On the second day of the U.S. Open last June, Jerry Pate, a 22-year-old rookie and the youngest player on the PGA tour, said, "There is a fine line between confidence and cockiness, and maybe I've crossed it a few times. I don't know. But when people say I'm cocky I ask them, where would I be if I didn't believe in myself?" Forty-eight hours later Pate hit a supremely confident five-iron from the rough beside the 18th fairway of the Atlanta Athletic Club's Highland Course and set loose the sort of happy bedlam that only occurs when 30,000 people realize simultaneously that they have just been witness to a memorable moment.
With that shot, and the 22-inch birdie putt that followed, Jerry Pate settled the matter for good. If you win the U.S. Open on the 72nd hole with a shot that is both breathtakingly bold and perfectly executed, nobody gets to call you a cocky kid ever again.
Last week the confident young man with the wonderful swing that the USGA's Frank Hannigan has described as "Miller from the waist up and Nicklaus from the waist down," was home in Florida playing unofficial host to the Pensacola Open, the next to the last stop on the PGA tour. The tournament was being played on Pate's home course, the Pensacola Country Club, and despite the presence of Tom Weiskopf, Hubert Green and Lee Trevino, Pate was its main drawing card. The responsibility he felt for the welfare of the players, spectators, press and the weather, which was awful enough to cause the cancellation of Saturday's round, almost overwhelmed him. He shot 75 the first day and looked like a sure thing to miss the cut until his exuberant blonde wife Soozi told him she would divorce him if he did. He shot a 67 on Friday and didn't.
Pate is closing out the best year any tour rookie has ever had. Besides the U.S. Open, Pate won the Canadian Open in July with a record-breaking final-round 63 that beat Nicklaus and his 65 by four strokes and the $300,000 Taiheiyo Masters in Japan. He is 10th on the year's money list with more than $150,000 in winnings, and he is being mentioned along with Nicklaus, Green, Ben Crenshaw and Raymond Floyd in speculation about the PGA Player of the Year.
November 8, 1976
Pate is 23 now, the latest in golfs long line of illustrious college dropouts. He owns an apartment that looks out on the Gulf of Mexico and he drives a new Thunderbird when he is at home. He has a contract with Wilson Sporting Goods, and his name has begun to pop up lately in ads for luxury goods such as Rolex watches. His business manager is Vinny Giles, who like Pate is a former U.S. Amateur champion.
"When I first saw him play a few years ago," says Giles, "I thought, here's somebody who could be an unusually good player. Never in my life had I seen anyone at that age with as much natural tempo and as solid a swing."
"My father is a real good player with a super swing," says Pate. "My tempo probably came from him."
Patrick J. Pate Jr., father of Jerry and five other Pates ranging in age from 16 to 27, and a five-handicapper known to his golfing companions as Light Eight Pate ("What d'ya hit, Pat?" "Oh, a light eight"), is as excitable as his son is composed. In fact, before the Open in Atlanta an agreement was reached, somehow, between father and son that it would be best if father absented himself during the tournament. "I didn't want to bother him. I get nervous and that makes him nervous," said Pat in a relatively calm moment last week.
"It would be all right," said Soozi, "if he just watched like a normal person. But he does this." And Soozi demonstrated, darting around her living room from one imaginary tree to another.
Pat Pate, an executive of the Hygeia Bottling Co., a franchise of Coca-Cola, attended a meeting in Atlanta on Tuesday of Open week, then spent the night with Soozi and Jerry in their rented house near the course. On Wednesday, Pat walked a practice round with his son and then left for a meeting on Thursday in Birmingham. On Thursday evening, he says, he phoned a Birmingham paper for the scores and then went to bed. "But I couldn't stand it. I woke up at 2 a.m. and called Delta and said, 'What's the next flight to Atlanta?' " Early Friday morning he was on the course, wearing a raincoat with the collar turned up, a hat with the brim turned down and a newly purchased pair of mirrored sunglasses. The first person he saw was Vinny Giles, who said, "Hi, Mr. Pate."
"But I was there through the whole round and I saw Soozi up close twice and she didn't recognize me. I watched till I saw Jerry come out of the scorer's tent and then I left the course and flew home."
That night the phone conversation went like this: "Daddy, I shot 69.1 three-putted the last two holes."
"I know. You were tired."
"Yes, I was. How did you know?"
"I saw you."
"Soozi, come here."
"You weren't there," Soozi said. "I'd have seen you."
"You had your hair up and you were wearing a red halter outfit and the U.S. Open visor I gave you."
"You were there."
Although Jerry Pate has been playing golf since he was six and won his first silver tea service at 10 with a birdie on the last hole of the Southeastern Juniors in Columbus, Ga., until he was 20 his successes had been local and regional. He had no national reputation because he had never played the big-time amateur tournaments—the Western, Southern and Eastern Amateurs, the Porter Cup, the North and South—that lead up to the U.S. Amateur at the end of the summer. These days the cost of a summer on that circuit is somewhere between $10,000 and $12,000, a lot of money for one child in a six-child family.
