- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Finally it came down to another tall young blond guy with no respect for what the U.S. Open golf championship is supposed to be, a crusty old tournament slightly more huge in importance than all of the Deep South itself, something you are not meant to win until you are well versed in the history of Harry Vardon's tweed coats. But here was Jerry Pate, a 22-year-old rookie, digging his way out of the Georgia pines and doing remarkable things on a course so dangerous that it simply had to produce the exquisitely torturous finish it did.
Jerry Pate? Maybe if you follow amateur golf you will recall that he was champion of the pipe-and-vest set only two years ago, a national amateur champion who like so many others quickly turned professional. It was considered appropriate that Pate, a native of Georgia as was a fellow named Bobby Jones, should ultimately capture an Open that looked for most of the week to be the property of the cherub, John Mahaffey, or, briefly, of Tom Weiskopf, who had displayed a patience and composure throughout the tournament that was slightly uncharacteristic, or even of Al Geiberger, who kept lurking near the lead and refused to go away.
In the end, with the Sunday evening sky beginning to match the brooding darkness of the Atlanta Athletic Club's sprawling water hazards, it was Pate who struck the winningest shot on the final hole that any Open has ever produced. The scene was set for Pate to gouge something disastrous out of the bionic Bermuda rough and make a bogey or possibly something worse and send the tournament into an 18-hole playoff on Monday among himself and Weiskopf and the quiet Geiberger, or maybe between Weiskopf and Geiberger only. They were safely off the premises and tied at 279, one under par for 72 holes.
There sat Pate in the rough and there was the water and there were the pines and there was the green about 190 yards away. There were also some 30,000 people looking like a football crowd at Pate's University of Alabama as they huddled in grandstands bordering the lake that had already swallowed John Mahaffey.
And now Pate was about to go into the water, too, because only immortals like Bobby Jones and Jack Nicklaus are expected to win an Open at such an age. Instead he ripped into a five-iron and right away you knew it wasn't going anywhere but into the history books. Which turned out to be just about two feet away from the flagstick. And since Mahaffey, just a moment before, had lost his gamble with a wood club from out of the same rough, Pate had two putts to win. He got there in one, a closing birdie of all things. A closing 68. His third straight round under par after an opening 71, a 277 and the $42,000 check that is never as important in the Open as that gold medal.
Poor Mahaffey. Last year he lost the Open in a playoff with Lou Graham and, by his own account, it had taken him half a year to regain his composure. In Atlanta his 70-68 gave him the 36-hole lead, and when he added a 69 on Saturday he was two ahead of Pate, three ahead of Geiberger and four up on Weiskopf.
And he played well Sunday, or at least for most of it. When he went into the water on the final hole, his chances to win vanishing with his ball, he held together well enough to chip across the water close to the hole and sink the putt, the bogey giving him a tie for fourth with Butch Baird. Then he looked up at the huge crowd, gave a game grin, shrugged and waited for Jerry Pate to finish it off.
Most Opens are won in bizarre ways. With four holes remaining last Sunday Pate was two strokes behind Mahaffey, whom he had been chasing forever. Mahaffey had played wonderfully but he had kept saying, "I give up too much yardage. I'm exhausted." Alas, the rough got him for a bogey at the 16th, he three-putted for another at the 17th and then the lake got him for a third at the 18th.
Meanwhile, Pate had birdied the par-3 15th over still more water, another hole that had been crushing people throughout the tournament. Ben Crenshaw, for example, double bogeyed it the last three rounds, and the last time took him out of competition. Pate had then saved pars with good, teasing putts on the 16th and 17th greens. And after everything else that happened—all those putts Geiberger sank and the rush Weiskopf made with a streak of three straight birdies on 12, 13 and 14—it was down to that last shot from the last player on the last hole.
"I had to go for it," said Pate, who became the youngest Open winner since 1962, when Nicklaus was also 22. He is not without confidence. "All I did was hit a shot two feet from the hole and win the Open," he said.