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Column: A strong field, a weak decision
PGA Championship Golf Heal 2
Jerry Pate hits on the range before a practice round for the PGA Championship golf tournament Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2011, at the Atlanta Athletic Club in Johns Creek, Ga. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel) - photo by Associated Press

    JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — There was a charm about John Daly winning the PGA Championship that was more than just his awesome length.
    It was his opportunity.
    Daly was the ninth alternate 20 years ago, a PGA Tour rookie and the last man in the field when Nick Price withdrew to be with his wife for the birth of their first child.
    It was an example why the final major of the year might be the toughest to win because it has the strongest field. Even the alternates are good enough to win.
    What a coincidence that Daly and Jerry Pate will be in the same group this week at Atlanta Athletic Club.
    Pate asked the PGA of America for a special invitation this year as his "farewell to golf" in his home state, where he won his only major back in 1976, when Gerald Ford was still in office.
    The PGA of America for some reason obliged.
    And because of that invitation, an alternate — like Daly was in 1991 — won't have a chance to win.
    This is ceremonial golf at its worst. The 57-year-old Pate confirmed as much Sunday when he finished the 3M Championship in Minnesota on the Champions Tour, where he tied for 73rd.
    "I'm not going there with high expectations about my golf game as far as being competitive in the field," Pate said. "But I'm going there for the enjoyment of just seeing old friends and playing the golf course."
    Paul Goydos, who shot 59 on the PGA Tour last year, is the first alternate. A little bit farther down the list is Chad Campbell, who tied for fifth last month in the British Open at Royal St. George's.
    Pate isn't the oldest player at the PGA Championship this week.
    Larry Nelson is 63, hasn't won a Champions Tour event in seven years and stands little chance of making the cut. He didn't ask for a special invitation because he didn't need one — Nelson is a two-time PGA champion who is exempt for life, although he stopped playing this major five years ago.
    This is the 30-year anniversary of his PGA win at Atlanta Athletic Club. And on Wednesday night, he is being honored with the Distinguished Service Award, the group's highest honor.
    Pate not only didn't win a PGA Championship, the last time he made the cut in this major was in 1983, the year Herschel Walker left Georgia and signed with the USFL.
    The PGA Championship, and to a lesser extent the U.S. Open, is known to celebrate major champions if there is a special connection with either the tournament or the course. There's nothing wrong with that. What seems out of place with this invitation is that the PGA already gave one to Pate the last time it was in Atlanta.   
That was 10 years ago.
    "There are a few times in the history of the championship that we've looked at players who have won majors connected with a certain venue," PGA chief executive Joe Steranka said.

He mentioned Hale Irwin in 1999 at Medinah, the Chicago area course where Irwin high-fived his way to a U.S. Open title in 1990 when he was 45. Irwin was four shots off the lead going into the weekend and tied for 41st. When the PGA returned to Medinah in 2006, Irwin did not merit another invitation.

So why is Pate back at Atlanta Athletic Club?

"Jerry asked," Steranka said. "He said he'd like to make this his farewell to major championship golf, and do it at a place where he had a special relationship. We thought it was a good idea."

A farewell to major championship golf.

Even in Atlanta, it doesn't quite evoke the same image as Jack Nicklaus crossing the Swilcan Bridge at St. Andrews.

When asked if he went to the PGA for an invitation, Pate said, "No, they invited me to play," and then he shared tales of his U.S. Open win that would have made Johnny Miller proud.

"It was a pretty historical event, being 22 and hitting a 5-iron to 2 feet on the last hole," Pate said. "They got a plaque out there in the fairway. I would say it's a historical event for the club. I was born in Georgia. My family moved to Georgia in the 1800s, so I'm a Georgia. It's like going back home to Atlanta."

Pate had Hall of Fame talent and never had a chance to fulfill his potential because of injuries to his shoulder and back. Despite his short time with good health, he won eight times, including the U.S. Open and The Players Championship, famous for Pate using an orange golf ball and shoving former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman and TPC Sawgrass architect Pete Dye into the lake on the 18th.

Let's be clear about a couple of things.

The PGA of America can invite anyone it wants, and past champions who have achieved great things can be more appealing than a tour player hardly anyone knows.

And the alternates — Goydos would be the first to agree with this — have no one to blame but themselves for not being in the field. Of all the majors, the PGA Championship is the most accommodating to PGA Tour players. The PGA uses invitations to make sure it has the top 100 in the world (100 out of 102 this year), it uses what amounts to a PGA Tour money list to take the top 70 players and beyond.

The 156-man field includes 20 top club pros, who also belong in the field. That's the PGA's heritage.

But a former U.S. Open champion who already was given a chance to soak up the memories 10 years ago? For a major that promotes the strongest field in golf, that was a weak decision.