People's champion Mediate clicks into gear on major stage

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The Independent Online

In the last few years, the Sunday prior to the Open has become "Tiger Day" as spectators have flooded through the open gates to catch a free glimpse of the world No 1 (who would play a few holes before going to hang his red shirts in whichever local castle he had rented).

Well, the world and his mixed foursomes partner appreciated that Woods would not be here this year – but the next best thing was. And the man who so almost denied the Great One in last month's US Open was delighted to put on a show.

Rocco Mediate walked around Birkdale waving to the Merseyside crowd and generally behaving like the star attraction he has become since taking Woods to the very brink in that unforgettable Monday play-off. He even raised a hearty chuckle when lying down in the 10th fairway.

Until, that is, the fans realised that this was no joke. The British galleries are not used to seeing Rocco's back being manipulated back in by his physiotherapist and they definitely were not ready for the loud, crunching click that reverberated across the course.

"Yeah, there were a few laughing when I laid down," said the 45-year-old. "But they soon stopped when they heard the joint snap into place. I guess a few of them grimaced then."

He is understandably unapologetic about the gross factor, as without the attentions of Cindy Hilfman, the physical physiotherapist, there would not be have been any resurrection of this golfing career. "Two years ago in February, that's when I was almost going out of the game," he said as he strode up the 14th fairway. "I was hurt and just doing TV stuff and Cindy found something that was seriously wrong that no one else had found and fixed it. She has been instrumental in the whole thing. You know, this is the best I've felt in 10 or 12 years. I'm feeling pretty darned healthy and come here with big expectations."

Ten yards behind followed Hilfman ready to apply her magic hands if necessary. "I'm needed quite often during rounds," she explained. "Twice at the US Open but no, not in that play-off. Basically, Rocco has a sacroiliac joint instability and I apply a chiropractic procedure to his lower back morning and night.

"It involves him lying on his side and bringing one leg over the other. When it goes back in, he can feel it instantly. If I'm called on during a tournament I often do it on the tee box. It doesn't take long, but can make a bit of a noise."

It is fair to say that Mediate has caused something of a din himself in the last four weeks Wherever the Pennsylvanian goes now, strangers feel obliged to come up and thank him for one of the more dramatic major finishes in modern times. "The reaction has stunned me," he admitted. "Even here, in the last few days, people have been coming up to me in restaurants passing on their congratulations. It's funny, but back home some folks have said, 'Hey, my mother hates golf but for that Monday play-off she actually tuned in all day'.

"Others have said that they took the day off work to watch it. In fact, quite a lot have said that. I think I cost my country quite a lot of money that day."

The reason for his sudden popularity he feels is obvious, although he is surely being modest in brushing off the suggestions that it is his charming and joyful temperament that attracts the hordes his way. "Everybody just wanted to see a match that day," he said reflecting on the 18-hole shootout for which a record crowd of 27,000 turned up to see him claw back a three-shot deficit at the turn only to fall on the first extra hole. "Most had written me off and said it would be a walkover. But I knew if I could shoot somewhere around par I'd have a chance. I was probably the only person alive who gave myself a chance. It was a fun experience, the best of my career, and gave me the taste. I really want to have another shot at one of these big dogs."

Birkdale is indeed big and if some of the forecasters are to be believed it could turn out to be a veritable Rottweiler. Yesterday, the arriving pros were greeted by clear blue skies and a pleasing breeze but as Rocco said: "This weather is insane. Don't you worry, some weather will be coming in." The rough is, clearly, already in town with even Peter Dawson the R&A chief executive, admitting: "It's tough rough. Anything five yards or more off the fairway will be a struggle." Mediate agreed with that assessment, but was not about to let it ruin his enjoyment. Not after what he has been through to return here.

"There were mornings when the pain was so bad I couldn't get up," he said. His agonies kept him from competing here in 1998 and have limited his Open appearances to just seven in the 17 years since he made his debut in 1991. Fittingly enough that came at Royal Birkdale. "That was my first experience of links golf and I thought, 'Hell, what's going on here?' But I loved it and I still do. It's such cool golf. I mean look at this place. It's amazing."

Yet this is no week's holiday for the once journeyman who finds himself cast as the Everyman Champion. His ambitions now stretch far out beyond the dunes. "A good finish here and I'll be up there in the Ryder Cup standings," he said. "Zinger [Paul Azinger, the US captain] is a good friend of mine and has told me ,'Rock just keeping playing good' and I really want to play my way on to the team. Would I be able to walk the 36 holes in a day? Too right I would. I would crawl around if I had to." From yesterday's reaction, the crowd would crawl to see him, too.