Saint Billy Joe Was One of a Kind
My wife and I were traveling an icy interstate somewhere around Scranton, Pa., when my friend Bill Williamson, from Charlotte, called to let me know Billy Joe Patton had passed away.
“His memorial service will be tomorrow,” Bill said. “Hope you can make it.”
It was highly doubtful. It was the second day of the new year, snow was falling and we had at least 10 hours back to the Old North State.
But I told Bill that Saint Billy Joe would be in my thoughts and prayers — prayers of gratitude for what this remarkable son of Carolina gave to the game of golf and everyone who loves the real game, not the corporate orgy you see on television week after week.
William Joseph Patton — just Billy Joe to his friends, and just about everyone was that — was an amateur golfer from the foothills hamlet of Morganton, who vaulted to national attention in 1954 when he came within a stroke of being in a playoff with Sam Snead and Ben Hogan for the Masters title.
Billy Joe was famous for his chatty personality and long but erratic drives off the tee — and his extraordinary ability to recover from anywhere and putt lights out.
One story holds that the gamblers who swarmed around Augusta were so unhappy at the prospect of a pleasant unknown amateur upstart from the hills of North Carolina upsetting the two greatest players of the age that one of them got to Billy at a critical moment in Amen Corner and whispered to him that his mama had been rushed to the hospital back home. He subsequently dumped a clutch shot in the water that probably cost him the Masters.
More relevant to North Carolinians, and those of us who reside here in the Sandhills, the Wake Forest graduate and genial lumber broker won the North and South Amateur three times and the Southern Amateur twice. He also won the Carolinas Open twice and anchored five Walker Cup teams between 1955, captaining the team in 1969. In 1981, he was inducted into the Carolinas Golf Reporters Association Golf Hall of Fame. A year later, he was awarded the Bob Jones Award by the USGA.
I grew up in Greensboro hearing about Billy Joe and his Carolina buddy Harvie Ward but never met either man until I heard Billy Joe speak at an event in Greensboro in 1990. He brought the house down with a string of great stories that involved the greatest names of the day — all told from the perspective of a humble, funny man who loved the game and the friends he made in it far more than the dough he could make off it.
‘A Few Insights’
Several years ago, I phoned him to get his impressions about a project I was working on for Seminole Golf Club in Florida. Billy Joe was an honorary member, and I’d heard from his friend Arnold Palmer that he wasn’t doing well, perhaps suffering the first serious stages of dementia.
For all that, he couldn’t have been more engaging on the phone, congratulating me on my recent biography of Ben Hogan and inviting me to come visit him someday soon in Morganton. I made a mental note to take him up on that opportunity. But a short time later, I heard his health had slipped significantly, and he might even be near death.
So imagine my surprise when my friend Bill Williamson — an old Carolina golf team pal of Harvie’s — invited me to accompany him on a golden Indian summer day up to Morganton to see Billy Joe at the assisted-care facility where he lived.
“I can’t promise anything, but according to his son,” Bill said, “Billy Joe has been having some brief lucid moments. I thought you might get lucky, and he could give you a few insights on playing with Hogan, Snead and Nelson.”
As I write this, dear reader, I am within weeks of finishing a major book-writing project called “American Triumvirate — How Sam Snead, Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan Shaped the Modern World of Golf.”
So naturally I bolted for Morganton.
I found Billy Joe, 87, sitting in a chair on a sunny terrace, beautifully dressed, looking both pleasant and peaceful. Billy introduced me as “Ben Hogan’s biographer and a friend of Sam Snead.”
Billy Joe smiled. I explained to him what he’d meant to me growing up and how excited I was to be able to ask him about Snead, Nelson and Hogan.
Billy Joe nodded and smiled.
So I just kept talking — telling him about my friendships with both Nelson and Snead and how I was both thrilled and terrified to have been Hogan’s chosen biographer, a book that took me three years to research and write.
Billy Joe smiled and nodded.
After 20 minutes or so, I thanked him for permitting me to visit and stood up to go.
Broke Up Laughing
Billy Joe suddenly said, in a sweet and unhurried drawl, “Did I ever tell you about how I beat the three greatest players who ever lived?”
I smiled and sat back down. “No sir,” I said. “But I would love to hear.”
“Well,” he said, looking off a bit into the distance, then at me again, “I like to tell my grandchildren that I beat the three greatest players who ever lived.”
He meant, of course, that whenever he was paired with Sam, Byron or Ben in a tournament, his score beat theirs — a claim few, if any, professionals could make. I knew enough about Billy Joe’s playing vita to know this was true.
We sat for several minutes more, enjoying the Indian summer sunshine. Then I thanked him again and got up to go, offering Billy Joe my hand.
He took it and smiled, refusing to let it go for a moment.
“Did I ever tell you,” he said, “ about the first time I saw Sam Snead?”
“No sir,” I said, and sat back down.
Billy Joe looked off at the distance again. “Well,” he began, “It was 1954, and I’d driven down to Augusta on a warm Monday from North Carolina. In those days, you parked your car right in front of the club house. As I was taking my clubs out of my trunk, I looked over and saw this fella in a banded straw hat sitting in the back seat of a red convertible. I told myself, ‘Why, that’s Sam Snead.’”
Billy Joe looked at me and smiled. He blinked his eyes, falling silent. As I think back to the moment, there was a wry glint in his hazel peepers.
“What a great story,” I said, assuming that was all there was to it, though I should have known better. Billy Joe Patton was a Walker Cupper in the art of storytelling, too.
“Sitting on Sam Snead’s lap,” Billy Joe continued, “was the prettiest gal you’ve ever seen. She was wearing a yellow dress. And as I walked by their car, why, Sam Snead looked over at me, tipped his hat — and smiled.”
Bill Williamson and I broke up laughing.
It was vintage Billy Joe Patton. I thanked him for the story and for letting us come visit with him.
“Thank you for coming,” he said with a final courtly smile.
Vintage Billy Joe
One last Billy Joe story before we go.
Some years ago, Billy Joe was honored by the lovely golf-mad folks at Biltmore Forest Country Club in Asheville at its annual spring Sweetser golf tournament, one of the great amateur events that has been growing in national reputation over the past 17 years.
Upon his return the next year, he was introduced to the crowd as the returning Sweetser honoree and the beloved amateur player who nearly won the Masters. He was invited to stand and make a few remarks.
“That’s true,” Billy Joe acknowledged, rattling his drink. “I came pretty close to winning the Masters in 1954. But upon reflection, I decided it was probably a good thing that I didn’t.”
He paused. The crowd waited, eager to hear why.
“I’m fairly confident I couldn’t have handled the fame,” he allowed with his patient drawl. “I’m pretty certain I couldn’t have handled the money. And I’m damn sure I couldn’t have handled all the women.”
A beat of silence was followed by 200 people dissolving in laughter.
It was vintage Billy Joe Patton.
There will never be another like him.
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist for The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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