Although Jerry Pate has been playing golf since he was six and won his first silver tea service at 10 with a birdie on the last hole of the Southeastern Juniors in Columbus, Ga., until he was 20 his successes had been local and regional. He had no national reputation because he had never played the big-time amateur tournaments—the Western, Southern and Eastern Amateurs, the Porter Cup, the North and South—that lead up to the U.S. Amateur at the end of the summer. These days the cost of a summer on that circuit is somewhere between $10,000 and $12,000, a lot of money for one child in a six-child family.
Pate's teacher for his last two years of high school was former University of Florida Golf Coach Conrad Rehling, the man who had nurtured two U.S. Amateur champions before Pate, Bob Murphy and Steve Melnyk, and who had coached several other golfers onto the pro tour, Frank Beard and Doug Sanders among them. After two years at West Florida University in Pensacola, Rehling wound up at Alabama at the same time Pate did, the fall of 1971.
"I wanted to go to the University of Georgia because my father had," says Pate, "but I couldn't get any scholarship aid there. They were SEC champions and they were looking for the best players in the country, not just the best in Pensacola."
At Alabama, Pate won three minor college tournaments in his sophomore year, but he devoted as much energy to being the playboy of the southeastern world as he did to his golf, or so they say. The next year, however, when he entered and won the Florida Amateur he caught a glimpse of the larger pond.
"Late in my junior year I said, 'Conrad, how can I be good?' And he said, 'Play in as many tournaments as you possibly can, all the big ones. See how good you are, compare yourself to the best.' "
Pate followed Rehling's advice and finished second several times that year, earning a reputation for blowing leads in the last round. One he lost was the SEC tournament, which in turn caused Alabama to lose the conference All-Sports Trophy to Tennessee by half a point. Another was the Chris Schenkel Intercollegiate, one of the better college tournaments in the Southeast. He lost that one to Curtis Strange of Wake Forest by dropping three shots over the last nine holes.
That summer Pate played the amateur circuit for the first time, creditably, but without a win outside of Florida, so that when he qualified for the U.S. Amateur he was an unknown quantity. His defeat of George Burns in the fourth round, 2 and 1, was considered an upset, Burns having won the Porter Cup and the North and South.
Pate became the 1974 Amateur champion by coming from behind in the final match to beat John Grace, a Fort Worth real estate man, 2 and 1.
"He seemed to come alive after that," Frank Hannigan recalls. "Beginning that fall he won six straight college tournaments."
In March of 1975 Pate entered the Jacksonville Open, his first pro tournament, and with nine holes to play he was one shot off the lead. "Then I fell apart and finished 17th," he says. Next he played the Heritage at Hilton Head and finished tied for 38th. By virtue of his Amateur win he was invited to the Masters in April, and there managed at least to make the cut. At Pensacola he was sixth, two shots behind the winner, and at the Open at Medinah in June, in which he was also an automatic qualifier, he tied for 18th.