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Rocco Mediate back for another shot at Open title

Rocco Mediate played a practice round Sunday on the Black Course, dressed in a black tee shirt and kick-around shorts. A grounds crew showed up to nip and tuck the green.

One of them recognized Mediate in his casual wear.

"Hey, Rocco, you're one of us," he shouted.

"I've always been one of you," Mediate replied. "You want me to mow something?"

That's so Rocco.

On Tuesday, Mediate moved through the crowds at Bethpage on the way to the practice facility, signing autographs and acknowledging shouts of encouragement and rounds of applause. This is the man who took Tiger Woods to the limit in a playoff for the U.S. Open last year, and for that alone his profile jumped by a 1,000 percent.

"It's been the ride of my life the last year," said Mediate. "It's been crazy good. I wouldn't want it any other way. Well, I would have liked to have won."

It's almost as if he did. Mediate's biggest moment in the sun yielded a book, "Are You Kidding Me," by John Feinstein. There's been more business coming his way, appearances, endorsement opportunities. Of course, the recognition, everywhere the recognition.

But he would like you to know one thing. As thrilling as it was to play off for the national championship against the world's best player, it wasn't -- and he isn't -- a flash in the pan.

"The are some people who think that was my five minutes of fame," said Mediate. "I've been out here a long time. I've won PGA Tour events [five of them, including a 1999 Phoenix Open win with Woods in contention]. I've had a pretty good career. Really the only time I've not kept my Tour card is when I've been injured. I've been a good player, and it wouldn't surprise me if I was in contention here again. I've just got to make some putts. I haven't made a putt in eight months."

He relishes playing at Bethpage and very much enjoyed the 2002 Open here, where he was a fan favorite long before he challenged Woods.

"I'm Rocco. I'm Italian. It's New York. They're going to be talking at me," he said. "It was terrific here in 2002. I just really, really look forward to coming here."

Mediate comes here with a body as healthy as it's been in years. His chronically bad back seems at least stable, and a lot of that has to do with girlfriend Cindi Hilfman, a physical therapist who has a golf-performance business in Los Angeles. PGA Tour players have access to ongoing physical services at tournament sites, but Mediate has his own therapist, Cindi, with him, and even his own equipment. Mediate and Hilfman stash their equipment in the fitness trailer to be hauled from site to site.

"It's just made a tremendous difference to my physical condition and my outlook, knowing that I'm swinging healthy," said Mediate, who saw a chance to win the Masters in 2006 slip away when he hurt his back in the final round.

Could he contend again this year on the Black?

"You know, it wouldn't surprise me if I did," said Mediate. "It's so incredibly difficult to contend in this tournament and then you look at Jack and Tiger and Hogan and what those guys have done, it's amazing."

He just would like you to know that what he did last year wasn't amazing, it is what he would expect himself to do as an accomplished player. But it sure was thrilling.

"I've love to do it all over again," he said.

And with that Mediate, who swing coach Rick Smith calls "Joe Roast Beef" as an everyman sort of golfer, headed off to the caddie hospitality tent for lunch.

He's one of us.

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