Long before building a mini-empire that would make Wharton Business School grads proud, Jerry Pate was a pretty fair golfer. Okay, more than fair. He was world-class, or certainly trending in that direction. If he wasn’t in Jack Nicklaus’ or Johnny Miller’s class, he at least had them on speed dial.
A top collegiate player at the University of Alabama, Pate won the U.S. Amateur in 1974 and excelled in several competitions, including the Walker Cup. He turned pro a year later, famously winning the 1976 U.S. Open at Atlanta Athletic Club with one of the most famous shots in the event’s history, a 5-iron from 190 yards over water to set up a kick-in birdie for a two-shot victory over Al Geiberger and Tom Weiskopf.
Pate would win the Canadian Open later that summer and was named PGA Tour rookie of the year co-player of the year. Six years later, he won the first Players Championship played at was then considered a controversial TPC-Sawgrass, tossing commissioner Deane Beman and architect Pete Dye into the water before taking his own celebratory dive.
But a shoulder injury suffered while hitting practice balls derailed his career, and Pate’s victory total stalled at eight. Given his start in the game, and the immense success he enjoyed, and certainly the number of victories he piled up at a young age, it is always fair to wonder what might have been for the long-time Pensacola resident.
Now 65, Pate refuses to look back in such a manner. Sure, those victories were big, and he relishes them, but Pate is not one to play the “what if” game.
“A lot of great things came out of my injury,” Pate said. “I continued to keep trying to get better. Back then, they didn’t know what they know now about how to fix shoulder injuries, so I kept working at it. I kept going with it and never quit. But I’ve been afforded opportunities to do a lot of things.”
“I’ve been able to start businesses. Real estate. I had a construction company for a time. I did television for over 10 years on ABC, CBS and for the BBC. I have a Toro distribution company that we’ve grown over 20 years. I’ve been lucky. I’ve been able to do a lot of different things. I’ve been able to spend time with my family.”
“You talk about “what if.” The first seven years on tour were pretty good, but that wasn’t God’s plan. He wanted me to move onto something else.”
Indeed, Pate did. Among his many endeavors have included golf course design, a trade he began to learn early in his playing career, almost by chance.
He met the likes of Pete and Alice Dye, learned from other designers such as Jack Nicklaus, Tom Fazio and Robert Cupp. And now he boasts a design/renovation portfolio of more than 20 courses.
Among his favorites are Kiva Dunes Golf Club in Fort Morgan, Ala., and The Preserve Golf Club in Van Cleave, Miss.
On Kiva Dunes, Pate said of the par-72, 7,092-yard layout: “It’s one of my favorites because we have nine holes that play one direction and nine holes that play the other. So no matter how you play it, the wind is either coming out of one direction or the other. The golf course balances extremely well. A great mixture of short holes and medium holes. Well routed. I think that’s the key to a links-type golf course.
“The links term is where the sandy soil linked the farm land to the ocean. (Kiva Dunes) was old land that was not good for farming and that is where they started playing the game on the links shores of the sea. So Kiva Dunes is a links piece of land. It’s something that is different, not your typical parkland inland golf course you’d see in Chicago or New York.”
On The Preserve, Pate said of the par-71, 6,774-yard layout: “The only limitation we had at The Preserve would have been from the site itself. It was in an area that had a lot of wetlands. We couldn’t do much to make the holes longer. So we have some holes that for the average golfer are a nice test. The course has some great looks. The bunkers, the strategy. It has short and long.”
“Every course should have a long par-5 and a short par-5, a short 3 and a long 3, one that you might have to hit a driver to, and then a 130-yard par-3 that you could hit a wedge to. I like that about a course like this, a drivable par-4 so the average player can driver it up there close to the green and have a different look at a 4.”
Like many who are heavily involved in golf, Pate is concerned about the game’s future. The time it takes to play, the costs involved, the difficulty of the sport all lead to choices that have made growth difficult.
That is why Pate is firm believer in a golf course design concept that allows for enjoyment, with a stern test available with longer tees if necessary.
“I don’t see long, hard golf courses as something that has been helpful to the game.” he said. “You have to buy more real estate, manage more real estate. If we were growing the game, great. But we’re not growing the game in terms of numbers of golfers. The game is hard. We need to figure out how to take less time to play and the courses I like to play you can do so in a reasonable amount of time. Even on fast, hard greens, or the kind of golf course you can walk.”
At one time, Pate was considered one of the game’s premier players, a man who needed to carve out space for all the trophies he would claim. Injury cut that short – he still does compete in a few PGA Tour Champions events – but opened up other doors that led to various business ventures and the hosting of annual collegiate golf tournament.
You will not hear any regrets.
“I’ve had so many different avenues I’ve been able to take.” Pate said. “And I’ve learned from making mistakes, learned from meeting so many great people. And failure gives you a wonderful opportunity for humility. I was always looking for people to teach me.”
“If I hadn’t been injured, I wouldn’t have met all these great people along the way and had all these great life experiences. You live a sheltered life when you are a tour player and a star, and I had to get outside of that arena to learn about people. And we’ve tried to make a difference in other people’s lives. And it would have never happened if I had not been injured.”
May 01, 2019