Pate's flurry of birdies sends winds of bad luck all-a-flutter

April 11, 1999|By JOHN EISENBERG

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- He had such a temper when he was younger that his nickname in the clubhouse was Volcano.

His career has been derailed by three serious accidents, including one in which a deer ran over him while he was riding a bicycle in his driveway.

His recent run of luck was so bad that he barely made the 36-hole cut at the Masters after shooting a 75 in Friday's second round, then lost to his stepmother in a game of H-O-R-S-E at their rented house that night.

What's this man doing in contention at the Masters after three rounds?

It's amazing what seven straight birdies can overcome.

That's what Steve Pate put on the scoreboard yesterday on the way to shooting a 65, the lowest score in the tournament this year. He started the round in a tie for 29th place and ended in a tie for third, two strokes behind the leader, Jose Maria Olazabal.

"I've done a lot of amazing things in the last 15 years, some good and some bad," said Pate, 37, a veteran pro from Southern California who has won six titles in 14 years on the PGA Tour.

This certainly qualified as "good" or better. Never before had any golfer birdied seven straight holes at the Masters.

"I have no explanation for what happened out there," Pate said.

There was no indication that he was on the verge of a record performance. He totaled just four birdies in his first two rounds, finishing with a double-bogey and a bogey on Friday. He was teetering.

But golf, the most maddening of all games, often defies logic. After an early birdie put him in the right frame of mind yesterday, he sank an 8-foot putt for a birdie on No. 7 and suddenly got hot.

He dropped a 20-footer on No. 8 for his second straight birdie, then tapped in for another on No. 9 after putting his approach shot a foot from the hole. Then things got really crazy. He sank a 50-footer on No. 10, a 20-footer on No. 11 and tapped in on No. 12 after just missing a hole-in-one.

As roar after roar echoed through the grounds, his gallery suddenly tripled in size.

"People started appearing out of nowhere," he said. "They were coming out of the trees, like Big Foot."

After he rolled in a 7-footer on No. 13 for his seventh birdie in a row, his playing partner, Lee Westwood, waved a white towel at him, trying to cool him off.

"He was just kind of laughing," Pate said. "There isn't too much to be said when you make a 50-footer and back it up with a 20-footer."

He settled down after that and even gave back a stroke to par with a 3-putt on No. 17, but he'd made his move from the bottom of the pack to near the top of the leader board.

"I'm looking forward to [the final round]," he said. "I always thought this [tournament] was my best chance to win a major. I usually don't 3-putt much, which is important here."

He finished third and sixth in successive years at Augusta National in the early '90s, when he was one of the top players on the tour and renowned for his temper. His bad shots set off impressive tantrums in those days.

But all that changed after a succession of accidents and injuries set him back. He suffered multiple bruises in a limo accident at the Ryder Cup in 1993, then really beat himself up when he drove his car into a truck at 75 mph in 1996.

"I broke my hand and my wrist and probably should have come out a lot worse," he said.

He was unable to play for a year, then further injured himself during the layoff when a deer being chased by his son crashed into him one day at home.

"Luckily," he said, "the deer only weighed 40 pounds."

The accidents and the year off effectively killed off his tempestuous alter ego, the Volcano.

"I realized that playing poorly was better than not playing at all," he said, "and hitting a bad shot really wasn't a big deal in the grand scheme of things."

He finished in the money in 15 of 28 tournaments in his comeback season in 1997, then won a tournament last summer to qualify for the Masters this year. He'd last played here in 1993.

"Are you going to walk to the course [before today's final round], given your history of car accidents?" someone asked yesterday.

"Oh, no," he said. "I believe in taking chances."

If he makes it to the first tee, he'll take on a field that has narrowed to an impressive set of contenders. Olazabal won the Masters in 1994. Greg Norman, in second place, has won two major titles. Pate is tied for third with Davis Love, who won the 1997 PGA championship. Among those a stroke behind Pate are Ernie Els and Lee Janzen, each a two-time U.S. Open winner.

And hey, Tiger Woods is just five strokes off Olazabal's lead after shooting three quiet rounds of par or better.

As always, the Masters is wide open heading into the final round.

And Pate, of all people, is right in the middle of the mix.

Just don't ask him to explain what he's doing there.

Pub Date: 4/11/99

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