Finally it came down to another tall young blond guy with no respect for what the U.S. Open golf championship is supposed to be, a crusty old tournament slightly more huge in importance than all of the Deep South itself, something you are not meant to win until you are well versed in the history of Harry Vardon's tweed coats. But here was Jerry Pate, a 22-year-old rookie, digging his way out of the Georgia pines and doing remarkable things on a course so dangerous that it simply had to produce the exquisitely torturous finish it did.
Jerry Pate? Maybe if you follow amateur golf you will recall that he was champion of the pipe-and-vest set only two years ago, a national amateur champion who like so many others quickly turned professional. It was considered appropriate that Pate, a native of Georgia as was a fellow named Bobby Jones, should ultimately capture an Open that looked for most of the week to be the property of the cherub, John Mahaffey, or, briefly, of Tom Weiskopf, who had displayed a patience and composure throughout the tournament that was slightly uncharacteristic, or even of Al Geiberger, who kept lurking near the lead and refused to go away.
In the end, with the Sunday evening sky beginning to match the brooding darkness of the Atlanta Athletic Club's sprawling water hazards, it was Pate who struck the winningest shot on the final hole that any Open has ever produced. The scene was set for Pate to gouge something disastrous out of the bionic Bermuda rough and make a bogey or possibly something worse and send the tournament into an 18-hole playoff on Monday among himself and Weiskopf and the quiet Geiberger, or maybe between Weiskopf and Geiberger only. They were safely off the premises and tied at 279, one under par for 72 holes.
There sat Pate in the rough and there was the water and there were the pines and there was the green about 190 yards away. There were also some 30,000 people looking like a football crowd at Pate's University of Alabama as they huddled in grandstands bordering the lake that had already swallowed John Mahaffey.
June 27, 1976
And now Pate was about to go into the water, too, because only immortals like Bobby Jones and Jack Nicklaus are expected to win an Open at such an age. Instead he ripped into a five-iron and right away you knew it wasn't going anywhere but into the history books. Which turned out to be just about two feet away from the flagstick. And since Mahaffey, just a moment before, had lost his gamble with a wood club from out of the same rough, Pate had two putts to win. He got there in one, a closing birdie of all things. A closing 68. His third straight round under par after an opening 71, a 277 and the $42,000 check that is never as important in the Open as that gold medal.
Poor Mahaffey. Last year he lost the Open in a playoff with Lou Graham and, by his own account, it had taken him half a year to regain his composure. In Atlanta his 70-68 gave him the 36-hole lead, and when he added a 69 on Saturday he was two ahead of Pate, three ahead of Geiberger and four up on Weiskopf.
And he played well Sunday, or at least for most of it. When he went into the water on the final hole, his chances to win vanishing with his ball, he held together well enough to chip across the water close to the hole and sink the putt, the bogey giving him a tie for fourth with Butch Baird. Then he looked up at the huge crowd, gave a game grin, shrugged and waited for Jerry Pate to finish it off.
Most Opens are won in bizarre ways. With four holes remaining last Sunday Pate was two strokes behind Mahaffey, whom he had been chasing forever. Mahaffey had played wonderfully but he had kept saying, "I give up too much yardage. I'm exhausted." Alas, the rough got him for a bogey at the 16th, he three-putted for another at the 17th and then the lake got him for a third at the 18th.
Meanwhile, Pate had birdied the par-3 15th over still more water, another hole that had been crushing people throughout the tournament. Ben Crenshaw, for example, double bogeyed it the last three rounds, and the last time took him out of competition. Pate had then saved pars with good, teasing putts on the 16th and 17th greens. And after everything else that happened—all those putts Geiberger sank and the rush Weiskopf made with a streak of three straight birdies on 12, 13 and 14—it was down to that last shot from the last player on the last hole.
"I had to go for it," said Pate, who became the youngest Open winner since 1962, when Nicklaus was also 22. He is not without confidence. "All I did was hit a shot two feet from the hole and win the Open," he said.
Having been a bit sensitive about winning the U.S. Amateur at match play, and having lost four matches in the Walker Cup when he had been expected to carry the load for the good old U.S.A., Pate couldn't wait to speak to some of the USGA officials he knew when he walked off the 72nd hole.
"I guess this proves a match-play guy can't play golf," Pate said, with considerable satisfaction.
It has to be said of Pate that he has one of the best swings on the tour, not totally unlike that of Johnny Miller, who, incidentally, has now taken one fewer major championship than Pate. The Jean Georgian goes at the ball with beautiful rhythm and a high finish, and the amateur Vinny Giles, who serves as a financial adviser to several of the better young pros, was saying Sunday evening, "He's always had the best swing I'd ever seen on a young player. Jerry oozed success the first time I laid eyes on him."
