Billy Joe Patton: The One That Got Away
I have Billy Joe Patton's phone number right here in my Blackberry, and I thought of ringing him up this morning to tell him about the goings-on at Pinehurst this week, about the quest on the part of 64 of the best amateur golfers the National Amateur title. But I knew that at 86 years of age he had good days and bad days at the assisted living center where he resides in his hometown of Morganton, and that telephone communication with senior citizens can be spotty at best.
Instead I called his son, Chuck, at his office in Winston-Salem to inquire secondhand about his dad's semifinal loss in the 1962 U.S Amateur at Pinehurst to Labron Harris Jr., the eventual champion.
"It was a huge loss, a bitter disappointment for him," Chuck says.
There used to be a photo in the hallway of the Pinehurst clubhouse showing Patton surrounded by a phalanx of reporters after his defeat. His body was slumped, his head was hanging.
"Look at that face," Patton said years later, pointing the photo out to his son. "Have you ever seen anyone as sad as that guy?"
Chuck notes that it was the initiative taken by his father to talk Pinehurst owner Richard Tufts into inviting the USGA to bring the National Amateur to Pinehurst that the championship even came to the Sandhills. Tufts, a long-time USGA committeeman and its president in 1956-57, was hesitant to lobby for USGA events at Pinehurst because of the fear of conflict of interest. But Patton knew No. 2 was a favorite of the top amateur golfers and drew up a petition they all signed.
"It was his stage, so to speak," Chuck says. "He was 40 years old and thought it was his last shot, and his best shot. He loved Pinehurst and he loved the No. 2 course."
Of those facts, I was well aware.
In the winter of 1991 I drove to Morganton to interview Patton and talk about his four wins in the North and South Amateur; his friendship with Tufts and their experiences in the 1963 Walker Cup Matches at Turnberry (Tufts was the captain, Patton a team member); his colorful caddie, Jerry Boggan, who would be "dressed like a peacock" by the weekend of the North and South; and his affection for Donald Ross-designed golf courses (his home club, Mimosa Hills, was a Ross design). Patton was cordial and animated and his warm glow was apparent for those halcyon times in the 1950s and 1960s when he was a dominant force in amateur golf.
At one point he excused himself, I thought at first to clear his throat of wintertime gunk or his eyes of an allergy of some sort.
In truth he was simply choked up.
"You're hitting all these subjects," he said. "I just can't stand it ... The things we went through together ... It was a very special time ...
"I'm sorry. You get older, you get emotional about things. They meant so much to you. It was just a big time in my life."
Patton was the prohibitive favorite for the 1962 National Amateur. He had burst onto the national golf scene eight years earlier with his storybook challenge of Sam Snead and Ben Hogan in the Masters Tournament. Patton claimed the North and South title in Pinehurst that April, then went to Augusta and finished one shot behind Snead and Hogan after hitting into the water on the two back-nine par-5s on Sunday. Two months later, Patton led the U.S. Open after one round at Baltustrol and wound up finishing sixth, prompting Newsweek magazine soon after to run his photo on the cover with the caption, "The Duffer's Idol."
He resisted any temptation to turn professional, preferring to run his lumber business in Morganton, play with his buddies on weekends at Mimosa Hills and venture out a dozen times a year to the top amateur and selected professional events around the East Coast.
"There wasn't any money in pro golf at the time," Patton said. "I was happy doing what I was doing. I enjoyed my work, my family, my club. Four or five times a year, I could work up an edge for a tournament. I would leave home chomping at the bit to get started. I couldn't do that 50 times a year."
On the strength of his win in the 1962 North and South in April, Patton felt fit and fiddle as the National Amateur approached. It would be his 13th U.S. Amateur and, surprisingly, he had never advanced so far as the quarterfinals. Fellow amateur luminary Bill Campbell believed that Patton wanted to win the championship so badly that he tensed up and wore himself out emotionally.
"Billy Joe should have won the Amateur several times, based on ability," Campbell says. "For seven or eight years, he and Harvie Ward were the class of the field. But he had fever blisters at the Walker Cup because of the tension. His nerves just wore out at the end of the week (in the U.S. Amateur)."
Herb Wind noted Patton's stature in a New Yorker magazine piece previewing the event: "Quick-witted and hopelessly gregarious, Patton is perhaps the most popular amateur in American golf today, and nothing would please his colleagues more than to see him win at Pinehurst."
Harris, a recent graduate of Oklahoma State University, built a 3-up lead over Patton at the halfway point of the 36-hole semifinal match. Patton fought back and made a birdie on 13 and then a par on 14 to tie the match but quickly lost his momentum by striking a bad tee shot on the par-3 15th and losing the hole with a bogey. Patton drove into the woods on 16 for another bogey to fall 2-down. Harris put the match away 3-and-1 with a par on the 17th.
Years later, Patton, who had a remarkable amateur career but yet never won the National Amateur, reflected on the opportunity at Pinehurst that got away: "That one hurt. What it was, where it was, made it very disappointing. The Amateur, the National Amateur, on one of my favorite golf courses "
The disappointed trailed off.
Patton cannot play golf any more and probably no one in the field of 64 match play qualifiers knows who he is. But their grandfathers sure do.
"Fewer and fewer people remember it," Chuck Patton says, "but in the late 50s and early 60s, there were not too many golfers -- pro or amateur -- better than he was."
Lee Pace is a Chapel Hill writer whose latest offering on the history of Pinehurst is "The Creed of the Amateur."
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