Here comes Rocco

It was the type of a tournament that could change a career, define a player.

The 2008 U.S. Open stabilized Tiger Woods as an icon. The Open made Rocco Mediate everyone's favorite underdog.

Mediate is well aware the tournament was a unique experience. He went on to write a book about the epic event with John Feinstein, entitled, "Are You Kidding Me?"

The appropriate title described the wild tournament and amazing playoff between Tiger and Rocco.

Mediate has had plenty of time to think about, "What if," yet instead he just plays on for the next tournament, the next hole.

These days, the 50-year-old is now on the Champions Tour. He won in his debut Feb. 8.

He'll be looking to win again when he comes to Newport Beach for the 19th annual Toshiba Classic, March 11 to 17, the final three days reserved for the rounds of the tournament.

Mediate comes in a talented field that features defending champion Loren Roberts, Tom Lehman, Fred Couples and Bernhard Langer among others. Lehman is the Champions Tour back-to-back Player of the Year.

So much for being the new kid on the block for Mediate. This "rookie" won the Allianz Championship at Broken Sound, Boca Raton, Fla.

Mediate's final round ended with a birdie on 18 and he finished with a one-under-par 71. He shot a 17-under 199 for the tournament and became the 16th player to have a winning debut on the Champions tour.

He matched the likes of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, who also won in their Champions Tour debut.

Mediate's second round definitely helped his victory. He shot a course-record 61 in the second round.

"This means as much to me as anything I've done," Mediate told reporters after the win.

The Allianz Championship was the second event of the year on the Champions Tour.

John Cook, who owns a home in Corona del Mar, won the first event, at Hualalai on Jan 18.

Langer, the 2008 Toshiba Classic champion, won the ACE Group Classic at TwinEagles in Naples, Fla., on Feb. 15.

Roberts, who won his 13th event on the Champions Tour, knows it will be a huge challenge to become the first champion to repeat at the Toshiba Classic. Every tournament has become tight on the Champions Tour.

"My feeling about this tour is that it has gone from an exhibition tour to a competitive tour," said Roberts, who won last year's Toshiba Classic by two strokes with an eight-under-par 205. "It really has."

Roberts believes the stage is just as competitive at Newport Beach Country Club. The course is the shortest on the Champions Tour by about 120 yards. Most would think that would cater to Roberts' elite short game. But Roberts says it only opens the door for an anyone-can-win scenario.

"I've always liked this golf course because I don't think it favors any one particular player," Roberts said. "If you saw the [Toshiba Classic] last year, you had Fredddy [Couples] and Calc [Mark Calcavecchia] in contention, both long-ball hitters. I'm going to be a shorter hitter with a good short game. And, I was able to win it. Everybody is in the game here. I like that about golf. Rather than bomb it, I like to think my way around it."

Roberts was at Newport Beach Nov. 5, when he was inducted into the Toshiba Classic Hall of Fame. His name was put on a plate onto a wall near the clubhouse. Every champion goes up on the wall. If he wins this year, "2013" will be added next to his name.

Roberts enjoyed the day. Just as most golfers on the Champions Tour, the players like to come to Newport Beach. Usually there is great weather. But last year, Roberts recorded a rugged win amid wind and rain.

Roberts has more reasons he enjoys the Toshiba Classic.

"I think the fan participation in the tournament [is what makes it great]," Roberts said of the weeklong event that is the only professional golf tournament in Orange County. "I think why this tournament works so good is that it's right in the middle of town. … People can get here, they know it's going on. It's right here in the middle of everything. It really works for the Champions Tour."

Mediate isn't the only rookie on the Champions Tour. Australian Steve Elkington is also in his first year. The 10-time PGA Tour winner is the featured speaker at the annual Toshiba Classic Breakfast with a Champion at the Newport Beach Marriott Hotel & Spa March 12.

John Cook, who owns a home in Corona del Mar, is also in the talented field, which also features Mission Viejo native Mark O'Meara and Hall of Famers Tom Watson, Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite, Sandy Lyle, Curtis Strange, Hale Irwin and Langer.

Twitter: @stevevirgen

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World