By Marino Parascenzo, Special to PGA.com
LIGONIER, Pa. -- Jerry Pate, who once thought he left his golf career on a windy shore in Florida, suddenly finds himself on the verge of resurrection.
Well, not so suddenly, not if you count three shoulder surgeries, a ton of pain, a college degree and a television career.
Pate is halfway home, anyway. He shot a 4-under-par 68 Friday to slip into a one-stroke lead over the bulldoggish R.W. Eaks through the second round of the 66th Senior PGA Championship at Laurel Valley.
In case anyone forgot, this was the same Jerry Pate, a rookie in the 1976 U.S. Open at the Atlanta Athletic Club, who faced a career-maker at the final hole. The ball was in light rough, on a bank above his feet. He never looked away. He fired a 5-iron from 195 yards to about 2 feet, and sank the putt to win the Open.
"Patience," said Pate, now 51, in explaining his success in big events on tough courses. He was, for example, runner-up to John Mahaffey in the 1978 PGA Championship at Oakmont, and runner-up to Hale Irwin in the 1979 U.S. Open at Inverness.
"And I just like to play the more difficult courses," he said.
Pate won eight times on the PGA Tour, and it was in preparation for the 1982 British Open that it all came to an end. Trying to get his game ready for the winds at Royal Troon, he went to a Florida shore to fight the breezes. In the process, something in his left shoulder went bad. His PGA Tour career was about over. He's been operated on three times.
The improbable R.W. Eaks, playing in his second Senior PGA, was one of few to eagle the wicked par-5 18th in the first round. He parred it Friday for a 70-139, and this after a four-bogey front nine.
"Probably one of the better comebacks I've made," said Eaks, who won three times on the Nationwide Tour, but never on the PGA Tour or in three seasons on the Champions Tour.
He was chuckling Friday. After that near-disaster of a start -- four bogeys in his first five holes -- "Then we came to my favorite hole, the 8th [a par-3]. And the putt took about 15 seconds to get there, and it went in. It broke about 12 feet."
Mike Reid, the original "Radar" (after the boyish TV character in MASH), shot another 70 and Zimbabwe's Mark McNulty shot a tournament-low 66 to tie for third at 140.
Hale Irwin, the defending champion and a four-time winner of the Senior PGA, blew himself back into the pack with a late and totally uncharacteristic crash. He was well in the hunt until he double-bogeyed the par-4 sixth, his 16th hole. Another bogey left him with a 75 and a par-144, a grudging but not insurmountable six shots off the lead.
Pate, maybe the only pro to graduate from college (Alabama) with his daughter at his side -- this in 2001 -- is one of the toughest comeback stories in golf. Though he hasn't come back completely. After his golf career was pretty much done, he spent much of the 1990s in the TV booth and also designed some golf courses and was a distributor for various outdoor equipment. The Champions Tour was his mulligan -- after another surgery on the shoulder, in 2003. Plus painful rehabilitation.
He finally joined the Champions Tour in 2004 and finished second twice. He's tied for fourth and sixth in eight tournaments so far this year.
He started at No. 10 Friday, and two birdies and two bogeys left him at par for the day and still chasing the lead. The bogey at the dogleg 18th, he figured, came as a result of some personal history.
"It was the worst shot I think I've ever hit in my professional career, bar none," Pate said. He had 175 yards to the green, cutting off the dogleg across the lake. He thought he needed a 5-iron into the wind.
"And I hit a fat 4-iron instead," he said. "I hit it so fat, trying to cut it on a downhill slope, that I came up short of the lake in the rough. I wedged across the lake, rolled through the green into the rough. Pitched out, missed the putt and made 6."
Coming home, on the front nine, was like that graduation walk. Four birdies -- a wedge and a 10-footer at No. 3, a 4-wood and two putts from 30 feet at the sixth, a 9-iron approach and as 30-footer uphill at the seventh, and a 4-iron to 10 feet at the par-3 eighth. All for a sparkling 32, a 68 and a 1-shot lead.
And the advice of his doctor, Jim Andrews, was starting to make sense.
"He said, 'You're never going to get well, Jerry -- this is your last chance. You got to get your shoulder and work out strong.' "
In a word, that 68 was just what the doctor ordered.