Billy Joe Is Gone, But Not Forgotten
I was saddened to learn of the death of amateur golf legend Billy Joe Patton. And I was saddened even more when I learned that he had been dead almost two weeks before I even knew about it.
He died Jan. 1 at age 88, and not nearly enough notice was made of his passing. If the newspaper that I have read daily since 1956 made note of his passing, I missed it. That’s not the way it should have been for a man who was for a brief period in 1954 the most heralded amateur in the game.
Somebody should have written a country song about Billy Joe Patton. I mean, the guy was a once in a lifetime classic. Everything he did was bigger than life — especially the way he played golf.
Billy Joe was an original. He was Seve Ballesteros before Seve was born. And he never succumbed to the lure of turning professional. He was a lumberman from Morganton, and he didn’t really want it any other way.
Billy Joe, who never knew how to hit a lay-up shot and probably would have laughed at such a suggestion, was the kind of golfer that people loved watching. Golf was never dull when Billy Joe was playing.
Take the 1954 Masters. You might as well, because Billy Joe gave it away. But no matter, he wouldn’t have changed a thing about that final round, when his dream of a green jacket died in the waters of Rae’s Creek.
Billy Joe missed the playoff for the Masters title when he hit his approach shots on both the par-5 13th and 15th holes into the water. He still had a putt of less than 20 feet on the final to tie for the lead, but couldn’t quite coax it in.
Sam Snead went on to beat Ben Hogan in a playoff for the championship.
Coming so close to capturing one of golf’s most prestigious major championships had to eat a hole in his heart, but Billy Joe didn’t dwell on it.
“I’m better off not having won that Masters,” he told golf writer Leo Derrick back in 2004 for an article in the now defunct Golf Record. “I’ve lived a good, full life, and I might not have been able to handle the celebrity and attention. The money and notoriety would have changed my life.”
Patton wouldn’t have received the winner’s check playing as an amateur, of course. But there’s no doubt he would have benefitted in many other ways.
The Legend of Billy Joe was made on the back nine of Augusta National. He tried to reach the par-5 greens on holes 13 and 15, failed, and made double bogey, bogey.
He had warned fans prior to the round that “I’ll probably shoot about an 80,” but even with those two penalties he posted a 1-under-par 71.
That magical Masters was far from the only thing magical about 1954 for Patton. He won the first of his three North and South Amateur Championships at Pinehurst and went on to lead the first round in the U.S. Open in June at Baltusrol.
“Nobody probably remembers that,” Patton told Derrick, “and they’ve probably forgotten that I won three Norths and Souths — 1954, ’62 and ’63.”
The proof of that is inscribed on the permanent plaque located in the hallway at Pinehurst Resort.
Patton brought national fame to the Wake Forest University golf team, playing there in 1939-43, but played down his role. “I was on the golf team,” he said, “but there wasn’t much made of that in those days.”
With World War II raging, Patton joined the Navy after college and served in the Pacific. “I wondered what kind of golfer I could be,” he said. “I didn’t need to win; I just liked the idea of knowing how good I could become at something I loved to do. I liked the competition.”
Patton never seriously considered turning professional. “Heck, you could make more as a lousy lumber salesman back then than you could as a successful golfer on the Tour,” he said.
Billy Joe’s gone. But for those of us who remember him, he will live forever in our hearts.
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