Jerry Pate was 30 feet and two putts away from his first victory in 23 years (not counting the Par 3 Contest at this year's Masters). The western Pennsylvania sky was speckled with clouds, the pond fronting the 18th green at Laurel Valley Country Club was dappled with the reflections of towering pines, and the air was thick with expectation. When Pate left his first try a perilous three feet above the cup, his wife, Soozi, stood up from her shooting-stick seat, paced in front of the bleachers behind the green and whispered quietly to no one in particular, "Oh, my God!"
If Pate makes that three-footer, he clinches the 66th Senior PGA Championship--one of the two biggest titles, along with the U.S. Senior Open, for over-50 players--but when his putt failed to catch even a piece of the cup, Soozi covered her face with her hands. Her husband's three-putt bogey on the par-5, coupled with Mike Reid's clutch eagle on the same hole a few minutes earlier, produced a three-shot swing that earned Reid a spot in a three-man playoff with Pate and Dana Quigley. Those back-to-back stunners gave the Champions tour what it sorely needs more of: oh-my-God moments. On Sunday in lovely Ligonier, Pa., they seemed to sprout up like dandelions along a roadside.
The tense final nine turned electric when first Quigley and then Pate let the Alfred S. Bourne Trophy slip through their fingers. Then out of leftfield swooped the mild-mannered Reid, who finally won on the first extra hole. This Senior PGA, the most gripping Champions tour events in some time, truly embodied one of the game's maxims: Count on nothing, expect anything.
Check that. There is something in golf that you can count on, and that's the 58-year-old Quigley's showing up. Golf's answer to Cal Ripken Jr. now has made 259 consecutive starts, a record that will never be broken because, frankly, no one in his right mind would want it. (The Iron Man, by the way, is also a Rich Man. He has won $11 million as a senior. "Oh, the hairs on my arms stand up when you mention that," he says.)
Quigley had the look of a champion as he clung to a two-shot lead deep into the final round, especially when he saved par after flying his approach shot way over the elevated 16th green. Quigley bounced a pitch up the slope through thick rough and the fringe, winding up two feet from the cup, a play he figured he couldn't duplicate in 100 tries. "That was the all-world par of my life," he said. But his nerves showed at the 183-yard 17th, where he missed the green and made bogey. Behind him, Pate birdied 15 to forge a tie, and while Quigley scrambled for par at 18, Pate stiffed a five-iron to within inches at 17 to take the lead and, presumably, the title.
That's when "expect anything" came into play. The 51-year-old Pate has hit two of the most famous final-hole five-irons in history--to two feet to win the 1976 U.S. Open and the same distance to ice the 1982 Players Championship, after which he famously dived into the pond next to the 18th green. Yet on Sunday, despite his tee shot on the previous hole and a perfect drive on the 477-yard 18th, Pate, on the advice of his caddie, Chris Frame, opted not to go for the green with a five-iron and instead decided to lay up. You know the rest of the story. "I've never laid up in my life," Pate said later as he headed for the clubhouse. "I had the same club as on 17. I should've hit it again. I made a bad decision and have to accept that." Pate's strategy was inexplicable, but what really cost him was his putting. He missed three putts inside of five feet on the final nine.
The heroics were left to the 50-year-old Reid, one of the shortest hitters to survive and occasionally thrive as a touring pro. Known as Radar because of his uncanny accuracy and best remembered for the bogey, double-bogey, par finish that handed the 1989 PGA Championship to Payne Stewart, Reid is soft-spoken and humble to a fault, not unlike one of his heroes, Jimmy Stewart. (Reid is so enamored of Stewart that after last Friday's round he took an hour's drive to Indiana, Pa., to tour the Jimmy Stewart Museum. "I'm really impressed with the depth and quality of his character," Reid says.)
By the 18th hole on Sunday, Reid, who was paired with Pate, stood three shots back and was simply hoping to tie Quigley for second. But after a solid drive Reid hit a 195-yard three-iron shot that found the right side of the green, 20 feet from the flag. He rammed home the eagle putt and then watched in amazement as Pate, who had wedged to the back of the green, three-jacked.
The playoff, which returned to the 18th, was a short one. Quigley's second shot splashed in the pond fronting the green. Pate again laid up, this time after driving into the left rough. Reid hit another solid drive and followed with a brilliant, 210-yard five-wood to the middle of the green--"Gosh, I hit a pretty neat shot," he said later--and tapped in for birdie after narrowly missing another eagle putt. It was over when Pate, who had wedged to eight feet, badly missed his chance to tie.
Reid, who still carries scars from his loss to Stewart, finally had his PGA. "I feel bad for Jerry," he said. "I know how he feels because I felt that way. Fate takes a hand, and I can't explain it, but I'm grateful."
Reid and his wife, Randolyn, have six children ranging in age from eight to 24. Four of them still live at home in Orem, Utah. Yes, Reid now has his first Champions win and his first major. He also has his priorities. "I can live without winning golf championships," he says, "but it would be hard to look in the mirror if I was a crummy dad. I'm not going to let golf own me again."
His voice was choked with emotion. It was a memorable day for Reid, a memorable week. In fact, you'd have to say ... it's a wonderful life.