a USGA championship.
A six-time PGA Tour winner, Mediate appeared to shoot himself out of the championship with a third-round 72 when nearly half the players who made the cut shot par or better.
But he traded texts with his swing coach, Jimmy Ballard, overnight to help find a swing that would allow him to get his usually dependable driver on track. He also got some encouragement from a U.S. Open champion.
“Johnny Miller [1973 U.S. Open winner and NBC-TV analyst] said some nice things to me this morning,” Mediate said. “Kind of got me going. ‘You're a great driver. Come on.’ I went out and drove really good. I really did.”
He was disappointed by the result, but not disheartened. He was happy for Perry, who had blown a major earlier this year at the Senior PGA and now has come back to win two in a row.
Golf is hard, even when you’re playing well. The key is to embrace it. That’s what Mediate does so well, which suggests he’ll be back.
“It's still the hardest test we have and our biggest tournament,” Mediate said of the Senior Open. “The ones he [Perry] came close to – you know, to be that close, I know the feeling. It's awful not to win, but you're there, so something good's happening. Something great's happening, actually, when you're that close.”
And maybe something greater is in store.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.