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Pate, Battling Pain in Comeback Bid, Hopes to Make a Big Splash Again

February 21, 1986|DAN HAFNER | Times Staff Writer

It wasn't long ago that Jerry Pate was the toast of the PGA Tour. He was winning tournaments, then doing victory dives into the nearest bodies of water.

In 1982, at the height of his colorful career, the Georgia-born former University of Alabama star was struck down by injury.

It took three years and many tests by dozens of specialists before the injury was correctly diagnosed. It started as a pain in the neck, but the surgery he had last June was for removal of torn cartilage in his left shoulder.

Pate was golf's newest star when he won the 1976 U.S. Open as a tour rookie. At the time of the injury, a week before the British Open, Pate was the leading money winner of '82 with more than $280,000 in earnings. He had won the Tournament Players Championship. Life was wonderful.

Now, almost four years later, Pate, 32, is attempting a comeback. It has been a difficult struggle. The pain comes and goes, and the strength a golfer needs in his left shoulder is just not there.

Pate shot a 75, four over par, in the first round of the Los Angeles Open Thursday at Riviera Country Club, and it is obvious that he still has a long way to go to get back to his previous level. He is convinced, though, that he will not only make it but will become an even better golfer than before the injury.

Here, though, with so many pros shooting par or better in, for a change, nearly perfect weather, it is almost certain that Pate will fail to make the cut for the fourth time in five tournaments this year. He finished tied for 44th at Phoenix, and his $1,445 left him tied for 143rd in earnings.

"There's soreness in the biceps tendon," the affable Pate said after he had bogeyed his last two holes Thursday. "I'm going to have to visit a doctor next week to see what can be done.

"It's a funny thing. It didn't bother me at Pebble Beach or San Diego, and only a little at Phoenix. I took last week off, and it bothered me again today.

"Maybe I'll have to play two weeks, then take two weeks off.

"I don't have any strength in the shoulder, although I have been working out every day for three years. I'm favoring the shoulder. I'm sure the improper swing is causing pain. If I didn't play golf, I wouldn't have a problem.

"Someone wrote that I was suffering from burnout. That's not true. I was just reaching my peak when I was hurt. I'm confident I'll make it back, and when I do, I'll be a better golfer. My short game is better than ever. It had to improve--I was missing so many greens."

In 1982, after winning the TPC and pushing PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman and course architect Pete Dye into the water before diving in himself, Pate decided to take a month off to get ready for the British Open in July.

"It was a week before the tournament, and I was on the practice tee. I heard something pop," he said. "I hit a couple of more shots and had a burning sensation.

"I went on over to the British Open but had to withdraw because it hurt too much. I had never really known what pain was before that."

In the last three years, with all the medical examinations, Pate has played sporadically, earning less than $80,000. He became a discouraged young man.

"It was diagnosed as a pinched nerve in the neck," he said. "I came here, and Dr. (Frank) Jobe and Dr. (Robert) Kerlan examined me. I spent 11 months being treated for a brachial plexus (upper arm) injury by a doctor in Boston.

"Finally, in the spring of last year, I went to the Houghton Sports Clinic in Columbus, Ga. There, Dr. Jim Andrews diagnosed it as a torn cartilage in the left shoulder. Dr. Andrews operated, and with his help and that of Paul Callaway of the DP Fitness Training Center, I'm back playing again."

With the pain mostly gone, Pate made it back to the tour last October. For a while, he felt much better than he had before the surgery. He didn't play particularly well, but it was a start on the long road back.

"Except for a hand injury in 1976, I never had pain, so I really didn't know what it is," Pate said. "I work out every day, but that can get old. I'm not discouraged, but I wish I could get my strength back. Strength in the shoulder is important to a golfer."

Before the injury, Pate had won eight tournaments on the tour. It was at the Danny Thomas Memphis Open in 1981 that Pate came up with the idea of diving into water after his victory. It was a spontaneous reaction, he said.

Would he dive in again if he won again?

"I haven't thought that far in advance," he said. "All I can concentrate on now is trying to make the cut. The rest will come later."

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