2005: Pate dives back in

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Ligonier, Pa.

It wasn’t always this hard. Not at the 1976 U.S. Open, when he hit the 5-iron of his life at the 72nd hole to win the national championship. Not at the ’82 Players Championship when he called his shot walking up the 18th fairway.

“I remember walking up the fairway and saying, ‘Pete Dye will go for a swim,’ ” Jerry Pate says of his last PGA Tour victory. “I hadn’t even won the tournament yet. I looked right at the camera and said, ‘Pete Dye will go for a swim today.’ ”

For good measure, Pate dragged then-Tour commissioner Deane Beman into the murky pond beside the 18th green at TPC at Sawgrass. He was just trying to “liven this place up.”

Lake diving became his signature – prior to his swim at Sawgrass, he’d taken a dip after winning the ’81 Memphis Classic – and a ready supply of confidence became part calling card, part curse.

“He was more than a little cocky. He was very cocky,” Bruce Lietzke says.

And that less-than-tactful assessment comes from Pate’s own brother-in-law.

“I was very cocky,” says Pate. “Lanny Wadkins thanked me when I came along because before me, he was the cockiest guy out here.”

But that was the old Jerry Pate. The Jerry Pate who finished inside the top 10 on the Tour money list in five of his first seven seasons. The Jerry Pate who won eight titles before he was 29 years old and was saddled early as Jack Nicklaus’ next sparring partner.

Pate would hit a roadblock in 1982, the year he injured his left shoulder while practicing. By age 32, he was facing his third surgery, which would severely limit the amount of golf he’d play in the 1980s and ’90s.

Nearly a quarter century has passed since Pate tasted victory on a Sunday. The 66th Senior PGA Championship was his 36th major championship since his stunning victory at the ’76 U.S. Open. On Sunday at Laurel Valley, however, it was a familiar bromide – cool temperatures, colder putter and another major in the deep freeze. That’s 0-for-36.

Jason Giambi doesn’t slump like that.

To turn a phrase, the only thing harder than comedy is closing out a major championship.

But as growing numbers of former-Tour-stalwarts-turned-senior-hopefuls are learning, pedigrees have no shelf life. Just ask Jay Haas. While others his age were signing up for AARP cards, Haas has been keeping his PGA Tour card with top-30 finishes on the money list and trips to the Ryder Cup. On Friday at the Senior PGA, however, Haas was heading home after missing the cut.

There are two things Pate doesn’t lack: opinions and confidence. Unfortunately, there are two things Pate doesn’t have: a hot putter that can survive four rounds and a victory since the Reagan administration.

In his prime, before he tore the cartilage in his left shoulder preparing for the 1982 British Open, Pate was nearly unbeatable – and he let anyone within 3-wood range know it.

“What gets you about cocky guys is when they say they’re going to beat you and then they do,” says Haas. “That makes it even tougher.”

Pate hasn’t backed it up since his Players swim. These days, it’s not so much trash talking as it is just talking. At Laurel Valley, he talked to the fans, his fellow players, volunteers, the guy with the Fu Manchu and “Eat at Joe’s”

T-shirt. Anybody that would listen.

Even when things weren’t going well on Sunday he talked. For Pate, talking is a preshot routine.

“He talked a lot and he still does,” Lietzke says. “The mind is just going in a thousand directions and that explains why he talks so much.

I told him he should get on some Ritalin or something.”

For 71 holes at Laurel Valley he walked the talk. For 71 holes he doggedly pursued another major. At the 72nd hole the collapse seemed so familiar – a three-putt bogey, followed by a missed 8-footer for birdie to match Mike Reid on the first playoff hole.

It didn’t used to be this hard.

Pate’s almost constant banter is his way of shutting out the thoughts of what could have been had he not stuck that 1-iron into the hard turf preparing for Royal Troon 23 years ago.

On the eve of the Senior PGA, Pate joined Reid, Tom Kite, Ben Crenshaw and Tom Purtzer for dinner at a local Boston Market. As often happens around Pate, he began talking about how much money he could have made had his shoulder remained in one piece.

“I probably would have made a lot of money,” Pate says. “Probably wouldn’t have had my family. Wouldn’t have stayed married. Would have been crazy and flamboyant. Full of myself. You never know.”

His lost legacy is never far from his mind, but his is a life fully lived nonetheless.

Pate, 51, became active in a number of business interests and started his own golf course design firm. He also carved out a colorful career for himself as an analyst for ABC, CBS and BBC.

He returned to his alma mater, Alabama, and earned his degree, joining daughter Jenni at the graduation ceremony.

But fate’s untimely haymaker always haunted Pate, and as his 50th birthday approached he readied himself for the granddaddy of all do-overs. His Champions Tour debut was delayed a year by another surgery, the fourth procedure on his ailing shoulder since 1985, and many were surprised he didn’t win during his first year among the sunset crowd.

“He wants to do well so badly because he’s been out of the game so long,” Crenshaw says. “He gets apprehensive because it has been a long time.”

Patience was never part of Pate’s persona. Even when he was winning, he wanted more.

But four surgeries and 23 winless years have a way of adjusting a man’s reality.

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