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It's Been a Long Dry Spell, but Pate Isn't Throwing In the Towel

February 21, 1987|DAN HAFNER | Times Staff Writer

Most golf fans remember Jerry Pate as the handsome young man who used to jump into the nearest lake after winning a tournament.

Others may recall that he won the U.S. Open in 1976, his first year on the PGA Tour. Still others remember that he won more than $1 million by 27, an age at which many professional golf careers are just getting under way.

Then again, it may be that many have already forgotten the native Georgian. After winning $1.4 million in his first seven years, Pate has won less than $80,000 in the last five. Injuries and two major shoulder operations have forced him to miss most of the last four seasons.

At 33, he is trying to battle back from his most recent surgery, a rotator cuff operation on his left shoulder last March. Most athletes have not been able to perform effectively after rotator cuff surgery.

Pate is convinced that he can be an exception, but his attempt to regain his previous form is not merely difficult, it is painful, too.

There were signs Thursday that he had taken a big step forward. Pate shot a three-under-par 68 at Riviera Country Club in the first round of the Los Angeles Open, just two shots off the lead. It has been years since he has been that close.

But Friday, Pate was in the third group off the first tee. It was cold, and the wind was gusting up to 40 m.p.h. He had five bogeys and a 40 on the front nine and almost blew himself out of the tournament with a 77 for a two-round total of 145.

Pate, who had to rise before dawn to warm up, complete his exercise program and be able to swing a club, wore warming mittens between shots, but it was obvious that he had trouble getting loose. Even a new putter, which had worked so well for him during the opening round, deserted him in the wind.

His round at Riviera was similar to one at San Diego last week. Pate was eight under par through three rounds and seemed in line for a good check. But Sunday's rain wasn't good for an aching shoulder, and he soared to a 76, winning only $1,000.

It hasn't been all bad, though. Maybe it's only a small step, but he has made two cuts in a row. For several years, he couldn't even play two tournaments in a row because of the pain.

"It used to be so easy," Pate said. "I got up in the morning and went out and played golf. There was nothing to it. Maybe, it was too easy.

"Now, I have to warm up more than most. I have to be on an exercise program. There's always the worry about another injury, too. But right now, I feel good about my health.

"The important thing is patience. I'm really not too far from the top of my game. I need to work on fundamentals. One of these days, I want to hit the ball as well as I used to and see what happens.

"I'm involved in other activities to do with golf. I really enjoy building golf courses. I'm really a dirt man. I told my wife I could become a farmer if I had enough tractors and other machinery to keep busy. I have to be busy."

Pate, a graduate of the University of Alabama, won nine tournaments before suffering a severe neck muscle injury in the middle of the 1982 season.

It was at the Danny Thomas Memphis tournament in 1981 that he first dived into the water, fully clad, right after clinching the victory. When he won the Tournament Players Championship in 1982, he summoned Tour Commissioner Deane Beman and course architect Pete Dye and pushed them both into the water before diving in himself.

That not only was his last dive, it was his last victory on the tour. Although the trouble began in 1982, it wasn't until 1985 that the real problem was discovered. That spring, he underwent surgery to have torn cartilage removed from his left shoulder.

"When I came back from the first operation, I had really lost a lot of distance," Pate said. "I missed six months on the Tour in '83, six in '84, seven or eight in '85 and nine last year. You can't play golf that way."

Despite the surgery, Pate's shoulder continued to ache. Last March, he had the rotator-cuff operation.

"I'm back again because it's an addiction," he said. "Playing on the Tour is like being in prison.

"My goals aren't to win money. If I can't get back to where I was, I'm not interested. Right now, I'm optimistic.

"All the practice in the world won't get you back on the tour. When you have a neck or shoulder problem and you are just practicing, you aren't about to take a chance and hit a ball out of a bad lie. You have to go out on the tour to really find out about your health. Then, when you have the ball in a hole, you find out if you can do it without hurting yourself.

"I feel pretty good about it. I played the first three tournaments, and it was the first time I played three in a row since before the first surgery. I hit the ball well in those tournaments but couldn't putt. I found a new putter and regained my confidence."

The wind didn't do his confidence much good on the front side Friday. One putt was blown off course by a sudden gust of wind when it appeared to be going into the cup. On a couple of short ones, he allowed for a wind that wasn't there.

He recovered on the back side, but at nine shots behind the leader, it doesn't figure he would be diving into water, even if there were a Riviera Lake.

For now, Pate is just happy to make the cut.

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