Pate looks back on 30th anniversary of breakthrough at TPC Sawgrass

March 21, 2012
Vartan Kupelian, PGATOUR.COM Contributor

Jerry Pate simply could not let the occasion pass without something special as a send-off. It was, after all, a "wild and woolly" week at THE PLAYERS Championship -- then known as the Tournament Players Championship -- at the new TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course and it deserved a flourish for posterity.

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Leave it to Pate. He had the perfect exclamation point and, yes, it would be preserved for all future generations.

Wednesday, March 21, is the 30th anniversary of the final round of THE PLAYERS debut on Pete Dye's Stadium Course. Pate rallied from three shots behind with a final round 5-under-par 67 that day 30 years ago to win by two shots over Scott Simpson and Brad Bryant.

Pate celebrated by diving into the water hazard -- and, for good measure, taking Dye and Commissioner Deane Beman in with him.

Call it a properly reverent baptism for a golf course and its signature championship.

It wasn't a spontaneous dip. While making his move on the back nine Sunday, Pate saw Alice Dye walking the course.

"She patted me on the back and said, 'Come on, you can win this thing. Pete really wants you to win it.' I said, 'You tell Pete I'm going to throw him in the lake. That was it,'" Pate said.

Once again, it was too late to turn back. It wasn't the first time Pate had gone for a dip after a big victory. It first happened in Memphis in 1981, where the treacherously humid summers redefine the notion of hot and steamy.

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"It was about 110 degrees," Pate said. "The hottest place in the world, Memphis, Tennessee, in June. I had gone about two years with 10 second places so I just thought what the heck. I'd make it light.

"The guys at CBS were good friends of mine. You had Summerall and Venturi in the tower in Memphis and a crazy bunch of guys. I used to go out to dinner with those guys a lot. I sort of joked about it on Friday night in Memphis. It's so hot, if I won here I'd jump in the lake."

Word got out during Saturday's third round of Pate's promise. It made the local newspaper and Pate felt obligated. Once he won, it was too late to turn back.

The circumstances at THE PLAYERS were much different. The golf course had taken its toll on the field. Dye's creation had been relentless. What Pate did was a reflection of all that transpired during the week and the general disdain directed toward the designer of the new course. It wasn't about cooling off, as Memphis was. It was about avenging a cruel deed.

"You really need to go back and look at that field in '82 and see who missed the cut," Pate said.

The list included defending champion Raymond Floyd, Nicklaus, Ben Crenshaw, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Johnny Miller, Lanny Wadkins, Fred Couples and David Graham -- all major champions. The championship and the course were mired in controversy.

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"It was incredible," Pate said. "And all the top names in golf complained the golf course was too hard ... It was unfair, it didn't reward great shot making, it was all about luck and all of the above.

"It was a very trying week for Commissioner Beman, who had worked so hard to create a vision. When we got to the dance, everyone saw it wasn't the music they wanted to hear. The players were livid because here we are, we own the golf close, and it's like this."

In its early days, Dye's design was, in Pate's words, "a pretty wild place" and inhabited by wildlife. "Rattlesnakes and Florida panthers," he said.

"It was just unfinished," Pate said. "It was wild and woolly. It was really a diabolical golf course by Pete. It was designed to challenge the best shot-making. And if you look at the history of who's won here, just about all of them are pretty good ball strikers. Not all of them are long, not all of them are short, but they all could hit the ball straight. They could work the ball left-to-right and right-to-left.

"This is Deane Beman's baby. He does not get the credit for what he's done for this TOUR, and Tim (Finchem) has made it ten times better. Where we are today and where we are 30 years ago, gosh, it's just amazing, the improvements. The golf course is a much better golf course. It's fairer, it's challenging, and it's in absolute pristine condition."

The first Tournament Players Championship was held in 1974 at Sawgrass Country Club. Jack Nicklaus won the first, and twice more in the next four years. In 1982, the tournament -- still known as the Tournament Players Championship -- was moved to the new Dye course commissioned by PGA TOUR Commissioner Beman. In 1988, the name was changed to THE PLAYERS Championship.

Pate has vivid recollections going back to a practice round he played in 1981 with Tom Weiskopf and Ed Sneed.

"Both players had beautiful swings and were great ball strikers," said Pate, whose elegant swing belongs in the same category. "Tom gave me a secret early in that week about taking the club away."

Once the takeaway was fixed, Pate was ready to take off.

"I was playing well coming into that event and played well after that," Pate said. "Come May, I tore my shoulder up and that was sort of the end of my career. It's sort of interesting how that all just came together at that time.

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"But I hit the ball just beautifully all week, and the only shot I can remember in the entire tournament that I really missed, I hit a 5-iron actually (in the third round). We had a long wait playing to the 18th green, the pin was on the front left tucked up against the water, and the wind was a little bit into us right to left or cross right to left. And I hit this 5-iron, hit it on the green and just rolled over and went in the water, and I made double bogey."

It was the precursor to his final full swing in the final round. Pate had that same 5-iron in his hands for the approach to the 18th.

"The pin was in the back, and it was a little easier to get to it when it was in the back left center, a lot of green to work with," Pate said. "But I don't even remember being nervous."

He wasn't nervous on the infamous island green 17th hole either. Including the pro-am round, he birdied the 17th hole four out of five times.

"2-2-3-2-2, I think it was," Pate said.

"It was just a little cut 8-iron shot, 140-yard shot. If you think you're one of the world's best players and you miss that green with an 8- or 9-iron, shame on you, you're not one of the world's best players, you've hit a bad shot."

Pate returned last week to the Ponte Vedra Beach headquarters of the PGA TOUR to play the Stadium Course with a foursome of winners of a charity auction. The proximity of his round to March 21 was purely coincidental, he said.

"I played it from pretty much where we played in those days, not all the way back because they've added a lot of longer tees for these kids who can hit it so far," Pate said. "I kind of walked over to look at the pin placement on the 17th, kind of reminisced a little bit, had fun."

And, yes, he again hit the green on the 17th again, but this time, he didn't make the birdie putt.