LUTZ, Fla. — It was always a beautiful sight, watching Jerry Pate make one of his post-victory dives into a greenside pond. The lady winners at Mission Hills —Annika Sorenstam, one year, with her red golf shoes — they sort of go wading in, like a pensioner testing each step going in for a water aerobics class. But Pate was brash in all things, including his diving style: head up, feet up, back arched, arms straight out and covering your ears, cameras clicking while he got some serious hang time.
Sunday afternoon, Pate was doing it again. He was playing in a Champions Tour event, the Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am at the TPC of Tampa Bay. His last victory was 24 years ago, at the inaugural Players Championship, in 1982. Back then, he pushed in Pete Dye, the architect, and Deane Beman, the PGA Tour commissioner, before making the dive himself. His dive on Sunday was a little more tepid, but really, it was vintage Jerry Pate. He gauged the depth of the pond during a practice round, thinking, “I’m hitting so good, I know I’m gonna win.”
Once, he had every reason to be brash. He was recruited to Alabama by Paul (Bear) Bryant himself, won a U.S. Amateur at 20 and a U.S. Open at 22. There was every reason to think he was going to be all-world. “You think you can do no wrong,” said Pate. And then life interfered. There were health issues and a litany of shoulder surgeries. By the end of the ’80s, when he should have been in his prime, he was living in a time capsule. His house in Pensacola, Fla., looked like a museum piece of faded glory, as if time had stopped with his Players Championship win. He was still all Leroy Neiman and gin-and-tonics and Ronald Reagan and Bear Bryant.
Then came the discovery, he said Sunday, that life is not perfect, nor meant to be. And that’s why his win meant so much to him that he fought back tears describing it. On the sporting calendar of mid-February, with the Olympics concluding and college basketball in full swing and pitchers and catchers doing their thing, the Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am might seem relatively unimportant, but to Pate it was a chance to show that Brash Jerry was still alive, even amid all shout-outs to Jesus he makes these days.
He made a birdie on the last and beat Morris Hatalsky, Mark James and Hale Irwin by a shot, and the thrill of victory, of beating guys, was still there. Hatalsky? If Pate had Hatalsky’s putting game, he would have been Tiger Woods there, at least for a while. Take that, Mo-Cat. James beat Pate in a 1975 Walker Cup match. How you like it now, Jessie? Irwin? Played with Irwin in the ’75 U.S. Open at Medinah. “He was mean as a snake,” Pate said Sunday. Irwin was always the man to beat, and he still was on Sunday. “Irwin was there like a bad dream,” Pate said, describing his mind-set when he look at a leaderboard late on Sunday.
“Golf’s a humbling game,” Pate said Sunday night, through watery eyes. You figure that out when you were supposed to be all-world and instead go 0-for-24 years.
Translation: I’ve still got one of the best swings in all of golf, and now that I’ve got my mojo back, watch out.