Steve Pate drives a Porsche—more accurately, he drives with one—although the golf club, while designed by the same company, is not nearly as sleek as the German automaker's famed sports cars. "It looks like a small Weber grill," says Pate, "a used one after the paint has cracked."
The club certainly doesn't look like the driver of choice for a Tour pro. But that's Pate. He doesn't care about appearances. His irons, a chromeless, corroded set of Hogans covered with lead tape, are even uglier. "No one looks in my bag and says, 'Boy, I like that,' " Pate says. "People look in my bag and say, 'Yuck.' "
That word is likely to be repeated by the unlucky Europeans assigned to go up against Pate in this week's Ryder Cup. Although he was the last man selected for the U.S. team, as the other captain's pick after the preordained choice of Tom Lehman, Pate could wind up playing a leading role because he's the type of golfer everyone hates to face in match play. A terrific scrambler who's one of the Tour's better putters, Pate is a good iron player and a fearless competitor known for streaks of brilliance. Lee Westwood, the English Ryder Cupper, knows. He was paired with Pate in the third round of this year's Masters, during which Pate ran off a tournament-record seven straight birdies. As they walked off the 13th green, where Pate had made number 7, Westwood jokingly fanned Pate with a towel, trying to cool him off.
Davis Love III, Brandt Jobe, Fred Couples and Eduardo Romero know, too. They all lost to Pate during last February's World Match Play. (He was finally eliminated, one up, by eventual champion Jeff Maggert in the semifinals.) "He makes a lot of birdies, and he's hungry," says Phil Mickelson. "After what happened in '91, he wants to have a great Ryder Cup."
In 1991 Pate had his best year on Tour. He won the Honda Classic, finished sixth on the money list and, according to Dave Stockton, who was the '91 Ryder Cup captain, had been the most impressive player on the squad during practice the week of the matches at Kiawah Island, S.C. Then, on the way to the traditional Wednesday-night gala in honor of the two teams, Pate was in a limo that made a sudden stop, throwing him to the floor. The car behind rear-ended the limo, and Pate slammed into the front seat, badly bruising his left hip and side. ( David Feherty, a member of the '91 European team, later said he caused the multicar pileup by distracting his driver, who had to brake suddenly to avoid hitting a traffic cop. "Feherty is damn proud of that story," Pate says with a wry smile.)
After two days of treatment Pate partnered Corey Pavin in a four-ball match on Saturday, which they lost 2 and 1 to Bernhard Langer and Colin Montgomerie. "I was hurting, but I played all right," Pate says. "On the 6th hole, though, I took a wrong step walking down one of those Pete Dye bomb craters and something grabbed in my side. I pretty much knew then that I wasn't going to play in singles [on Sunday]. I hit balls for a half hour the next morning and never hit one more than 40 yards."
The car wreck at Kiawah foreshadowed a series of mishaps that almost drove Pate out of golf. In 1995 Pate broke the driver that he had used for years and played so poorly that he had to cash in the one-time exemption available to the top 50 career money winners. Then, while fiddling with the car radio on the drive home to Agoura Hills, Calif., from the '96 Phoenix Open, Pate rear-ended a flatbed truck that was going 25 mph. Pate was doing 75. "I was lucky, absolutely," says Pate, who broke his right hand, wrist and cheekbone. "I could easily have been dead. The car wound up two feet shorter than it was when I started." Pate capped a memorable '96 in August when he tripped on a dock while on vacation in Lake Powell, Utah, and cracked a bone in his other wrist.
The time he spent away from the game recuperating at home—Steve, wife Sheri, daughters Nicole, 11, and Sarah, 10, and their two dogs live on 10 acres in a secluded canyon northwest of Los Angeles—had two unexpected effects. Pate took up cooking and gained 30 pounds, some of which he still carries ("I'd love to see 190 again," he says), and he took a hard look at himself. "I had played poorly for two years and started thinking, Gee, maybe I'll do something else," Pate says. "Then I saw my friends going to work every day and realized that my life wasn't so bad. I've been more patient with my golf since then."
Patience—the lack of it—had always been a problem for Pate, hence his nickname, the Volcano. The ground would shake around Mount Steve, especially when he was in college, at UCLA. Sheri says that Steve once walked through a tunnel at the swank Bel-Air Country Club furiously smashing his club against the cement walls. On another occasion a Bruins teammate tried to get Pate to stop spewing obscenities by warning him that there was a lady nearby. Pate looked up and growled, "That's no lady! That's my mother!"
Pate was an equal-opportunity madman. "You name it, he has tried to stuff it into the ground—clubs, caddies, bags, everything," says CBS announcer Gary McCord. "I still remember the swirling seven-iron. He would spin around and...whomp! The ground vibrated, the clubhead buried and the shaft oscillated like a tuning fork."