Pate's teacher for his last two years of high school was former University of Florida Golf Coach Conrad Rehling, the man who had nurtured two U.S. Amateur champions before Pate, Bob Murphy and Steve Melnyk, and who had coached several other golfers onto the pro tour, Frank Beard and Doug Sanders among them. After two years at West Florida University in Pensacola, Rehling wound up at Alabama at the same time Pate did, the fall of 1971.
"I wanted to go to the University of Georgia because my father had," says Pate, "but I couldn't get any scholarship aid there. They were SEC champions and they were looking for the best players in the country, not just the best in Pensacola."
At Alabama, Pate won three minor college tournaments in his sophomore year, but he devoted as much energy to being the playboy of the southeastern world as he did to his golf, or so they say. The next year, however, when he entered and won the Florida Amateur he caught a glimpse of the larger pond.
"Late in my junior year I said, 'Conrad, how can I be good?' And he said, 'Play in as many tournaments as you possibly can, all the big ones. See how good you are, compare yourself to the best.' "
Pate followed Rehling's advice and finished second several times that year, earning a reputation for blowing leads in the last round. One he lost was the SEC tournament, which in turn caused Alabama to lose the conference All-Sports Trophy to Tennessee by half a point. Another was the Chris Schenkel Intercollegiate, one of the better college tournaments in the Southeast. He lost that one to Curtis Strange of Wake Forest by dropping three shots over the last nine holes.
That summer Pate played the amateur circuit for the first time, creditably, but without a win outside of Florida, so that when he qualified for the U.S. Amateur he was an unknown quantity. His defeat of George Burns in the fourth round, 2 and 1, was considered an upset, Burns having won the Porter Cup and the North and South.
Pate became the 1974 Amateur champion by coming from behind in the final match to beat John Grace, a Fort Worth real estate man, 2 and 1.
"He seemed to come alive after that," Frank Hannigan recalls. "Beginning that fall he won six straight college tournaments."
In March of 1975 Pate entered the Jacksonville Open, his first pro tournament, and with nine holes to play he was one shot off the lead. "Then I fell apart and finished 17th," he says. Next he played the Heritage at Hilton Head and finished tied for 38th. By virtue of his Amateur win he was invited to the Masters in April, and there managed at least to make the cut. At Pensacola he was sixth, two shots behind the winner, and at the Open at Medinah in June, in which he was also an automatic qualifier, he tied for 18th.
In five pro tournaments he had not missed a cut and he had earned a theoretical $13,000. "I thought to myself, if I can do this as an amateur, I can sure do it as a pro."
After the Open, Pate decided to forgo a degree in marketing from Alabama, which would have required at least another semester, and to turn pro, even though he would not be able to join the tour until after going to the qualifying school in November, He borrowed $4,000 from his father's boss, Crawford Rainwater, and set off for the British Open at Carnoustie, where he failed to qualify. "I was 3,000 miles from home, it had cost me a lot of money to get there, and I did worry that I might have made a mistake turning pro." Confidence returned, however, when decent finishes in the Swiss and Scandinavian Opens allowed him to return Rainwater's money 52 days after he had borrowed it. He has been on his own ever since.
After he had won the qualifying-school tournament in early November, Jerry and Soozi were married, and in January the couple was out on the tour. Through the first half of April, Pate had earned $16,000, but when he missed the cut at New Orleans and missed it again the next week at Houston, his vaunted confidence began to crumble. He had made the mistake a lot of faltering rookies do. He had begun listening to advice about his swing. In Houston he phoned Rehling and the two talked for an hour and a half. "He told me to keep playing my own game and to wait," says Pat.
From then on Pate's progress was steady—34th at Dallas, 14th at Colonial, 12th at Memphis, fourth at Muirfield, third at Philadelphia. He arrived in Atlanta for the Open with his old overconfidence back in good shape. Vinny Giles was in the gallery on the third day as his client crossed from the 8th green to the 9th tee. Pate had begun the round tied for third with Ben Crenshaw and Rod Funseth at even par, but he had dropped four strokes in the first four holes. By the 9th he had gotten three of them back. As he saw Giles, Pate called out, "Hello, Vinny, did you see me play the first four holes?" Giles replied that he had and that he did not very much like what he had seen. "It was bad luck," said Pate. "I didn't hit a single bad shot."
"That's what I like about Jerry," says Giles. "There is no way he could have thought he played those first holes worth a damn, but he never lost faith in himself. He played the next eight holes in five under, parred in from there, and instead of a 78 or 80 he wound up with a 69. That's what won him the golf tournament."
At midnight on Open Sunday, 15 pounds lighter than he had started the year, the young Open champion boarded a chartered plane bound for a pro-am in Amana, Iowa, where the next day policemen would link arms and form a human chain to see him safely from green to tee.