As Pate took his triumphant stroll to the last green, under the care of USGA officials, he had only a moment of doubt about the outcome. "Are you sure I've got two putts to win?" he kept asking Harry Easterly, the USGA president. Yes, the leaderboard was correct.
To which Pate said, "Well, I can make the putt, anyhow."
Every so often the U.S. Open goes to a strange new place and thus it takes on a strange quality. The Atlanta Athletic Club, as a venue, was expected to be similar to Bellerive in St. Louis, to Champions in Houston and to Hazeltine in Minneapolis, places where the championship was won by two foreigners and a guy who putted cross-handed. From the start the tournament did not have the classic Open look or atmosphere.
For one thing, the AAC looks more like a modern resort hotel than the traditional country club with proper aging. It was weird to see the USGA committeemen in their blue coats, white shirts, striped ties and armbands wandering around at a place where, through various clumps of trees, one could find a health spa, tennis facilities and an aquatic center. The club is located about 25 miles from downtown Atlanta, close to an hour's driving time, depending on how many wrong freeway exits you take. If it was true that the Open went there because of a last request by Bobby Jones, he surely must have made it before everyone in and around Atlanta owned three cars and his native city was expanding daily toward the Atlantic Ocean.
It was also the first Open in history where the golf course had three defending architects. The front nine, looking nothing like the back as it sat on something of a treeless prairie, was designed by Joe Finger. The back nine, looking similar to the Augusta National, was designed by Robert Trent Jones, and both nines had been redone for the Open by George Fazio. The overall result was an Open course the pros despised, but of course there was nothing new about that. Unless they have several par-5s they can reach with drives and 5-irons, they tend to get testy.
All of the absurd complaining last week after the first round was mostly about a fourth of an inch of grass. Suddenly, according to such astute golfing authorities as Hale Irwin and Don January and J. C. Snead, it had become the "Fly Lie" Open. A fly lie or a scooter or whatever they choose to call it is that thing in golf where the ball is not sitting on a perfectly nurtured and finely clipped patch of turf, something akin to gently hardened cashmere, and it then flies or scoots and doesn't go as close to the pin as the players believe it should when met by the clubhead.
You would have thought the pros were talking about weeds or sunflowers on the side of a highway instead of the fairways on Thursday, fairways that had accidentally not been mowed as closely as the USGA desired. The explanation was that the new mowers had not been set properly. The fairways were supposed to have been cut to a half-inch in length but, according to the USGA, the mowers had evilly cut them to only three-quarters of an inch.
Since the scores were fairly horrible, with only a bewildered amateur, Mike Reid, breaking par with his opening 67, the pros, one by one, and occasionally three by three, went looking for USGA officials to shout obscenities at.
Irwin suggested the USGA should be banned from its own Open, and January said he wished somebody would point a gun at his head and pull the trigger if he ever even entered another U.S. Open, and a lot of other pros said a lot of other things that do not generally appear in family magazines. Nicklaus, who made one birdie through the first three rounds and was never even the remotest factor in the championship, said at first that the course was not as bad as he had expected it to be, and then he said that maybe Joe Dey, the former executive director of the USGA, ought to be brought back to prepare the Open courses. This amused everyone who remembered the days when the pros at the Open spoke of Joe Dey in the same terms as they did of unraked bunkers.
The most fascinating confrontation on the issue took place at the scorer's tent on Thursday, late in the day, when J. C. Snead had completed his round of 73 and Mike Reid was playing the final hole. Snead, like so many others before him, had stormed off the last green and gone into the tent and told the USGA's assistant director, Frank Hannigan, what he thought of the course preparation.
By then Hannigan was a bit tired of hearing it. While he and Snead were in the midst of an exchange that had something to do with Hannigan's suggestion that Mr. Snead could pack a bag and leave if he didn't like the Open championship, Reid hit his second shot to the brutal 18th hole, a glorious four-iron that jammed in there about 12 feet from the pin—and this on a hole where most of the Western world had been taking double bogeys.
As Reid's ball nestled near the pin, Hannigan said to J. C. Snead, "Looks like the kid caught another flier."
Some felt the line was lost on a touring pro, but in effect it was all that needed to be said, even though Arnold Palmer came along later to endear himself to Atlanta forever by stating publicly that his complaining contemporaries were "stupid" and "crybabies."
Mercifully, the championship wound up being decided on an excellent layout and no one could complain about the stylish names that stole onto the leader-boards. A Mahaffey, a Weiskopf, a Geiberger, a Crenshaw, a Tom Watson, a Hubert Green and then a Jerry Pate, who hit a shot that not only had greatness written on it but credibility for a golf course and a tournament as well.