Ryder Cup: Pate’s career detours at ’91 match

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The first blow struck in the 1991 Ryder Cup matches wasn’t landed by a competitor. It was absorbed by American Steve Pate when he was involved in a car crash on the way to the traditional gala dinner.

Twenty-one years have passed since that fateful night, and while most Americans remember Kiawah’s “War by the Shore” for its dramatic outcome, for Pate, the accident changed his career.

Pate was a 31-year-old Ryder Cup rookie who tied for seventh place in the PGA Championship to bump Tim Simpson from the 10th and final automatic berth on the U.S. team. Pate seemed a lock to make the 1989 team until he failed to earn a point in the final five months of qualifying.

“For the last four years, making the team had kept me up at night,” he said.

American captain Dave Stockton expected Pate to be one of his stalwarts. While others struggled to master the vagaries of The Ocean Course on Kiawah Island, S.C., Pate had shot 65 in a practice round.

“He was playing as good, if not better, than anyone on the team,” said Corey Pavin, Pate’s teammate dating to their days at UCLA.

Then Pate suffered the most notable car accident in golf since Ben Hogan’s 1949 crash. The two teams were whisked through traffic by police escort in a 13-limousine convoy on their way to Charleston’s Omni Hotel. It was Wednesday night, around 7:30, and drizzling. About five miles south of Charleston, a police vehicle with its lights off moved into the caravan in front of the police escort. The escort car braked, setting off a three-car collision.

Pate and his wife, Sheri, were riding in the back seat; Pavin and his then-wife, Shannon, were seated in front of them. Pate, who wasn’t wearing his seat belt, was thrown to the floor as they struck the

car in front carrying Ray Floyd and Fred Couples.

“I wound up sideways,” Pate said. “Then the car behind us carrying (Paul) Azinger and (Chip) Beck crashed into the rear of our car, and I caught the seat in my side.”

Pate was rushed to a hospital, where X-rays and a CT scan revealed no broken bones, but Pate suffered a deep bruise to the left abdominal muscles. To this day, Pate best remembers a moment of levity with his doctor as a contingent of media waited to hear the severity of his injury.

“He asked if he could walk out the front door and tell the press that they lost me on the operating table,” Pate said.

Overnight, Pate received treatment every third hour from the team’s physical therapist. In the days ahead, the bruise turned from blue to purple to black.

“I thought I was bulletproof and I’d be fine,” Pate said.

Years later, the disappointment is evident in Pate’s voice when he says he could’ve played Friday, but Stockton opted to sit him. Pate played through the pain in Saturday’s afternoon four-ball, in what turned out to be his lone match. He and Pavin lost to Bernhard Langer and Colin Montgomerie, 2 and 1. To make matters worse, on the sixth hole, Pate was checking his line of sight when he lost his footing.

“Everything on my left side went,” he said. “I gutted out the round, but I knew I was done for the week.”

Pate drew Seve Ballesteros in Sunday’s singles. That morning, Pate attempted to loosen up on the range. Any thoughts of inspiring his teammates to victory by playing hurt were dashed when he couldn’t hit a sand wedge more than 40 yards.

“I didn’t have a chance,” Pate said.

David Gilford was the European name placed in a sealed envelope before the competition in case a match couldn’t be played because of injury. Pate’s singles match on Sunday was declared a draw, not a forfeit, according to the rules.

Pate won early the next season at Torrey Pines, but he says his hip never functioned properly again, and he was forced to adjust to a swing dominated by the upper body. His longtime caddie, Al Mellan, has wondered how good Pate could’ve been if not for the freak accident.

“I know that injury changed everything. It didn’t just change the Ryder Cup. It changed the rest of his career,” said Mellan, Pate’s caddie on the Champions Tour. “But I’ve never heard him complain about it.”

Pate did earn a slice of Ryder Cup redemption. In 1999, Ben Crenshaw made him a captain’s pick. This time there was no dinner the night before, and Pate won a point partnered with Tiger Woods and his Sunday singles match.

“Other than my first win, I don’t have a highlight that compares with the Ryder Cups,” Pate said. “That was something I really loved.”

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