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First-Time Wonders

Nine players have won their first PGA tournament at a major, including Nicklaus, Trevino and Daly.

August 14, 2003|Thomas Bonk | Times Staff Writer

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — In the 1976 U.S. Open at Atlanta Athletic Club, Jerry Pate was a 22-year-old PGA Tour rookie playing in only his second major as a pro. He sort of knew his way around, though, since he had played the Masters and the U.S. Open the year before as the 1974 U.S. Amateur champion.

If anyone thought Pate didn't really belong, he was not among them.

"I never thought I wasn't going to win," Pate said.

Maybe, but that's not the way Pate's first major championship began.

Playing in the first round, Pate hit his second shot at No. 18, a water hole, just clear of the bank, the ball stopping inches above the waterline. Pate trudged toward the green, slowing when he heard unusual sounds coming from the gallery.

Pate thought it a curious mixture, groans and laughter combined

A frog had jumped on his ball and knocked it into the pond.

Pate wound up with a bogey, signed for a 71, then went off in search of birdies and eagles instead of more amphibians.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 19, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Lee Trevino -- In a Sports chart Thursday on golfers who won their first PGA tournament at a major, it was incorrectly reported that Lee Trevino won four majors. Trevino won six majors.

He found no more frogs and darn few bogeys the next three days in Georgia 27 years ago.

In fact, what Pate found mostly was his place in history, becoming one of the very few whose first PGA Tour victory was a major championship. In the First Major Club, the roll call reads: Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Orville Moody, Pate, Jeff Sluman, John Daly, Paul Lawrie, Retief Goosen and Ben Curtis. Some have gone on to greater success than others but there is no disputing that counting a major championship as your first victory is a notable achievement.

Pate's rounds of 71-69-69-68 added up to a two-shot victory over Al Geiberger and Tom Weiskopf.

Pate would recommend making a major the first victory to anyone.

"That's right," he said. "If you're going to win your first, you might as well win one of the biggest ones in golf."

Pate became the second-youngest winner of the U.S. Open since World War II, Nicklaus having been four months younger in 1962 when he beat Arnold Palmer in a playoff at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club for his first tour triumph.

Nicklaus is clearly the most famous member of the First Major Club, Curtis the most recent. Curtis joined last month, when he won the British Open at Royal St. George's, thus making his first victory in a previously undistinguished professional career a noteworthy one. Curtis was ranked 396th in the world when he teed off at Royal St. George's.

As it turns out, Curtis' victory was even more special. He became the first player in 90 years, since Francis Ouimet won the 1913 U.S. Open, to win the first major he entered.

Pate says he wishes Curtis luck the rest of the way.

"It takes a strong-willed person and a real burning desire," he said. "There's a huge price you have to pay for winning."

And you have to keep those frogs from messing with your golf balls.

There was an age distinction for Nicklaus too when he became the first member of the First Major Club. The reigning U.S. Amateur champion from 1961, Nicklaus was the youngest U.S. Open winner since Bobby Jones, at 21, had won the 1923 Open at Inwood Country Club at Inwood, N.Y.

Nicklaus, wearing ugly, olive-colored pants for the fourth round, shot a 69 to catch Palmer. Superstitious or not, Nicklaus wore them again for the 18-hole playoff the next day and beat Palmer by three shots.

"I was the Open champion as well as the Amateur champion," Nicklaus said in "My Story," his autobiography. "At last I had proved that playing golf full-time I could do what I had done when playing only part-time. In my 17th tournament as a professional, I had won."

Not only had he won, he had made his first victory a major.

None of those other players in the First Major Club have approached Nicklaus, who counted 18 majors among his 73 tour victories, but each has found his niche.

In 1968, Trevino was 28 and playing in his third U.S. Open at Oak Hill, site of this year's PGA. After 54 holes, Trevino was only one shot behind Bert Yancey, so he decided to go all out, at least with his clothes. On Sunday, he wore a red shirt, red socks and black pants.

Later, Trevino called those his "payday colors," after shooting a 69 and beating Nicklaus by four shots as Yancey stumbled to a 76.

"There were thousands around the green and five policemen escorted me through the crowd to the clubhouse," Trevino said later. "I hadn't had so much attention from the cops since I backfired my 1949 Ford on North Central Expressway [in Dallas] when I was 15."

Trevino has attracted a lot of attention in golf circles since then. He won 29 times on the PGA Tour, counting among his victories the 1971 U.S. Open, the '71 and '72 British Opens and the '74 PGA Championship. At 63, he has won nearly $17 million.

Moody was a surprise winner of the 1969 U.S. Open at Champions Golf Club in Houston. He never won another PGA Tour event and earned less than $400,000 in 16 seasons on the regular tour before turning to the senior tour in 1984.

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