From the beginning, from the first time he wrapped his tiny little hands around the rubber grip of a golf club and began shredding his family's lawn, it was obvious that Steve Pate had found his game.
When he was just 9 years old, an age when most kids' attention spans are roughly as long as Marvelous Marvin Hagler's hair, Pate found he could concentrate on golf for hours at a time. A complete, unbreakable concentration on bringing the clubface into perfect contact with the golf ball.
This, of course, provided the rest of the Pate family with endless hours of excitement. Like the times little Stevie would somehow fail to notice his parents' quaint little 22-room mansion in Montecito, just south of Santa Barbara, standing smack in the intended flight path of his golf ball.
"Once he chipped one right through a very large window in the library of the house," recalled Pate's father, Don. "I mean a very large window. Boom!"
OK, so the young golfer broke a window or two. It's not like the boy set the place on fire or anything like that.
"Then there was the time he set the place on fire," Don Pate said. "It was cold out and he wanted to hit some balls on the back lawn, so he took my hand-warmer, one of those things filled with lighter fluid that you use for duck hunting or cold-weather fishing. Somehow he spilled the fluid and he just kept on hitting golf balls. Never noticed.
"I'm in the house and my neighbor calls on the phone and says, 'Sorry to bother you, Don, but your lawn is on fire.' "
The Pates put that fire out, but in the 13 years since no one has been able to douse the enthusiasm that burns inside the golfer. Steve Pate is now 26, and for the last six months has been one of the finest golfers in the world.
Pate, in his fourth year on the PGA Tour after a solid career at UCLA, is one of the favorites to win the Los Angeles Open, which begins today at the Riviera Country Club. He has already won the Tournament of Champions and the Andy Williams Open in San Diego this year and ranks No. 2 on the money list.
His whirlwind rise began last September when he won the Southwest tournament in Abilene, Tex. For a guy who did not earn any money for the first six months of his rookie year and at that point was enjoying his career roughly as much as you'd enjoy getting cracked repeatedly in the shin with a sand wedge, it seemed to him like he had just won the Championship of this and all galaxies.
When he resumed his schedule in January, he was still hot. He entered the Tournament of Champions at La Costa with little marquee value, though, just another guy named Steve or John or Dave with no hips and a nice swing.
But Pate, who lives in Simi Valley, jumped out to a first-round lead against the other winners of PGA tournaments in the previous 12 months, and people began to notice him. When he held the lead after the second and third rounds, everyone took notice. And when the rains came and shortened the tournament to 54 holes, Pate kept the $90,000 winner's check dry by rushing it quickly to the bank.
He was in contention for two days at the Bob Hope Desert Classic, and last week battered the Torrey Pines Golf Course for a 19-under-par 269, beating Jay Haas by a stroke and claiming the $117,000 first prize.
Obviously, then, Pate is a young man bristling with confidence, right? A man boldly predicting a romp to victory in the LA Open?
"I'm playing well, but that doesn't mean I can repeat what I did last week," Pate said Wednesday before playing in the Pro-Am. "I'd actually be very surprised if I do. I've got to be realistic. A lot of other guys are playing well, too."
If you don't think he's exactly busting at the seams with confidence right now, however, listen to him talk about his rookie year.
"For the first six months, my biggest check was for $900," he said. "I started to wonder what was going on, whether I belonged out there."
But then came the Atlanta tournament. Pate stayed in contention for three days and then dropped a 12-foot birdie putt on the last hole of regulation play, forcing a playoff with Wayne Levi. He lost it when Levi birdied the second extra hole, but somehow Pate didn't quite think of it as losing.
"My career earnings went from $5,000 to $60,000 in one week," he said. "Going into that tournament I was looking at having to go back to qualifying school. Now I didn't have to worry about that anymore. It wasn't so much the money. I had a sponsor. But it got a little old finishing 65th every week."
He finished his rookie year with nearly $90,000 in earnings. In 1986, he earned $176,000 and last year finished 26th on the money list with $335,728.