If Pete Dye is the Leonardo of golf course architects, Jerry Pate is surely the Esther Williams of touring pros, and the two of them pooled their talents last week to elevate the Tournament Players Championship into one of golf's major events. Call it the game's fifth major if you like, or tell the PGA tournament to get lost in the land of teaching professionals, but the fact is, the player with the best swing and the most potential in the game today, Jerome K. Pate, went out and Ben Hoganed the daylights out of the most demanding new layout in the world today, winning the TPC against the toughest field you could have assembled today. And if all this doesn't make the TPC a major championship, then Jerry Pate, Tour Commissioner Deane Beman and Dye can't swim a stroke.
You knew Pate was going to do it. He had said he was going to do it. And he did it. He brought Dye's Tournament Players Club course to its knees the way Hogan once brought the Oakland Hills "monster" to its knees. And when he had done that, he flung Beman and Dye into the lake beside the 18th hole before diving in himself. Pate was more famous for a similar dive he made after winning the Memphis Classic a year ago than he was for winning the U.S. Open as a rookie in 1976 or the U.S. Amateur in 1974. And lately he had become better known on TV for using an orange golf ball than for his marvelously fluid swing and his quietly perfect grip, or even, sometimes, for his mouth.
Pate went out there on Sunday afternoon to beat Dye on a golf course that was driving nearly everyone batty, a "theater" course with waste and sand and water and humps and hills everywhere, a course with no "bail-out" room, a course with 18 unrelenting problems. Just beat Pete, he said to himself.
Pate fired a final round 67, five under par, for a 72-hole total of 280, eight under, and defeated a couple of indomitable lurkers, Brad (Dr. Dirt) Bryant and Scott Simpson, by two shots—his two closing birdies on holes that will become known as Fantasy Island (the 17th) and Beman's Lagoon (the 18th). It was Pate's cut eight-iron to the scary par-3 17th, and then the slick downhill 15-foot putt, followed by his blistering drive and his delicate five-iron to within two feet of the flagstick on the last hole that finally gave credibility to the tournament and proved that the course will reward brilliant shots.
In brief, a great ball-striker won on a golf course with the severest targets in existence.
But Pate being Pate, it was predictable he would "lip off' and leave golfing history with memorable words, something to rank with Hogan's utterance after he won the '51 Open at Oakland Hills outside of Detroit. "I brought the monster to its knees," Ben said. As Pate came up the 18th fairway, marching along to the applause and cheers of 30,000 in Dye and Beman's "stadium," his five-iron shot lying two feet from the paint on the pin, he flashed a grin, pointed toward the green and said, "I was just trying to beat Pete Dye today, and I believe I got him!"
The aquacade took place a few moments later. Pate said to the commissioner, "Come here, Deane, I want to show you something." He led Beman to the edge of the 18th green and hurled him into four feet of water. By then, Dye was removing his wallet and other valuables from his pockets. Pate thrust him in next, then dived in himself.
"Pete knew he was going in; I'd promised," said Pate later. "I don't know about Deane." Beman either knew or was hoping—for the show biz value of it. He had been observed handing his valuables to his wife, Judy, before Pate sank his putt.
Pate's mouth was running over, and he kept adding punch lines. "I threw Deane in because he wanted this course, I threw Pete in because he built it and I went in because I wanted to drown both of 'em," Pate cackled.
He was asked if the first-place check for $90,000 got wet.
"Naw," he said. "I wanted to keep it dry so I can give it to Pete to help pay for redoing some of the greens."
Beman had a feeling about Pate when, with nine holes to play, he noted from the scoreboard that Pate was only two strokes in back of the co-leaders at the time, Bruce Lietzke and Bryant. Beman told one of his assistants, Moose Wammock, to keep a watch on the two alligators who reside in the lake on 18.
Pate started the last round three strokes behind Lietzke and Bryant, but he knew how well he was playing and had long forgotten his careless finish in Saturday's third round. Pate was headed for a 68 until he double-bogeyed the 18th by hooking a five-iron into the lake from almost the same spot where he would hit the same club to two feet from the pin on Sunday.
"I can win this thing if I can manage my game," Pate told anyone who cared to listen on Saturday evening. "You know me. If you hear me tell you a mosquito can pull a wagon, you better hitch it up, son."
What it eventually came down to on Sunday was a battle between brothers-in-law, for Pate and Lietzke are married, respectively, to Soozi and Rose Nelson from Pensacola, Fla., both fetching blondes. Pate thought he had lost the tournament when he failed to birdie the par-5 16th and now had to confront the dreaded 17th and 18th holes. Lietzke was in the group behind Pate, and Pate felt that his wife's sister's husband would surely birdie the 16th. At this point, they were tied at six under. Brad Bryant was yet to birdie the 16th, which was how he ultimately wound up at that figure, and Scott Simpson had yet to finish birdieing the last three holes, a remarkable achievement though perhaps a little easier when you know you've already lost the tournament.
Alas, Lietzke pushed a two-iron second shot into the water on the right of the 16th green and suffered a bogey just as Pate played to the 17th. Pate had started owning Fantasy Island, perhaps the most terrifying par 3 ever conceived, on the first day of the championship. He birdied it in opening with a 70. He birdied it again the second day when he slid backward with a one-over 73. He had parred it on Saturday.
