A win is a win is a win on today's PGA Tour. The task of standing atop golf's polyester pile after the final round is considered so herculean that even the elite of the fairways feel no shame at going months without a victory. At this rate, Hollywood may make Rambo's next challenge the Hardee's Classic.
So it was with true take-the-glory-and-run spirit that young Steve Pate accepted his victory in the rain-shortened MONY Tournament of Champions in Carlsbad, Calif., on Sunday. Pate had shot an impressive 14-under-par 66-66-70-202 that gave him a one-shot lead over Larry Nelson going into Sunday's fourth round. Then a series of gully washers and hailstorms pelted the posh LaCosta Country Club and forced the tournament to be abbreviated for the first time in its 36 years.
"I wasn't hoping for rain, I was hoping for snow," said an unabashed Pate, who won the TOC's $90,000 first prize after qualifying for the event with his first PGA Tour victory, at the Southwest Classic last September. "Everyone in the field except for maybe four people wanted to quit." Pate was not one of the four.
Surely Pate couldn't have relished a showdown with the dogged Nelson, who had actually tied the 26-year-old fourth-year Tour veteran on Sunday by knocking a four-iron stiff to the pin and making birdie on the 187-yard 3rd hole just before the weather wiped out the entire fourth round. Then again, Pate had shown no signs of weakening. In the first 54 holes, he had missed only four greens in regulation. "I don't get excited anymore when things are going well," said the former UCLA psychology major. "But I was tempted, because that's about as good as I've ever hit it."
January 25, 1988
Despite Pate's excellence, this year's TOC lacked some of the heavyweight talent it usually brings together to officially kick off the season. Only six of the record 38 regular pros had won more than one tournament last year. In fact, barely half the players had more than two career PGA Tour wins.
"I'm like everybody else; I can't tell who these young pros are," said crusty Dave Hill, who beat out 11 other 50-and-over golfers to win the Senior division of the TOC with a five-under-par 68-72-71-211, a stroke ahead of Al Geiberger and Miller Barber. "I don't see much personality on the regular Tour. With all the money they are playing for, I think they could act a little happier."
But the young and the mirthless have an increasing number of defenders who contend that the collective level of golf today surpasses anything seen before. "People like to accuse the young pros of being soft, but many of them are very hard workers," said Mac O'Grady, the defending TOC champion, who played Sunday in a ski cap and goggles. "They know the mental side, and they know the golf swing better than the last generation. I guarantee you that in the next two or three years, one of them is going to win six or seven tournaments."
O'Grady's man might be Pate. Although until now the only thing anybody has wondered about him is whether he's Jerry's brother (the two are not related), Pate has been on the fast track to Tour success ever since he was a teenager copying the silky swing of fellow Californian Geiberger. Pate says his own swing was "god-awful" until his junior year at UCLA, but since turning pro in 1983 he has developed into a sound shotmaker and an often brilliant putter. He won $335,728 last year to finish 26th on the money list—and eighth on the Tour's ranking for all-around play. "My goal going into this year was to win more than one tournament," he said. "I consider this week a good start."
So might Hill. Before turning 50 and joining the Senior tour last May, Hill had been away from pro golf for eight years. "My nerves were shot," said the chain-smoking winner of 13 regular Tour events. He regained his equilibrium growing wheat on a 258-acre farm he bought in Jackson, Mich. As farms go, Hill prefers his spread to Hazeltine National Golf Club. When the U.S. Open was played there in 1970, Hill, who finished second to Tony Jacklin, said Hazeltine would make a better cornfield.
Since becoming a Senior, the man Lee Trevino affectionately called Bad Boy hasn't renewed his verbal war with PGA Tour commissioner Deane Be-man, nor has he retained the same intensity when he plays. "I can't seem to get pumped up like I used to," he admits. "I just go do it [play], and I figure I'll get my share." Has he thought about seeing a sports psychologist? "Hell, I've run most of them shrinks back to work."
Hill shouldn't have to worry about getting a real job anytime soon. In October a final-round 65 placed him second to Geiberger in the Vantage Championship and earned him $81,000, his largest check ever. After winning in Melbourne, Fla., in November for another $30,000, he finished his seven months on tour with $232,189. All in all, not a bad farm subsidy.
Hill's win at LaCosta came after he aggravated an elbow injury before the second round and had to take an anti-inflammatory drug to relieve the pain. He claims he had never lost a PGA tournament in which he held the lead after the third round, but Geiberger was a stroke ahead of him Sunday with nine holes to play when the round was canceled.
Geiberger, who won three tournaments and $264,798 last year, and Hill are the youngest Seniors on tour and the best evidence of the increasing depth of the 50-and-over field. "I think we'll see a lot more Senior winners," says Hill. "That's good for our tour."
Whether such variety is good for the regular Tour is another question. For now, until a real-life Rambo appears, the marquee announcing golf's highest theater is set mostly in small letters.