SAN DIEGO – Tiger Woods had leaned one of his hulking shoulders against a door frame and was sipping an energy drink named after him. He patiently was waiting for Rocco Mediate to stop talking to the media – which was going to require some patience – when old Rocco spotted him.
"You better watch yourself, pal," Rocco started yapping, pointing at Woods.
It was just part of the comedy routine that seems to rule Rocco's life. He was just joking, but still. No one calls out Tiger, not even in jest. Woods looked stunned for a second. Is he talking to me?
Then Woods just shook his head and smiled. What the heck can you do with this guy, this lovable, huggable, quotable journeyman? Tiger has enjoyed Rocco for years and why not – Mediate is good for laughs and never is a threat to, you know, actually win anything.
You don't waste your intimidation routine on a 45-year-old with a bad back and a world ranking of 158.
So Tiger the Man smiled at the joke and took another sip of Tiger the Drink.
"See, he's a little nervous right now," laughed Rocco. "He's nervous."
Tiger had just rocked Torrey Pines again, a dramatic up-and-down from the deep rough on 18, a halfway around the cup birdie to force a 18-hole playoff starting at noon ET Monday. He had just put together a round that was a testament not just to his physical greatness but also to his incredible focus and will to win.
Hobbled by a bad leg, frustrated by another stalled start, he refused to crumble. Instead he put on a pyrotechnic show, game saver after improbable game saver, roaring cheer after roaring cheer volleyed into the Pacific air.
And his reward is this guy, this wild man full of nervous energy and nothing-to-lose thoughts mainly because, well, he has nothing to lose. On Sunday, Rocco wore his player's pin on his hat so security would know he wasn't just some fan trying to crash the ropes. At one point in his career he tried the World Series of Poker. A year ago he was working for The Golf Channel. This year he missed seven of the first nine cuts.
The guy never has been very good by tour standards. In 23 years, he has just five victories (none since 2002). There was one time, in 2006, he actually was in Sunday contention on the back nine at the Masters. He promptly shot a septuple-bogey and wound up tied for 36th.
Of course, he doesn't dwell on that. He laughs at it. He laughs at everything. He walked around the course Sunday chatting up fans, smiling at shots good, bad and worse, and essentially having the time of his life.
No one could believe Rocco was in contention, least of all Rocco himself. He's no Tiger Woods, but he has made nearly $14 million playing golf. What, you think some guy from an old mercantile town in western Pennsylvania is going to be depressed about not winning a bunch of majors?
Or be scared of Tiger Woods?
"If we get in a fight, yeah, I have a problem," Rocco said. "He's for sure going to kick my butt. But we're just going to play golf."
Tiger doesn't just play golf. That's why he's No. 1, that's why he has survived a knee that on any given follow through might have the cartilage catch, immobilizing him in pain. That's why he arguably is the baddest cat in sports, an indomitable champion.
So here on one of his most unusual majors, perhaps it's fitting he'll have to beat a most unusual opponent. Usually Woods can crumble someone in a head-to-head match before they leave the first tee. The glare, the gait, the red shirt, the frightening intensity that says this is no game for him has humbled players a lot better than Rocco Mediate.
It may not do a thing to the Rocco Mediate, though.
Mediate is promising to overwhelm Tiger's silent treatment with an endless Rocco rap – "I can't be quiet, that's for sure. … Tiger will talk a bit, I'm sure. He has no choice."
"We'll talk," Tiger said, before trying the adult-in-the-room lecture. "But we'll also understand we're trying to win a U.S. Open. And we'll have our moments where we'll go our separate ways and be focused for each and every shot."
Rocco didn't hear Woods say that. He was outside the press center holding his fourth interview session since the round ended. ("It's going to be a very entertaining day, I can assure you of that," he promised, before saying he might wear his Metallica belt buckle.)
Woods against anyone in an 18-hole playoff for a major championship generally would be a mismatch. Tiger has been beaten in majors by some nobodies – Rich Beem, Zach Johnson, Angel Cabrera – although only when they are in another group and don't have to deal with his presence.
Rocco agrees this traditionally would be a problem, except, of course, "I'm nuts."
Then there is the tender state of Woods' knee. Before taking some painkillers, he was so hobbled on the first two holes the gallery following him was buzzing about whether he might withdraw. He managed to rebound, but on the 18th tee it flared up again.
He has said his knee has felt progressively worse with each passing day here. He has won 13 majors but said Sunday he never has worked harder for one than this week.
Monday, he'll work some more. Tiger is not excited to be playing for the championship; he's excited about winning it. He is Tiger Woods.
Rocco is Rocco. He is just excited. About the opportunity, the attention, the money (second place pays the bills, too), the open microphone, this entire dream scenario.
"To go up against the best player in the world and have a chance to beat him, there's nothing else you can ask for, period."
Except it wasn't "period." Rocco kept talking after that. And some more after that, too.