They have long been a vanishing species, men good enough to play golf for a living who chose to play for fun. Billy Joe Patton, who died Jan. 1 at 88 in his hometown of Morganton, N.C., was one of them, perhaps the best of them when it came to enjoying himself and entertaining those who had the pleasure of watching him work his magic.
In the last chapter of amateur golf's golden era in the United States - a period that included Bill Campbell, Charles Coe and Harvie Ward - Patton was the swashbuckler of the bunch for whom no recovery shot was impossible.
Once upon a time Patton had been a tense, serious tournament golfer. But he realized that approach was upsetting his stomach and his scorecard. The Billy Joe who emerged at the 1954 Masters still had the ultra-quick backswing that defied convention but was apt to quip with the gallery, too, if a tee shot strayed, as it often did, into their territory. It was a game, after all, a game he could play extremely well if he would only be himself.
Patton, a lumber salesman, trailed by five going into the final round at Augusta National in 1954, but when he made a hole-in-one at the sixth hole, to a roar that rattled the pines, he was back in the mix. Victory was still within reach as he played the par-5 13th hole, his drive leaving him a 4-wood from 225 yards.
Patton seldom played safe. It wasn't his nature. He wasn't a tall man, but he was strong. Once, sailing to Great Britain for a Walker Cup, he amazed his teammates by hitting shots with a heavily-weighted club they only used to stay limber.
Whether it was the puff of wind against him, or the golf gods, Patton's second shot didn't clear the creek fronting the green. A double bogey was costly, but it wasn't fatal. Patton never regretted going for No. 13 in two; it was his decision to try a riskier shot on the par-5 15th that stuck with him decades later. That bogey left Patton, a week shy of his 32nd birthday, a stroke out of the Sam Snead-Ben Hogan playoff, a battle of titans won by Snead.
Patton often worked as a rules official during the Masters in his senior years. At Augusta National in 1984, Ben Crenshaw thought he saw Patton on the 13th hole in the final round. The vision of a potential watery grave was enough to cause Crenshaw to lay up, and he went on to earn his first green jacket.
After coming so close to winning the Masters in 1954, Patton contended at other major championships, including the U.S. Open at Baltusrol a couple of months after flirting with history at Augusta. Patton never won the U.S. Amateur, but claimed three North and South Amateurs and the Southern Amateur twice.
His contributions may best be measured by the spirit he took to the course, even when something important was on the line. After his bold strategy backfired on the unlucky 13th at Augusta, it was Patton who buoyed the spectators, not the other way around.
"Let's smile again," he told them.
-- *Bill Fields *