Editor’s note: This column originally published in The Charlotte Observer on May 11, 1986.
Of all the people in sports with whom I have crossed paths over the years, most of whom I admired and enjoyed and some of whom became my friends, my favorite remains and will almost certainly remain Billy Joe Patton.
I almost added, “a golfer from Morganton, ” but that no more describes Patton than “a writer” describes Mark Twain. The time and place of our most frequent encounters undoubtedly has something to do with the joy that Patton’s name evokes, as it did these past few days when, at age 64, he was playing in the N.C. Senior Amateur at Charlotte Country Club.
The time would be the years between the mid-’50s and mid-’60s when he was in full flight as our most exciting and colorful amateur golfer, and the place would be Pinehurst, where he had some of his finest moments. There are two reasons I mention all of this now. One is that the North & South Amateur, which Patton won three times, begins Monday in Pinehurst. That brings memories of sweet days covering the North & South in the softness of springtime with its sunshine and soft perfume from blossoming shrubs, and the longleaf pines and the elegance of that lovely village gushing back. The second is that a young man who appeared to be in his mid-20s dropped by the office a few days ago to talk some golf and when I mentioned the name of Billy Joe Patton, he said, “Yes, I’ve heard of him.”
Heard of him, that’s all? Well, of course. The years slip by so rapidly, we often forget that a generation has passed and that visions that are still so vivid in our minds are not shared by the young. Patton is a treasure that ought to be preserved, so let me tell you about him. But how, in so little space and time? First, let’s get the numbers out of the way. Patton won three North & South Amateurs (one of the country’s most highly regarded amateur tournaments), two Southern Amateurs and several lesser tournaments. He won 20 consecutive matches at Pinehurst against stiff opposition at one stretch. He played on five Walker Cup teams and six other international teams. He twice led the U.S. Open after 36 holes, finishing as low amateur in both, and was twice low amateur in The Masters. He is in two halls of fame and in 1982 won the Bobby Jones Award presented by the U.S. Golf Association in recognition of distinguished sportsmanship in golf. But that is relatively lifeless information.
This was Billy Joe: In 1954, he led The Masters after one round, was tied for the lead after two, fell five shots back after three but then played himself back into it early in the final round with some brilliant golf, including a hole-in-one at the sixth. But he was a daring player whose fast swing and go-for-broke attitude regularly put him in honeysuckle and behind trees throughout his career. (Nothing he couldn’t handle, usually, because he had marvelous imagination and an ability to extract himself from peril that I’ve never seen equaled.) He chanced reaching the green in two on the par-five 13th hole on that final round at The Masters, when he was galloping neck and-neck with no less than Ben Hogan and Sam Snead, and found water. He walked off the 13th with a double bogey.
As he went to the next tee, he noted the dejection in his huge gallery and said, “Let’s smile again.” Another visit to water after a long-odds gamble on the 15th did him in, and he finished one shot behind Hogan and Snead, who tied for the championship and played off the next day, Snead winning. Playing Labron Harris in the semifinals of the U.S. Amateur at Pinehurst, Patton found himself two down at the 13th. He had about a 6-foot putt for birdie to win the hole.
To snap himself out of the doldrums into which his game had fallen, he went into his golf bag, pulled out a pair of bent-up glasses that looked like he had sat on them, which he had, and a beat-up cap, and put them on. Then he holed the putt. He won the next hole to even the match but then, his game being like the wind, he hit an awful shot, lost the hole and eventually the match. Once in the North & South, playing extra holes, Patton found his tee shot on the second hole, which runs alongside a road, in a downhill lie in heavy rough. He had no chance to reach the green with his next shot.
As he dug in to whack at the ball, a car stopped nearby and a woman asked one of the spectators if he knew where she could find a room. Patton, hearing this, never looked up. “Just wait a few minutes and you can have mine.”
After he had won the Southern Amateur on the same Pinehurst course in 1965 at the age of 43, when he knew twilight was settling over his days of glory (it was his last significant victory), he climbed into his convertible and began the drive back to Morganton with the top down, alone. “My wife thought it was just another tournament I had won, ” he said. “My kids felt about the same way. But that victory did something to me. I was alive. After I accepted my trophy, I got in that car and drove out of Pinehurst. When I got on the highway and there was just me and the pine trees shooting by, I let out the damndest yell you ever heard. I kept shouting and driving. I let it all out.”
Let it all out. That was always Patton’s way. Smashing long drives, finding them in the trees, studying what seemed to be a solid wall of lumber in front of him and then ripping twisting, climbing shots through the trouble, onto the green and knocking the putt in for birdie. He played swashbuckling golf, happy golf, splendid in its result; golf that substituted soul for mechanism, golf that had dramatic uncertainty to it, golf to which bystanders could relate. His saving grace was a putter that loved him. He has often said that back when he was young, nobody could handle a 6-footer the way he could.
He just didn’t think he could miss. Once in the North & South, his approach to the 18th hole sailed over the green and came to rest on asphalt near the clubhouse, a good 100 feet from the hole. He chose a putter, rolled it along the asphalt, through a swale, onto the green, 6 feet from the hole. And made it to save the match.
Along the way through his glory days, down all the fairways and through all the brambles and brush, he chatted amiably with the gallery. He loved crowds. They ignited him. Ken Venturi once said of The Masters, where Patton played 13 times and almost always finished well, “If they locked the gates and didn’t let anybody in, Billy Joe couldn’t break 80.” And the galleries loved him, as much at the time, I believe, as they loved Arnold Palmer. There was a joy to his game that few playing at the upper level of golf could equal.
All of it – his scrambling, his nerve, his down-home gabbing with the spectators, his passion, his grace, his humor – all of it made him the most delightful and endearing person I’ve ever come across in sports. At this time of the year, I always think of him and feel good for having been there when he was.