At Last, a Big P(l)ate!
For many amateur golf observers, it wouldn't have made much difference which one of the leading pairs of competitors on the final day of the SCGA landmark 100th Amateur Championship ended up with the trophy. Both Jon Pate and Scott McGihon enjoy popularity among their peers.
As it was, Pate, after a long career in amateur golf as "Steve Pate's brother" emerged with the title by a single stroke, after birdieing the last two holes at Industry Hills' Eisenhower Course.
Had Scott McGihon been able to hang on to the lead he'd owned or shared for almost the entire 72 holes, there would have been no less cheer. McGihon, son of former Los Angeles CC pro Glenn McGihon (who caddied for Scott) is due, you see. After three years of edging ever closer to the title, the 31-year-old schoolteacher from Bermuda Dunes had it in his grasp.
Until the 39-year-old stockbroker from Santa Barbara did some back breaking with a pair of magnificent late shots.
Up to now, Pate's main claim to fame had been a series of qualifying's for the U.S. Amateur and Mid-Amateur, several club and Santa Barbara area titles, a close runner-up finish in the California Amateur four years ago, and a Tournament of Club Champions title back in 1987 — his only SCGA crown, until that July Sunday at Industry Hills.
As a consummate Mid-Amateur (the USGA created that 25-and-over competition category just about the time John was reaching that age), some of his most memorable disappointments have come at that level. The most infamous was the 1988 SCGA Mid-Amateur at Santa Ana Country Club when he splashed his tee shot at a par-three 11th hole three times in a row to take a 10 and lose a six-stroke lead on the way to a crash-and-burn round of 84 posted on his 29th birthday.
Ten birthdays later, Pate was on the opposite end of the meter having completed four rounds on two of Southern California's most challenging courses in one-over-par.
He started the final day one back of McGihon, whose SCGA history resembles Pate's in that he's often a qualifier for national events, usually in the hunt for major Southern California titles, but doesn't have many blue ribbons hanging from his corral.
It appeared all weekend long that the soft-spoken McGihon would realize the promise that three cloes finishes in this championship made evident. He fired a 69 Friday morning on the Zaharias Course to tie for low score of the day (the players swapped courses during the 36-hole opening day before the cut), then managed a 74 in the afternoon over the Eisenhower course and held on to a share of the lead with 17-year-old Steve Conway of Dove Canyon at the midway point.
Conway, who lost California Amateur medalist honors in a playoff a month earlier, then beat McGihon in match play, evaporated on Saturday on the Zaharias, but McGihon, Pate and Mark Etue of Carlsbad, the 1974 Los Angeles City High School champion, all shot 72s and were three stokes apart as they marched out to the Ike on the final morning.
Despite a major gaffe at No. 3 (where a missed 30-incher resulted in a double0bogey), McGihon birdied four of the first six holes, highlighted by a 20-foot birdie putt at No. 4 and a 30-footer at No. 6. He had gained a stroke advantage on Pate by the turn.
But if no one else saw the writing on the wall in the form of Pate's short-game ball striking, McGihon did. "I could feel my swing getting shaky," he said later, "and John was really solid."
At the 206-yard fifth hole, Pate dropped his tee shot within 18-inches for his first bird of the day. Only a little seesawing occurred until the 16th hole, just after McGihon had missed a short birdie putt on No. 15 and a chance to cushion himself by three strokes. McGihon's approach shot at the 403-yard uphill 16th to a long diagonal green wound up left, about 80 feet away from the flagstick. That became a three-putt bogey to Pate's par, setting the stage.
Pate, who needed to completely refill his bag only a few weeks before after thieves broke into a van during a golf outing in Ireland and stole all his clubs, carries four wedges.
At the 325-yard 17th, Pate plopped his pitching-wedge shot 18 inches from the cup and birdied the hole minutes later. At 18, a tape replay — gap wedge approach at the tournament's longest hole to within two feet, and another birdie. McGihon's last gasp was exhaled when he missed a 20-foot birdie in front of a large gallery.
"When you haven't won that much by the time you get to my age, you really appreciate it a lot more," Pate said, smiling broadly, "I didn't really think much about having a chance to win until the birdie at 17."
Two other golfers did, though, and made moves that fell a bit short.
One was Craig Steinberg, who has already won four of these titles and was sitting five strokes off the pace going into the final round. "I'm very much in the hunt," he affirmed Sunday morning. Putting woes plagued the Van Nuys optometrist/lawyer, including a missed six-incher Saturday and a 17-putt front nine on Sunday.
His closing 70 left him at 290, tied with Etue, who was never able to gain any ground on the two golfers just ahead of him, despite his best finish ever in an SCGA event. Missed three-footers on two of the last three holes sealed his fate.
Another "almost" finsiher was defending champion Greg Padilla, whose third-round 76 had helped dig him a seven-stoke hole. Just as he had done a year ago in capturing the title at The SCGA Members' Club, Padilla rallied with a round-best 69 Sunday to total 291, along in fifth place. That finish would exempt him into the California Amateur, as well as the 2000 SCGA Amateur. However, Padilla, who just wrapped up a career at Arizona State, said he was mulling a decision about trying the PGA Tour Q-school.
Meanwhile, John Pate's going to try to make it back-to-back. And Scott McGihon, who prophetically said at the tournament's midway point, "one of these years I hope I'll be leading after four rounds", rest assured, will be back for more.