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The Fire Subsides but Still Burns Hot : Coming to Grips With Experiences Such as His Pre-Ryder Cup Accident Has Mellowed Ventura Native Steve Pate on the Climb to Golf Stardom

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An analogy of Steve Pate’s 1991 season on the PGA Tour: You earn a trip to the California lottery’s Big Spin. You are so excited that in the days leading up to this moment of a lifetime you absent-mindedly pluck all the fur off your cat. Finally, the big day arrives and you pull the handle of the Big Spin wheel. The 300-pound wheel falls on your head. You lose.

Pate worked for two years for a chance at golf’s Big Spin, a berth on the Ryder Cup team. He was excited beyond belief. En route to the Ryder Cup banquet on the eve of the prestigious event that pits the best golfers in the United States against Europe’s best, the limousine Pate was riding in crashed. Pate suffered a deep bruise in the abdominal muscles on his left side.

He tried to play through the pain a few days later, but he and teammate Corey Pavin were defeated by Bernhard Langer and Colin Montgomerie. Pate said the physical pain became secondary to the emotional thrashing he took.

“It was a great disappointment, no question about it,” said Pate, who has recovered from the Sept. 25 accident in Kiawah Island, S.C., and will begin play Friday in Greg Norman’s Shark Shootout benefiting Ronald McDonald Children’s Charities at the posh Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks.

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Pate’s father said his son hides the true depth of the disappointment he suffered.

“Steve doesn’t show his emotions,” Don Pate said. “But I was with him during those days and he felt a great disappointment at not being able to contribute to the team. He worked for two years for a chance at the Ryder Cup. And he barely missed making the team two years ago. This time he gets his chance, and then the limousine crashes.”

Norman, who has battled a wrist injury for several years and has had to withdraw from several tournaments, understands Pate’s frustration.

“I told him how sorry I felt for him,” Norman said. “When you work as hard as Steve did, you can’t imagine how he felt when an injury took him out of it. It’s a hard pill to swallow. But it was a freak of nature. There’s nothing he could have done about it. Now, he’s just got to forget it and go on.”

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Pate, 30, who was born in Ventura, played high school golf in Santa Barbara and had a standout career at UCLA, said the pain was lessened considerably when the U.S. side went on to defeat the Europeans and recapture the Ryder Cup.

“It was hard to believe, with golf being such an individual sport, but it was such a great team effort,” Pate said. “Golfers at this level have such big egos, it was hard to imagine that everyone could put them aside and become a team. But we did. Guys rooting for each other, thinking only about the team. There was such spirit.

“And so, when we won, I felt great too. If we had lost and I didn’t get a chance to contribute, I would have felt awful. But we won, and it was just great to be there, to be a little part of it. Even though I barely got to play, it was the highlight of my career. I got a bad break, that’s all. And as far as bad breaks in life in general, it wasn’t very bad at all. I got smashed in a car at 35 miles and hour and barely got hurt. I was lucky.”

Pate has not always had that type of attitude. During most of his seven-year PGA Tour career he has been something of a wild man, a younger and thinner version of the roaring Craig Stadler. More than once a television camera zoomed in on Pate after a shot went awry and hundreds of thousands of startled viewers got a crash-course in lip-reading as Pate vented his frustrations using profanity. In concert could be heard the thud of Pate’s golf club being pounded angrily against the turf.

“The Pater was a wildfire,” said 17-year PGA caddy Willie Miller, who often was within earshot of Pate’s tirades. “When a shot went just a little off-line, down went that club. And you didn’t want the kids standing too close when it happened.”

But this year, the anger seemed to subside. Pate said it is because he is getting older and has mellowed with the birth of another daughter, Sarah, to go with 3-year-old Nicole.

“It’s just age,” he said. “I can’t keep getting (teed) off all the time anymore. Things don’t bother me as much anymore.”

Miller offers another explanation, pointing out that the year Pate seemed to mellow is also the year he exploded onto the PGA Tour, vaulting from 36th on the money list in 1990 to sixth this year with earnings of $737,753. He won the Honda Classic in March ($180,000), finished second in the Atlanta Classic in May ($108,000), and finished third in The Masters in April ($65,000). He rocketed to No. 2 on the money list and held that position through August.

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“Pater may say he’s mellowed,” Miller said, “but I don’t think so. He used to get mad and bang those clubs when he made a bad shot. Well, this year he didn’t make many bad shots, that’s all. There wasn’t much reason to be banging those clubs all over the place.”

Miller said Pate should not try to change. Being mellow, according to the veteran caddy, could cost Pate a lot of money.

“Pater has to be that way,” Miller said. “That’s just him. He’s got that fire, a fire most guys don’t have. Some guys out here don’t have any fire at all. And they don’t win much. Steve Pate needs that fire. If you extinguish that fire in him, you won’t have Steve Pate. You’ll have someone else. And that new guy might not be any good.”

The new Pate, it should be noted, is still no candidate for the Ghandi Peace Award. The clubs still pound the ground on occasion. The words that would send a nun scampering for cover still escape his lips. A stream of tobacco juice still shoots from the mouth of the only player on the PGA Tour to chew the leaf.

Last week in Hawaii, where he finished in a three-way tie with Norman and Andy Bean in the Kapalua International, Pate said he knew he was relaxing “because I only got really (teed) off six times in 72 holes. I think it was a personal record.”

This week, Pate brings his somewhat-restrained personality and enormous golf skills to the Sherwood Country Club layout, a course just 20 minutes from his Agoura Hills home and one he has practiced on many times.

The unique tournament boasts a field of 20 of the world’s best players and legends, including Norman, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, three-time U.S. Open winner Hale Irwin, Raymond Floyd and Chi Chi Rodriguez. On Friday the two-man teams will play in a best-ball format. Saturday they will switch to an alternate-shot format and on Sunday the real fun begins when the elite field plays in the hacker’s delight, a scramble, in which each player hits a shot but both team members are allowed to hit the next shot from the best of the two locations.

The winners each earn $125,000. Last year’s victors, Floyd and Fred Couples, shot a three-day score of 34-under-par to win by five strokes.

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Pate, who will team with Irwin this year, hopes his knowledge of the course will be an advantage. He knows that playing so close to his home will be an advantage, with friends and family converging on the Sherwood course to cheer him on.

“Steve has a lot of friends here who seldom get to see him play anymore,” Don Pate said. “Let’s see just how many free passes he can get.”

And if Pate’s team should win the tournament, don’t expect a raucous party. Those days have passed, Pate said. He would celebrate another win quietly. With his family. And no matter how high he might climb on golf’s ladder, don’t expect a lot of TV commercials or endorsements, either.

“Steve won’t ever talk about how good he is at golf,” Don Pate said. “He never seeks publicity and often will shy away from it. Steve is just himself. His family matters the most.”

“The thing is,” Steve Pate said, “is that I don’t need all that attention. I know I cost myself a lot of money by being me, by being low-keyed and staying out of the spotlight, but that’s OK. How much money does a person need? I have enough for myself and my wife and my children, and we get to retain our privacy too.

“I want people to know who I am. I want people to recognize that I can play this game at the highest level. But beyond that, I don’t seek any recognition. If people don’t think of me as another Greg Norman, that’s OK. Just as long as they know I can play this game. And I think most people know that now.”

So with his seventh year on the PGA Tour coming to a close, Pate has come within shouting distance of the top of the golfing world. Does he have any wisdom to impart to those seeking to follow in his spiked footprints?

“Yeah,” Pate said without hesitation. “Stay the hell out of limousines. They’re bad news.”


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