Mediate Moves Three Clear at Bay Hill

By Associated PressMarch 16, 2007, 4:00 pm
2007 Arnold Palmer InvitationalORLANDO, Fla. -- Imagine how Rocco Mediate felt the first time he met Arnold Palmer on a golf course. He was 19 when friends secretly arranged a golf game at Latrobe, and the kid was so overcome by seeing the King that he nearly turned and ran.
Imagine how he would feel 25 years later to see Palmer waiting for him Sunday afternoon on the 18th hole at Bay Hill.
'It would be pretty interesting to see if I could even talk,' said Mediate, a guy who rarely shuts up.
Mediate chatted away through wind and rain Friday, making birdie on two of the toughest holes during his 5-under 65 that gave him a three-shot lead at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Tiger Woods was lucky to still be in the mix.
Tied for the lead after a 64 in the first round, Woods hooked one tee shot into the water and hit plenty of others into the rough. He closed with four tough pars for a 73, leaving him six shots behind.
Asked for any positives to take out of a bad day, Woods replied, 'I broke 80.'
'It was pathetic,' he said. 'I struggled all day. At least I'm still in contention.'
Mediate was at 9-under 131 and gets to spend a third straight day with Paul Casey, who gladly exchanges the banter. Casey shot 70 and was at 134 with John Rollins, who played with Woods and shot 65.
The group at 5-under 135 featured former British Open champion Ben Curtis (67), former PGA champion Shaun Micheel (68), Players champion Stephen Ames (67), Sergio Garcia (69) and Vaughn Taylor, who bogeyed his last two holes for a 71.
Mediate is still only halfway home to a handshake with his hero. The fact he is even in this position is almost as surprise as that first meeting with Palmer.
He has dealt with back issues nearly his entire career, especially after surgery in 1994. One of the low points came last year at the Masters, where he was tied for the lead going into the back nine until his back gave out. Barely able to swing a club, Mediate put three balls in the water on the 12th hole and made 10, tumbling to an 80 and a tie for 36th.
He played sparingly the rest of the year and needed a minor medical exemption to keep his card.
Mediate might not have been at Bay Hill except for a chance meeting with Palmer in December when he asked the tournament host about getting an invitation. Then, Mediate changed his mind. He asked Palmer to watch his game over the first few months of the season, and to offer him a spot if it looked as though Mediate was worthy.
Mediate tied for ninth at Riviera last month.
'I think when he saw me play pretty good at L.A., and starting to see things go up he said, 'Well, let's give him a shot.' And that's very inspiring to me,' Mediate said. 'Whatever happens the next two days, I'm not real concerned.'
The golf for two days has been inspiring.
Mediate showed his sarcasm by saying the 16th was his easiest hole, converted to a par 4 at 485 yards. He hit driver and 3-wood into 20 feet and made the birdie, which last year would have been an eagle, and to Mediate felt even better than that.
Equally impressive was the ninth, which played at 462 yards into a stiff breeze with clouds spewing the occasional shower. Mediate hit a 4-iron from 185 yards into about 3 feet for the finish he wanted.
As well as he hit the ball in the opening round, Woods was that much off under shifting winds. He dropped shots on two of the first four holes, then took double bogey on No. 6 with a tee shot into the water. The rest of the day was a grind, as he rarely gave himself good looks at birdie and more often had to scramble for par.
Others took a shot at the early pace set by Mediate.
Taylor got within one shot with five holes to play until failing to get up-and-down behind the fifth green and getting blocked by the trees on the eighth hole, setting up another bogey. Casey birdied two of his first three holes until the weather got fickle, along with his tee shots.
'The goal was always to put myself in the mix of things and hopefully have a chance on Sunday afternoon,' Casey said. 'So I'm very happily placed.'
So is Mediate. This is the first time he has had the lead on the weekend since the third round of Greensboro in 2002, which also was his last PGA Tour victory.
At his age, with his health, Mediate knows opportunities like this won't come along very often.
And doing it at Arnie's place would be over the top.
The first time he had an audience with the King was that day in 1982. A couple of buddies told him they had a money game at Latrobe and come over, so Mediate dumped his regulars at Greensburg Country Club. He arrived and saw an imposing figure on the first tee.
'I almost turned around,' Mediate said. 'I was so nervous I almost turned around and got back in the car left. I said, 'You know what? The hell with it. So I went up, and the first time I met him, it was like he had known me for a 100 years. He makes you feel that way.'
Tom Johnson hit what he thought was a good shot to the 18th until it hit a bird as it landed, knocking the ball to the right, onto the rocks and into the water. The bird fluttered briefly, then flew around the lake and settled on the shore. Johnson took his penalty drop and a bogey for his round of 69. 'Glad I got him when it was landing softly,' Johnson said. 'At least there was no feather explosion. I was hoping just to clear the rocks. I didn't think I would hit a bird.' ... Charlie Wi withdrew midway through his round with an injured wrist.
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