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Pate takes the plunge

A soaking wet Jerry Pate emerged from the water beside the 18th green, triumphant but tearful. It had been a long time since such a plunge, a long time since a productive career had been curtailed by injury, a long time since a 5-iron shot to the final green set up a victory.

Once among the most promising young players in the game, with a U.S. Open and Players Championship title on his resume and seemingly a slew of trophies in his future, Pate suffered a shoulder injury with one fateful swing and would never win again.

Until Sunday.

This time, it was a shot to 12 feet that set up a birdie putt that Pate converted for a one-shot victory over Hale Irwin, Mark James and Morris Hatalsky in the Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am at the TPC of Tampa Bay.

The finish brought back memories of another 5-iron approach, the one to the 72nd hole at Atlanta Athletic Club in 1976 that led to his winning birdie putt at the U.S. Open.

This was Pate's first victory on the Champions Tour, his first anywhere since he won the 1982 Players Championship and jumped into the lake beside the green at the TPC Sawgrass with then-PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman and course designer Pete Dye.

Eyeing the water again, Pate figured, why not?

"I felt like there was unfinished busness, like I had something to prove," said Pate, 52, who won $240,000 from the $1.6-million purse. "That's what keeps you coming back, right here in your heart. I just feel blessed to be able to come out here and play again."

Pate shot 5-under 66 to finish the 54-hole event at 202, 11 under. For most of the day, he lurked behind James (68) and Irwin (68), who shared the second-round lead with Mark McNulty, and Hatalsky, who shot 64 and narrowly missed a birdie putt on the final hole.

McNulty (73) had fallen out of contention, but the others had a chance coming to the 18th hole. James, playing in the same group with Pate, missed the green and had to get up and down for par then watched Pate hole what turned out to be the winning putt.

Playing a group behind, Irwin bogeyed the 17th hole after knocking his approach into a bunker to fall into a tie with Pate, James and Hatalsky. After Pate birdied, a poor drive left Irwin with a tough shot to the 18th green and a 50-foot birdie putt that he could not convert.

"Same refrain as last week," said Irwin, the defending Outback champion and 44-time winner on the Champions Tour who let a chance to win the ACE Group Classic in Naples slip away with a final-hole double bogey.

"I played some of my worst golf down the stretch. I had my chances. I just did not have them on the last three holes."

Pate came onto the tour with a good bit of fanfare two years ago but had been unable to win. He let excellent opportunities pass at the 2004 Tradition and last year's Senior PGA Championship, where he three-putted the final hole to fall into a playoff, which he lost to Mike Reid.

Afterward, there was a good deal of second-guessing as Pate elected to lay up rather than go for the green in two, which likely would have set up an easy two-putt birdie and victory.

"You know, I haven't laid up in my life," said Pate, who lives in Pensacola. "To sit there and lay up and lose the tournament, it was disheartening."

No more so, however, than seeing his career all but end when he was poised to be a star.

Starting in 1976, when Pate won the U.S. Open, through that Players Championship in 1982, he won eight times and finished outside the top 10 on the PGA Tour money list just once.

He had won the 1974 U.S. Amateur at 20, the U.S. Open at 22. The only others to win those titles at such an early age were Bobby Jones and Jack Nicklaus. Only 11 players have won both, the last three being Nicklaus, Pate and Tiger Woods.

After winning the Players that year, Pate missed a playoff at the Masters by a stroke. Then just like that, it was all gone. While practicing, Pate heard something pop in his left shoulder.

He tried to play through it. . Three surgeries followed. Another occurred three years ago as he was preparing for the Champions Tour.

"You think you can do no wrong," Pate said. "It's a huge, deflating ego-buster when you get hurt and all of a sudden you are gone. You're like a Heisman Trophy guy blowing his knee out and you can't run anymore."

Pate never posted another top 10 on the PGA Tour, but he never sulked. For 10 years, he did television commentary and became involved in business ventures, including a Toro distributorship, a turf farm, golf course design and several charitable causes.

But it's not the same as being soaked in victory.

"I didn't dream I would have to make birdie to win," Pate said. "To come in there and make that putt it was like magic."

Jerry Pate emerges from the lake at the 18th green after his victory. Pate also took a bath after winning the 1982 Players Championship. Hale Irwin, top, who tied for second one shot back, reacts after missing a putt at 18. That came after a poor drive and a bogey at No. 17.

Jerry Pate, who won his first Champions Tour event, celebrates making a birdie putt at No. 18. The putt came after he hit a 5-iron to within 12 feet of the hole.

Hale Irwin lines up a 50-foot birdie putt at No. 18. He would have forced a playoff had he made it.

Mark James who finished one back of the winner, reacts to his chip out of the rough at No. 18.