Town Carolina Features Cross Winds and Sam Pate in May Issue
Cross Winds Golf Club has lightning-fast greens, signature holes, and an owner larger than life.
Just about every warm Wednesday evening a “skins game” takes place at Cross Winds Golf Club, off of I-385 in Greenville. Around 6:15 p.m., golfers of all shapes, sizes, and abilities pull into the parking lot and step out of mini vans, convertibles, work trucks, and SUVs. They steady themselves against their vehicles and replace boots, loafers, and Crocs with golf shoes and sneakers. Most remove their driver from their golf bag before heading to the small clubhouse where they give their name and $25 to the man behind the counter. Then it’s out through the back door and on to the practice green for a few quick putts. The practice green, like the other 18 greens, is cool-season bent grass, grown tight and cut short. Cross Wind’s greens are smooth and deceptively fast, like rolling marbles on a mirror. The greens are better than they should be—in fact, for a par-three course next to an Interstate, they are better than they have any right to be. An avid golfer just back from the Low country comments, “I don’t think you could find better greens anywhere in the state right now.” Those within earshot agree.
The variety of players this evening is stunning. There’s a single dad, a former Atlanta Braves pitcher, an auto-body repairman, and a slim blonde whose tight outfit serves as a distracting strategy. There are limber twenty-somethings and pot-bellied 60-year-olds. There are Polo shirts tucked into flat-front khakis and printed t-shirts billowing above cargo shorts. Crosswinds is truly an equal-opportunity golf course.
A few yards from the green, a man stands off to himself, casually watching the proceedings. He’s pushing 70 and seems slightly weak but his handshake is sturdy and firm. He’s wearing khaki shorts and sport sandals and his brown windbreaker stands guard against the evening air. His thinning hair is cut close above his ears where tiny translucent tubes snake around and disappear into the canals. “Hello, Sam,” the former big league pitcher calls out. “Hey, Sam,” yells the single dad. “Good to see you, Sam,” shouts the auto-body repairman. Most of the players know the founder and owner of Cross Winds, and Sam Pate knows most of them in return—“Hello, Jose”—“Hello, Trent”—“Where’s your brother tonight, Rob?”
If you play Cross Winds, you will come to know Sam Pate. He’s there almost every day. Sometimes to check up on things, or roll a few putts on the practice green, or maybe just to walk nine by himself, part of his long and continued rehabilitation.
At 6:30 p.m., a man with a clipboard emerges from the clubhouse and ascends the first tee. “Listen up,” yells Jim Cadieux, the general manager and golf pro. Jim goes over the game’s rules, which takes about fifteen seconds, then assigns players their starting hole.
Pate watches proudly as the group of around 40 breaks apart in all directions across his course. He had no experience in the golf business when he built Cross Winds in 1997. “I went into it recognizing the fact I didn’t know much,” he says. “I tried to think of everything that could go wrong. Double lung transplant was one thing I didn't think of.”
Two weeks earlier Sam Pate sat at an outdoor table at Adams Bistro off Pelham Road and lunched on chicken, pinto beans, and collard greens. “When the leaves are off you can see the course from here,” he says, pointing across the parking lot. Pate is popular here, as well. Without asking, he’s brought a glass filled with half tea, half lemonade, and almost every employee offers an enthusiastic, “Hey, Sam!” He returns their greetings by name. Pate is catching up with John LaFoy, lunch companion and one of the founding partners of Cross Winds. LaFoy, a Greenville-based golf course architect with a Foghorn Leghorn voice is a designer whose talent has taken him from Augusta National to past president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects. Pate first met LaFoy in 1997 after Pate’s friend, the executive director of the downtown airport, asked Pate if he had any ideas, or interest, in developing a piece of land near one of the runways. At the time the parcel was cleared but zoning restrictions had limited it to a 29-acre eyesore. “I said you might have room for a par three,” Pate recalls.
Pate negotiated a 40-year lease on the land, and LaFoy had the audacious, and brilliant, idea to ask seventeen of his architect friends to design one hole each. “The hard part was to get seventeen architects to do it without having to pay them,” says LaFoy. All but one accepted the offer. The result is mind-boggling: a par-three course with holes designed by Rees Jones, Tom Fazio and Tom Marzoff, Bob Cupp, and Pete and Alice Dye, among others.
Pate has owned Cross Winds outright since 2002 but the course is not his only job. “I’m a salesman,” he says when asked what he does for a living. “I’ve been with the same company for 32 years.” Pate sells paper business forms, a product slowly being eliminated by technology.
Over the years Pate has learned the golf business is much like his other job: it’s based on relationships, on remembering names and being memorable. He’s also learned to slow down and smell the collard greens, as a double lung transplant in 2008 kept him in the hospital for three months and on a treadmill for much of five years. “I’ve been very, very fortunate,” he says.
Back at the skins game, the floodlights are on and the last few putts are rolled through eerily long shadows. Pate has gone home, the temperature has dropped and a final plane descends over the course into darkness. Soon the results will be tallied and the winners goaded into buying a round at a bar somewhere nearby. When the parking lot empties, Jim will turn off the lights, lock the door and close the gate on another long day.
Tomorrow, grass will be cut and bunkers raked and somewhere one fewer business form will be sold. And Sam Pate will shake hands and remember names and maybe roll a few putts on mirror-slick greens, all while feeling grateful for his friends, for his course, and for every single breath.