It did not go unnoticed. Neither did a similar sign at the course’s main entrance.
But truth be told, Pate felt right at home from the moment he turned off the interstate.
The 1976 U.S. Open champion was back in town Wednesday lending his name and support to the Vaughn Stewart Benefit Golf Tournament for the Anniston Community Education Foundation.
It wasn’t the first time Pate had been back in the Model City — he was inducted into the Calhoun County Sports Hall of Fame in 2006 — but it was the first time he had been back on the property since the Army turned over the course to the city and he was involved in discussions about its long-term development.
He used part of Wednesday’s trip to revisit his old haunts. He stopped by the house he grew up in on Mark Woods Drive and drove through the old neighborhood, passing the homes of his boyhood friends. He visited Oxford Mayor Leon Smith and then former Anniston Mayor Chip Howell, now the general manager of Anniston Country Club.
It was truly a drive down memory lane.
“Your home’s always your home; Anniston will always be my home,” said Pate, who now lives in Pensacola, Fla. “You never forget your roots. I’ll never forget that this is my home.
“When Sam (Stewart) asked me help Vaughn (an Anniston mayoral candidate), I called him back three weeks later and asked which side he was running on, because I’m a Republican. He said it’s a non-partisan race and I said that’s good because my Republicans in Alabama and Florida would hate for me to be spending money and time on the Democrats right now because it’s so divided.”
And that allowed him to dovetail into his only political pitch of the day.
“We need uniters, not dividers,” Pate said. “I’m hoping Vaughn — or whoever gets elected to mayor of Anniston — will take this town and grow it. There are so many people who love to live in this city. It’s got a lot of opportunities. People have to work together. People have to help other people. When we divide people through political or personal or religious and moral issues, you can’t get people to come together for the bottom line, for the basic needs.”
Pate was born in Macon, Ga., but spent his formative years in Anniston before his family moved away. He regaled Wednesday’s tournament players with stories of how his father would drop him off at Anniston Country Club on his way to work at Sunny King Ford and, with the dollar he was given in his pocket, he’d spend all day playing behind the caddies.
That’s how he learned the game, and that’s the way he’s starting a memoir that continues to be a work in progress.
He went on to play at Alabama, won the 1974 U.S. Amateur and 10 times on the PGA and Champions tours, most famously the ’76 Open as a Tour rookie. But his playing career was cut short by injuries and surgeries (four in the nine years he’s been on the Champions Tour alone).
He also has a vibrant course design business and counts Limestone Springs, Kiva Dunes, TPC Sawgrass Valley course and Shoal Creek’s practice facility among his work.
In that capacity, he wouldn’t mind getting his hands on Cane Creek. The course has always been considered one of the best layouts around — a George Cobb design — it but could stand a little TLC to return it to past form.
“I think the golf course has a great potential; it could be tweaked,” he said. “It’s a great local and great venue out here sitting in the valley at the base of the mountain.
“I’d love to redo the golf course here. I think as a public facility it would be one of the best in the state.”
Pate was stopping by the event, which raised $5,000 for local education, on his way to an annual reunion of Walker Cup players in Highlands, N.C., that benefits a local hospital. That’s mostly the kind of golf he plays these days. He played six times this year and eight each of the previous two years.
No doubt, at some point during the reunion the conversation and an occasional glance will turn to this week’s final major — the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course.
Pate played in it last year — just as he did in 2001 — when Glory’s Last Shot was staged at the Atlanta Athletic Club, the site of his 1976 U.S. Open victory. It’s a safe bet he’s happier to be where he is this weekend than there.
“I played there in the (2007) Senior PGA when Denis Watson won; it’s the most diabolical golf course that I’ve ever played,” he said. “I thought the TPC Sawgrass (where he won the first Tournament Players Championship played there in 1982) was the most diabolical ever, but (course designer) Pete Dye outdid himself.
“I don’t want to say it’s unfair, but it’s unfair. It’s not a fair golf course.”
Nobody said winning a major was going to be easy. If anybody should know, it’s Pate.
Al Muskewitz covers golf for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.