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Pate Returns to Pull Another Fast One

Quickie quiz time . . .

Which athlete had the biggest year or most success in San Diego in 1988?

It can be argued that Doug Williams had a year’s worth of success on the blockbuster second quarter of Super Bowl XXII. An argument also can be made for Tony Gwynn and his third National League batting title. And Barry Sanders’ 5 touchdowns in the Holiday Bowl certainly brought the year to a rousing close.

However, my candidate is a guy who spent two weekends down here and went away with $207,000.

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Most guys who take that kind of money up the road do it in suitcases with false bottoms or sew it into the upholstery of a racy car. They store it under mattresses or in banks in Nassau or Geneva.

This guy won it all on the golf course, of all places. And he didn’t do it fleecing high rollers with a sandbagged handicap.

Indeed, Steve Pate went straight up against the finest golfers in the world and swept the MONY Tournament of Champions and the Shearson Lehman Hutton Andy Williams Open.

By the end of February, with $90,000 and $117,000 checks in his pocket, Pate had to be thinking of San Diego County as sort of his own private giant ATM.

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With the 1989 Tournament of Champions opening Thursday, I thought it appropriate to make the trip to La Costa and visit with this fellow who had so thoroughly pillaged the greensward hereabouts a year ago.

It was no surprise that Pate arrived in the middle of the night Monday, undoubtedly thinking it best that he try to sneak into town lest the alarm be sounded that he was back again . . . probably with an empty suitcase or maybe, this time, driving an armored truck.

I expected to encounter an intimidating guy with a stubble of beard, eyes that would freeze a pond and maybe a gold earring. He would sit down to breakfast and order a shot of brandy with his coffee.

Instead, I found this clean-shaven young man with a pleasant smile and eyes that would melt an iceberg. He drank orange juice, straight up, and, for heaven’s sake, ate oatmeal with bananas.

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You’d never pick Steve Pate out of a lineup and guess he was the guy who hit San Diego for $207,000 in less than 2 months last winter.

How, I asked, did he complete this parlay? Does it have something to do with the water or the air or maybe how the stars were lined up?

“I don’t really know,” Pate said. “In fact, I’ve never played particularly well on the West Coast. But it was a great way to start the year.”

Pate, a West Coast guy who was born in Ventura, educated at UCLA and a resident of Simi Valley, certainly shattered his West Coast jinx. Success seemed so predestined that even the weather conspired on his behalf.

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He started the year at the Tournament of Champions with a pair of 66s, his first back-to-back bogey-free rounds since he turned professional in 1985. He followed the 66s with a 70 on Saturday and led Larry Nelson by a stroke going into the final round.

That was when the weather intervened.

Steve Pate was to win the tournament on the fourth fairway, when rain and hail interrupted play for the fourth time and prompted tournament officials to cancel the final round.

“They had to stop it on the first hole,” he said, “and then they stopped it again after the second and third holes. We hit our tee shots on the fourth hole, and that was it.”

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Nelson, indeed, had weathered the storm with a tying birdie on the third hole, but scores reverted to 54 holes and that was enough to give Pate the win.

At the time, he said: “I’m not going to lie to you and tell you I was disappointed the last round was canceled. A win is a win.”

But some wins are more fun, and a whole lot more dramatic.

“The Andy Williams was a little different,” he said. “We knew we’d finish the tournament.”

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This, of course, gave him a chance to make the march down the 18th fairway in front of a packed gallery and a national television audience.

Not that this was to be any sort of a cakewalk.

“The thing I remember most,” Pate said, “was that I had a terrible last seven or eight holes. I started hitting it sideways, but I made a lot of good putts.”

Everyone else must have been hitting backwards, or at least going backwards, because Pate had never led by himself for as much as one hole as he stood on the 18th tee Sunday. By then, he was tied for the lead with Jay Haas and needed to birdie the par 5 to win.

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And he hit it sideways.

“Over by the driving range,” he said. “I had to wedge it out of the trees. Fortunately, I ended up with a perfect distance for a wedge, 108 yards into the wind.”

He ended up with a 6-foot putt . . . which he made for the birdie, the win and the first San Diego sweep since Tom Watson was the first to accomplish it in 1980.

If Steve Pate can do the same thing this year, they may as well vote him into the San Diego Hall of Champions. He may not live in San Diego County, but he would own it.

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