BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- All the important names, including such legendary golf figures as Palmer, Nicklaus, Player, Trevino and Rodriguez, competed in the U.S. Senior Open and, of course, the for-the-record champion, Larry Laoretti. But the winner, overwhelmingly, is a 9-year-old boy from Baltimore who wasn't listed on the pairing sheet. A walk-on.
Meet Jimmy Pataki, who drew such attention from Chi Chi Rodriguez and Jack Nicklaus that they let him play during a practice round. At least part of one hole. Rodriguez asked his newfound friend what club he should hit from a bunker and then let him make two putts on the green -- while a gallery, numbering into the thousands, realizing what it was witnessing, reacted to the scene with spontaneous applause.
Jimmy Pataki is the son of Dr. Andrew Pataki, who serves on the staffs of St. Agnes and Howard County hospitals. They live across from the 11th hole of the Rolling Road Golf Course and Jimmy goes there to swing a club and participate in the junior classes.
The teachers at St. Mark's School report Jimmy is a straight-A student. And Rodriguez, Palmer and Nicklaus agree Jimmy can be the fourth member of their foursome any time he wants to play. The emotional highlight that could never be matched at the U.S. Open involved Rodriguez, Nicklaus and, yes, Jimmy Pataki.
TC When Jimmy asked Chi Chi for his autograph on the eighth hole at Saucon Valley Country Club, he was invited to join him in the walk down the fairway. Rodriguez even asked the happy youngster what club to use for his next shot. Since he was trapped in a bunker, Jimmy answered, "sand wedge."
Chi Chi told him if he would like to draw it out of his bag then go right ahead. And he did. Rodriguez made the shot and now Jimmy accompanied him to the green. It was there he introduced Jimmy to Nicklaus, who decided to designate Jimmy as his substitute putter. "Is it a straight putt?" asked Nicklaus. "OK, go ahead and make it," he told the boy-golfer.
And with a hushed crowd looking on, Jimmy made the stroke from four feet away and the ball, shucks, missed the cup by a fraction. Chi Chi put down another ball, encouraging Jimmy to try again. "Keep your head still," Nicklaus suggested. And this time, with more spectators watching than Jimmy knew there were people in the world, he hit the ball dead-center of the cup.
Rodriguez, ever the crowd-pleaser, whirled his putter sword-like. Jimmy did the same. Then they placed the putter/swords back into their make-believe scabbards. When he rejoined his father and brother Timmy, he carried two golf balls autographed by his "partners" and the one he had putted in the cup for Nicklaus.
"Boy, was that fun!" exclaimed Jimmy, who has a smile that would melt concrete. The visit to the U.S. Senior Open was close by Slatington, Pa., where Dr. Pataki grew up before he went to Moravian College and the medical school at Rutgers. But the Patakis were there to view the golf and for Jimmy to get autographs. The story of how he met Chi Chi and took over the putting for Nicklaus was later spread across Page 1 of the Allentown Morning Call.
There are three boys and a girl in the Pataki family and golf is their main sporting interest. Jimmy has a problem but doesn't complain. He was born with a rare disease, Treacher-Collins, an affliction that has changed his facial bone structure. Treatments and surgery continue but Jimmy never feels sorry for himself. His parents, brothers and sister are at all times supportive. They handle him as any kid wants to be treated.
"He takes it all in stride," says his father. "He makes it easy for the rest of us. Just a wonderful son. The surgery in the hospital is mostly cosmetic. But he never asks for extra attention. After being up there on the green with Chi Chi and Jack he was walking on air."
Last January, after visiting Stanford Medical Center, the Patakis, father and son, went to Pebble Beach. It was the day after Arnold Palmer won the Skins Tournament and they were surprised to see him on the practice green. Jimmy went over and Palmer received him warmly.
In fact, they walked all 18 holes, inside the ropes, as Palmer played a practice round. Arnold, always considerate, said, "How are you feeling, Jimmy?" And Jimmy looked up to tell him, "A whole lot better after meeting you." Palmer was taken aback, thinking how little he had done but what it had meant to a child who had just been through an operation.
Bill Bassler, the pro at Rolling Road, said stories circulate how athletes, too often rude, are ignorant of their role with the public. "Something like this makes up for everything," he said. "But don't forget Jimmy is one swell kid. And his parents are the best. I've always said it takes special understanding to accept such a role. God knew what he was doing because he picked the Patakis for the responsibility."
Jimmy Pataki, of course, will never forget the day he heard the cheers. And neither will Rodriguez, Nicklaus and the thousands who witnessed a child "playing" in the U.S. Senior Open.
He won their hearts.