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Steve Pate ready for the Champions Tour

Look who's back, and he brought his golf clubs.

Golf barely had time to understand, much less appreciate Jerry Pate. One day he was winning tournaments, talking trash and pushing then-PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman and architect Pete Dye into a lake. The next thing you know, Pate was a distant memory, reduced to a historical footnote by a bad shoulder that took away his game.

Now, here he comes again, a Champions Tour rookie at this week's Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am riding the rush of a new challenge and a shot at unfinished business.

Pate won the 1974 U.S. Amateur at 20. At 22, as a PGA Tour rookie, he won the 1976 U.S. Open. The only other players to win those two championships so early in life are Bobby Jones and Jack Nicklaus.

By 1982 the Pensacola resident out of the University of Alabama had eight wins, including the '82 Players Championship on the newly opened and controversial Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass.

To make a point about the Sawgrass course that was drawing criticism from many tour players, Pate sank his final putt and promptly shoved the tour commissioner and the course designer into a lake adjoining the 18th green. He then jumped in himself.

Pate was good and knew it. He attracted - and really enjoyed - attention. He walked the walk and loved to talk. Fellow tour players tagged Pate ``The Mouth of the South.'' Nicklaus once put on a pair of earmuffs at the first tee when paired with Pate at Westchester.

``I was very insecure,'' Pate said. ``Most insecure people are super outgoing, you know, braggadocios, cocky and all of the above. I fit that mold in a minute.''

Whatever made Pate go, it connected with galleries and advertisers. He had talent: His U.S. Open win came after a 5- iron from the rough on the final hole rolled to a stop 2 feet from the cup. He had style: Pate played two years using orange golf balls.

``I was on a pretty big roll. Back in the '80s, three guys on tour owned planes: Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Jerry Pate,'' he said. ``I was probably ranked as one of the top two players in the world. And it just ... there it went.''

A few weeks after his TPC win, while practicing knockdown 1-irons off hard ground - shots he was working on with an eye toward the British Open - Pate felt a pop in his left shoulder joint.

``So I went down, hit another ball, and when I made a backswing I stopped because my shoulder was just, boy, it was like disjointed. I woke up the next day and my whole shoulder was inflamed. I couldn't move it.''

For all practical purposes, Pate's boy-wonder golf days ended that afternoon on a Pensacola practice range. Three shoulder operations followed, but the magic never returned. Pate continued to play for a few more years, but only his name was the same. He soon retired from competition, losing the prime of his career.

``If you go back and look at my record and took the first seven years and carried that out for the next 15, 17 years, it would have been quite a record,'' Pate said.

``I look back and say, `Hey, I had a hole-in-one at Cypress Point, a hole-in-one at the U.S. Open and Augusta. I had a second at the U.S. Open. I got beat by a shot at the PGA, a couple of times. I got beat by a shot at the Masters, won The Players Championship. I dove in the lake, started orange golf balls. I was 28 years old and had done all that. And I was done.''

Pate, however, was not a one-trick pony. He did some broadcasting. He got into golf course design. He built what would become one of the South's largest wholesale distributorships for commercial lawn equipment and irrigation products and service.

He also turned 50.

And in July he had one more shoulder surgery.

Now Pate is back. Thanks to continued medical advancements and new surgical procedures, Pate believes the shoulder is good.

So here is the Champions Tour rookie at this week's Outback Pro-Am preparing for his third event of the new season. He's also enjoying the moment.

``The beauty of the Champions Tour is we all learn though our own successes and failures,'' Pate said.

``I used to laugh when I had done all those things at age 28. I didn't know much about the golf world. It took a lot of failures and a lot of successes along the way to humble yourself to learn about why things fall into place the way they are.''

Pate says he has no regrets. Life has been good. He insists he does not wonder what might have been.

``I have had a lot of great successes. So don't feel sorry for me. But I am happy to get out and stretch my legs again down the fairways.

``It's not having something to prove as much as it is something I love doing. I've played the last two weeks and told my wife, `You know, this is really fun.' I enjoy the challenge. Golf is a challenge about yourself more than anything.''

Jerry Pate knows challenges.

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