On the second day of the U.S. Open last June, Jerry Pate, a 22-year-old rookie and the youngest player on the PGA tour, said, "There is a fine line between confidence and cockiness, and maybe I've crossed it a few times. I don't know. But when people say I'm cocky I ask them, where would I be if I didn't believe in myself?" Forty-eight hours later Pate hit a supremely confident five-iron from the rough beside the 18th fairway of the Atlanta Athletic Club's Highland Course and set loose the sort of happy bedlam that only occurs when 30,000 people realize simultaneously that they have just been witness to a memorable moment.
With that shot, and the 22-inch birdie putt that followed, Jerry Pate settled the matter for good. If you win the U.S. Open on the 72nd hole with a shot that is both breathtakingly bold and perfectly executed, nobody gets to call you a cocky kid ever again.
Last week the confident young man with the wonderful swing that the USGA's Frank Hannigan has described as "Miller from the waist up and Nicklaus from the waist down," was home in Florida playing unofficial host to the Pensacola Open, the next to the last stop on the PGA tour. The tournament was being played on Pate's home course, the Pensacola Country Club, and despite the presence of Tom Weiskopf, Hubert Green and Lee Trevino, Pate was its main drawing card. The responsibility he felt for the welfare of the players, spectators, press and the weather, which was awful enough to cause the cancellation of Saturday's round, almost overwhelmed him. He shot 75 the first day and looked like a sure thing to miss the cut until his exuberant blonde wife Soozi told him she would divorce him if he did. He shot a 67 on Friday and didn't.
Pate is closing out the best year any tour rookie has ever had. Besides the U.S. Open, Pate won the Canadian Open in July with a record-breaking final-round 63 that beat Nicklaus and his 65 by four strokes and the $300,000 Taiheiyo Masters in Japan. He is 10th on the year's money list with more than $150,000 in winnings, and he is being mentioned along with Nicklaus, Green, Ben Crenshaw and Raymond Floyd in speculation about the PGA Player of the Year.
Pate is 23 now, the latest in golfs long line of illustrious college dropouts. He owns an apartment that looks out on the Gulf of Mexico and he drives a new Thunderbird when he is at home. He has a contract with Wilson Sporting Goods, and his name has begun to pop up lately in ads for luxury goods such as Rolex watches. His business manager is Vinny Giles, who like Pate is a former U.S. Amateur champion.
"When I first saw him play a few years ago," says Giles, "I thought, here's somebody who could be an unusually good player. Never in my life had I seen anyone at that age with as much natural tempo and as solid a swing."
"My father is a real good player with a super swing," says Pate. "My tempo probably came from him."
Patrick J. Pate Jr., father of Jerry and five other Pates ranging in age from 16 to 27, and a five-handicapper known to his golfing companions as Light Eight Pate ("What d'ya hit, Pat?" "Oh, a light eight"), is as excitable as his son is composed. In fact, before the Open in Atlanta an agreement was reached, somehow, between father and son that it would be best if father absented himself during the tournament. "I didn't want to bother him. I get nervous and that makes him nervous," said Pat in a relatively calm moment last week.
"It would be all right," said Soozi, "if he just watched like a normal person. But he does this." And Soozi demonstrated, darting around her living room from one imaginary tree to another.
Pat Pate, an executive of the Hygeia Bottling Co., a franchise of Coca-Cola, attended a meeting in Atlanta on Tuesday of Open week, then spent the night with Soozi and Jerry in their rented house near the course. On Wednesday, Pat walked a practice round with his son and then left for a meeting on Thursday in Birmingham. On Thursday evening, he says, he phoned a Birmingham paper for the scores and then went to bed. "But I couldn't stand it. I woke up at 2 a.m. and called Delta and said, 'What's the next flight to Atlanta?' " Early Friday morning he was on the course, wearing a raincoat with the collar turned up, a hat with the brim turned down and a newly purchased pair of mirrored sunglasses. The first person he saw was Vinny Giles, who said, "Hi, Mr. Pate."