Their mutual love for the sport of golf and respect for one another would lead to a friendship that lasted nearly 40 years, until the former University of Alabama golf coach passed away at his home in Hiawassee, Ga., on Tuesday, April 3 at age 87.
When Paul Bryant, then director of athletics in addition to being head football coach at the University of Alabama, hired Conrad Rehling to become the Crimson Tide's golf coach in the summer of 1971, his first class of freshmen included Jerry Pate.
"I was not a very good player, to be honest," said Pate, an eight-time PGA tournament champion who is now playing on the PGA's Champions Tour and was in Augusta attending Masters' activities when he learned of Rehling's death Tuesday. "I give all the credit for my success to him for not only helping me with the mechanics of my golf swing but he helped me understand how to manage my golf game and to manage my emotions playing golf. I was high strung; had a lot of energy. He helped me to keep it in check and still use that energy to my advantage and not to a disadvantage."
Rehling and Pate remained friends and stayed in touch often throughout the decades since he was a teen. Together at Alabama teacher and pupil would experience great heights on the course. Rehling was there with Pate when Pate won the 1974 U.S. Amateur following his junior season at Alabama and he was not there but shared in the joy when Pate won the 1974 World Amateur as well as the 1975 U.S. Open, one of eight events Pate won while playing on the PGA tour.
"He was my father away from home during four years of probably the most important growth years in my educational career," said Pate. "He had a strong, and I mean very strong, Christian background. I was thinking last night people are put in people's lives for a reason. And very much like God has disciples and teachers, Conrad was a disciple of the Christian values and he was a great teacher. He taught me a lot of values, although some of those took a few years to sink in realizing what he was trying tell me back in college. He taught me that is was more important in how you won and how you lived your life and not just winning. I was so geared to win. He just wanted you to live every day as a good person, first, and then work hard, second, and everything else would take care of itself. Those are the values he instilled in me and a lot of the guys that were on his golf teams. I see that in them today. These are men who are very successful in not only their business lives but their personal lives as well."
In 1972 Pate and his teammates, led by Rehling as their coach, won a school record four team tournament championships, a school feat that hadn't been mirrored until Alabama's current 2006-07 team did it when they won their fourth team title of the season on February 20 at the John Hayt Intercollegiate at Sawgrass. Pate says events like that were memorable, but so, too, were the sayings of his coach and mentor.
"One of his greatest sayings of all times," says Pate, laughing at the recollection, "had to do with the times. In 1971 through 1975, you have to remember it was a pretty trying time in America with young people. We were a little bit rebellious. This was during the love, sex and rock-n-roll Vietnam era. And we were at a school that was really a fun school. A lot of us on the team were fraternity kids and party kids just trying to just have fun playing golf. And his greatest line was to us was that we talked 68, we shot 78 and we drove home from the tournament in the state car at 88. He had some great lines."
Pate said by the end of his sophomore year of college, Rehling noted that Pate's play was progressing. His swing, stronger now, showed potential.
"I would get on the golf course and make four or five birdies and shoot 75 and just get emotional. I was an emotional mess, just trying too hard. I wanted to do well so badly," recalls Pate of the national Golf Coaches Association of America and Alabama Sports Hall of Fame coach. "And he gave me a piece of paper and told me to put it in my pocket and pull it out on the golf course when I felt like I was not feeling comfortable with my round or I was about to panic. It was a list. The first thing it said was, ‘don't panic.' The second thing he put was, ‘don't let your nanny get your goat.' And the other one that he wrote on there was, ‘tempo.' Keep my tempo. And the fourth he put on there was, ‘patience.' Keep my patience. I wish I would have saved that piece of paper. I had it my junior year of college, and that was really the year that spring-boarded my career. I used to pull that piece of paper out often. I kept it in my golf bag. And when I would tee off, I'd have it in my back pocket and I'd pull it out and refer to it when I thought I was getting a little too anxious. I'd remember to be patient. The nanny getting your goat was about anger. That was his way of saying, ‘don't get angry because if you get angry, you can't play. Emotionally you're a mess.' Tempo was to keep my swing smooth and stay within my rhythm. And patience meant just let it happen as I went around the golf course. He was a great motivator."
Memories of Rehling will live on inside Pate and, he says, inside the men who played for Rehling as well as the hundreds of special needs golfers that Rehling devoted his retirement to teaching and coaching and bringing golf into their lives. "I think the work he's done is remarkable," said Pate. "He's been a forefather of disabled golf instruction. He brought the sport of golf into the lives of people who maybe never dreamed it possible that they could play, blind golfers, amputees, people in wheelchairs, golfers with Downs Syndrome. He helped so many people. It's a remarkable legacy."
Pate has photos of Rehling with him at the ceremony when he won the 1974 U.S. Amateur. Pate won it on the 17th hole (he won it on the 35th hole of the 36 hole final). "He was so proud. I think that if there was anything I might regret was that I couldn't give him more. But what do you give him? You try to give him things and then he says he doesn't need them. The committee that raised the money for it named Alabama's golf facility at Ol' Colony The Jerry Pate Center, but I always wanted us to have a Conrad Rehling Golf Center or the Conrad Rehling Golf Course. I want to build a University of Alabama Conrad Rehling Golf Course. That's going to be my next goal for The University. I don't know how I'm going to do it, but it's one of my goals. He lived a great life for 87 years. He was a happy guy. And I learned so much from him. He was my father away from home for four years of college, and, when I would come back to the university after I won on the PGA tour, I would come back and he'd give me that bit of confidence that I was swinging well or, when things weren't going well, that everything was going to be fine and not to worry. He was always there for you. He was something else."
A memorial service for Rehling, who moved with his wife of 62 years, Maxine, from Tuscaloosa to Hiawassee, Ga., in 2001, will be on Saturday, April 7 at 2 p.m. ET at McConnell Memorial Baptist Church. Officiating will be two of his sons-in-law, Rev. Rudy Patton, the church's pastor, and Rev. Jim Holmes, pastor of First Baptist Church in Helen, Ga. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests that memorial contributions be made to: Special Olympics, Inc., 1325 G St., NW, Washington, DC 20005 or to the Conrad Rehling Scholarship Fund at The University of Alabama, P.O. Box 870323, Tuscaloosa, AL 35487. Expressions of sympathy may be sent to Maxine Rehling, P.O. Box 235, Hiawassee, GA 30546. Condolences to the family can also be placed on a guest register website at the Cochran Funeral Home at www.cochranfuneralhomes.com