Golf Thoughts

Former Alabama golf star Jerry Pate hasn't won a professional tournament in over 30 years. He came close this weekend, but putting failed him on the 18th green and he ended up losing in the prestigious Senior PGA. Despite fabulous success, Pate has been a hard-luck story.

A native of Anniston, Jerry Pate moved to Pensacola, Florida, and in the early 1970s was recruited from there to Alabama by legendary Crimson Tide Golf Coach Conrad Rehling. He was part of an excellent group that would finish high in SEC and NCAA Tournament play. And while Pate was not the star of the group in the early years, he would eventually separate himself from the others.

Pate was very successful in his professional career, until a chornic shoulder injury ended his PGA career. When he became eligible for the Seniors -- now Champions -- Tour, he had to delay competition for yet more work on his shoulder, most of it done by famed Birmingham Orthopedic Surgeon James Andrews.

He has been moderately successful on the Champions Tour, but let the Senior PGA title slip away. Had he won, it hardly would have been the finest jewel in his golf crown.

Between his junior and senior seasons he was talked into qualifying for the U.S. Amateur by Andy Bean, a Florida golf star who also went on to play on the PGA tour. Pate accused Bean of just wanting to get Pate on Bean's home course (the qualifying site) so he could beat Pate. But Pate won, and then went on to win the United State Amateur championship. After turning pro he won the United States Open at the Atlanta Athletic Club.

He also won the Canadian Open and the Memphis Open and the Players Tour Championship.

After having to give up playing, he became one of the nation's most accomplished golf course designers. Sometimes working with the renowned Tom Fazio, Pate has been involved in the design of ourstanding golf courses, including Old Overton in Birmingham; Old Waverly near Columbus, Mississippi; Dancing Rabbit in Philadelphia, Mississippi; Kiva Dunes at Gulf Shores; Ol' Colony in Tuscaloosa; and many others. He also redesigned a number of top golf courses, including Musgrove in Jasper.

When Pate was a player at The University, my family lived in a home en route to University Golf Course, where the team practiced. Pate made it a habit to stop there on occasion, have a Coke and play with my son, Stuart, who was just a toddler. My wife, Lynne, remembers that Jerry "liked to watch Stuart sleep."

After Jerry won the U.S. Amateur, he asked me to pick him up at the Tuscaloosa airport (in the days when Tuscaloosa had commercial air service). As I drove out U.S. 82 through Northport in a nearly brand new Oldsmobile to pick him up, a car veered from the lane beside me and crushed my fender. A woman was driving, but the male passenger informed me it was his car. "Do you have insurance?" he asked. I told him I did, but I didn't think I was going to need my insurance. He didn't seem to hear me as he mused, "They'll probably take it away. They did mine."

Surprisingly, we took care of the accident and I was still able to drive to the airport and got there in time to pick up my celebrity passenger.

I was able to play golf with some frequency with Jerry, although -- of course -- I was not close to him in ability. On a trip to Scotland with the golf team, we took a day when the team wasn't playing and went on a busman's holiday, to a course named Lundin Links. Jerry and I played against Bill Easterling, the late sports editor of the Huntsville Times and another Tide player. For years I pointed out that I was so poor a player that Jerry couldn't win with me as a partner. We broke even in the match.

When Jerry won the U.S. Open, I was in Cincinnati for the annual convention and workshop for sports information directors. The late Jack Perry (who would replace me in Alabama's sports information office when I left to found ‘BAMA Magazine) and I watched the Sunday round from Jack's room. At the time he was assistant SID at Kentucky, but I think he was as excited as I was over Jerry's win.

A prominent member of Jerry's gallery that day was Wimp Sanderson.

I am among the hundreds and hundreds of golfers who have played the Atlanta Athletic Club since Pate's win. The dramatic shot to win the tournament was a five iron he hit from the right rough 200 yards to within a couple of feet of the flag. A plaque marks the spot. Although that area rarely comes into play since the 18th was set up as a long par four that day and is normally a par five, I did as those hundreds and hundreds of others have done and went to the well-worn ground around the plaque to try my luck with a shot. When I looked at it, I knew to try the five iron would be just to donate aball to the water in front of the green. I hit a five wood to reach the green.

One of Pate's Alabama teammates was Tab Hudson of Jasper, who is still a fine amateur golfer and one who plays with Jerry from time-to-time. A couple of years ago the two were playing and Jerry hit an outstanding shot, which Tab duly praised. Jerry said, "Tab, that's why there's an ‘A' in front of your name and a ‘PGA' after mine."

Jerry's son, Wesley, played for Alabama's golf team, finishing a year or so ago.

Jerry has been an excellent alumnus, including sponsoring the Jerry Pate National Intercollegiate, the most prestigious fall college tournament in the nation at Old Overton. Tiger Woods' first appearance in Alabama was as a member of Stanford's golf team playing in that tournament when it was at Shoal Creek.

Jerry was considered something of a good luck charm by Coach Paul Bryant, and Pate was always on the sidelines with Alabama's football team whenever his schedule allowed it.

Also in thinking about Alabama golf...

Word was out last week that Athletics Director Mal Moore has been interviewing candidates for coach of Alabama's women's golf team, but those candidates' names have not been revealed.

It is a great accomplishment that Coach Jay Seawell has the Crimson Tide men's team in the NCAA Championships. In its first appearance since 1996, Bama will tee off in the first wave when the June 1-4 championships begin.

Alabama will be one of 30 teams and six individuals competing for the national championship. The tournament, which includes practice rounds on May 30 and May 31, will be held at Caves Valley Golf Course in Owings Mill, Maryland, just outside of Baltimore.

The Crimson Tide, the six seed from the East, has a 7 a.m. ET tee time and will be joined by fellow Southeastern Conference team Arkansas, the six seed from the NCAA's Central Regional, and Brigham Young, the six seed from the West. They'll all go off from the No. 1 tee in nine minute intervals. Alabama's Thomas Hagler will be the first Tide golfer to tee off, and he'll be followed by his teammates, Joseph Sykora, Gator Todd, Mark Harrell and finally Clint Provost.

Two or three times a year I come across reference to a German word, schadenfreude, or something like that, that refers to one receiving pleasure from the misfortune of another. We should be bigger than that. But I couldn't help but think about one of the nation's top players a year ago, the son of an Alabama "A" Club member and a Tuscaloosa golfer, choosing to go to Auburn because he thought they were on the upswing and Bama was not. He will be able to watch Alabama play in the NCAA Tournament, but only as a spectator. Auburn, expected to be one of the nation's top teams, didn't get out of the regional tournament.

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