Those shots had all been with a nine-iron on a 132-yard hole where the green, except for the footpath leading to it, is completely surrounded by water, certainly the only hole in golf that has no "drop area." For all practical purposes, you're either on the green, in a minuscule bunker at the front edge of the island—or in the water. Double bogeys were commonplace on this most-talked-about and complained-about hole in Dye's entire design.
On Sunday, when he needed it the most, Pate struck a gorgeous eight-iron toward the flag, which was sitting back and right. Had it trickled forward another inch after it curved left-to-right into the green, the ball would have rolled down to the cup, probably for a gimme. What Pate faced, however, was a straight-down putt of 15 feet, and all he had to do was get the ball started down the hill. When the putt dropped, Pate went to seven under, but with that par-4 18th up ahead, you couldn't call the contest over. From the tee on 18, you can easily drive the ball into the water on the left or into the trees on the right, and Pate had already proved you could hit an approach into the pond.
But he wasn't about to do anything like that. He was playing too superbly, the statistics showing that he had hit more greens in regulation than anyone in the tournament. So it was awesome drive, awesome five-iron, watch for the alligators.
Pate was asked if he had minded coming down the stretch against his brother-in-law. "Hell, no," said Jerry. "I'd like to do it every week. That means we'll both make a good check. Those Nelson girls will have so much money, show dogs will be jumpin' over 'em."
Earlier in the week, there was genuine concern about the golf course and the event. The first-round lead was shared by three men who weren't Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Johnny Miller. They were George Burns, Lyn Lott and Larry Nelson, all of whom shot 67. For those who like marquee names on their scoreboards, matters seemed to grow even worse after the second round, when the lead was held by six men. Hale Irwin was one of them, which made sense, but the others were Lott, Scott Simpson, Tim Simpson, Vance Heafner and Jay Haas. T. Simpson and Haas even had the gall to shoot course-record 66s. And all this was happening on a course where Nicklaus, Miller, Lee Trevino, Gary Player, Arnold Palmer and several other near immortals were missing the cut. Lietzke brightened things up a little on Saturday when he tied for the 54-hole lead, but he was deadlocked with Bryant, an utter unknown who bears the nickname Dr. Dirt partly because he wears his shirts a size too large and travels the town in a mobile home.
Pate and Dye and Beman deserve their lore, soggy as it is. Before the finish, the golf course was the star of the week, as everyone knew it would be. Dye's latest in golf-hole fashions are something to behold, even if a lot of the undulating greens, target areas, mounds, railings and yawning water hazards caused most of the pros to squeal in anguish. The Tournament Players Club and its course were unveiled to what can be called generally mixed reviews from the players themselves. They adored the facility and the overall look of Dye's brushstrokes, but they detested getting whipped by it.
A golf course is the only real enemy of the touring pro. It's the course rather than his fellow competitors that each week stands between him and earning a nice check or gaining a victory. Thus, the touring pro ideally likes a course on which he can slam a 4,000-yard drive between two rows of condominiums, and then stop a nuclear missile of an iron shot on a soft green, and finally tap in a birdie putt with a swizzle stick. On to the next tournament.
The Players Club at Sawgrass—or Ponte Vedra or Jacksonville Beach—demands a bit more. Last week it required, simultaneously, tremendous patience, imagination and deep thought. Touring pros don't like being made to think. It makes their heads hurt. So it was that they began to get back at the place by complaining about the unfairness of the layout, or by unleashing a barrage of jokes. Most of the players who were subdued by the course were either not playing too well when they arrived or hadn't prepared properly for the championship. Golf courses only get easier, as Dye has said, and it's a truth that the players will slowly learn to conquer the TPC's menaces as the years go by. And it is also true that during some TPC down the road the wind will howl, as it usually does this time of year but rarely did last week, and the course will play tougher than it did in the inaugural. Luck is a part of any golf tournament. The argument of the most vocal complainers about Dye's course was that it requires as much luck as skill the way it now stands. But of course they weren't eager to give very much thought to how the holes will mature; last week they cared only about how they were outmounded, outledged and "bumper pooled" into submission.
It's difficult to say who won the Big TPC Laugh-Off, but there were several strong contenders.
Nicklaus said, "This course plays all around my game and never touches it. I've never been very good at stopping a five-iron on the hood of a car."
Fuzzy Zoeller came in after his first serious encounter with Dye's punishing greens and asked, "Where are the windmills and animals?"
John Mahaffey said, "There's no mystery here. All you have to do is hit a perfect drive, a perfect second shot and a perfect putt. What I'm still trying to find out is whether you win a free game if you make a putt on the last hole."
Watson complained that there was nothing but sheer, unadulterated luck involved in trying to hit 15 out of the 18 greens. "Is it against the rules to carry a bulldozer in your bag?" he asked.
Because of all the trouble lurking on the course and the fact that, to accommodate spectators, there is an unusual amount of distance between one green and the next tee, the rounds took forever to play, averaging some five hours. This gave Ed Sneed the opportunity to suggest that "Pete Dye ought to be fined for slow play."
J.C. Snead never lets anyone down with his comments on just about any golfing subject, and he may have paid the architect the highest compliment of all when he said, "This course is 90 percent horse manure and 10 percent luck." Or did he mean it the other way around? It doesn't matter.
But the last words belonged to Pate, who spoke most of them with his golf swing, and that was the highest compliment Dye's course could have been paid. Pate had been told by a friend that he shouldn't jump in the water again until he won a major.
"This was major enough for me," he said.