Prize fight

The Baltimore Sun

The comparisons between journeyman pro golfer Rocco Mediate and film myth Rocky Balboa are inescapable after yesterday's epic battle in the U.S. Open between the likable 45-year-old and Tiger Woods coming down to a sudden-death finish on the 91st hole.

Ever since Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and Gary Player exited the competitive stage, golf has largely been bereft of great showdowns that have captured the public imagination.

Yesterday changed all that. Even though Woods - playing with a sore left knee that was operated on in April - prevailed on the first sudden-death hole with a par on a 461-yard par-4 after an 18-hole playoff, Mediate played his way into golf lore with a heroic effort.

After his attempt to tie Woods with a long putt slipped by the hole to the right, the two embraced, reminiscent of the two ring warriors at the end of the classic fight movie.

"He said 'Great fight' to me," Mediate said, "and that meant the world to me."

Midway through the playoff, it appeared that Woods, who was going for his 14th major championship, would make short work of Mediate.

After 10 holes, Woods had what appeared to be an insurmountable three-stroke lead.

But Mediate rallied with three straight birdies that gave him a one-stroke edge, and you could almost hear that Rocky theme music in the background.

When the day started, television commentators were talking about a Mediate win as being comparable to two other historic upsets in U.S. Open history: American caddy-turned-champion Francis Ouimet's triumph over British stars Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in 1913 that was a watershed moment for the sport in this country, and Jack Fleck's surprise victory over another legend, Ben Hogan, in 1955.

In fact, with the pressure of a national audience and the stakes so high in modern sports, a Mediate victory over Woods, considering where the two are in their careers, might have eclipsed even those two events.

But on the par-5 No. 18, a hole tailor-made for Woods and where he had made an incredible putt Sunday to force yesterday's playoff, the most indomitable golfer of this or any era again responded with a birdie, and Mediate had to roll in a par putt to keep the match going.

Mediate's wayward tee shot on the first sudden-death hole found a fairway bunker, however, and he just wasn't able to scramble for par as that long final putt failed to find the hole.

After it was over, Mediate sounded as satisfied as any person who had just finished second in the most thrilling golf match in recent memory could be.

"It showed I could still compete," Mediate said afterward. "I never quit, I never quit."

Like the humble pug in the movie, Rocco Mediate went the distance with the best in the world - and then some.

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