There will be eight former U.S. and British champions in the field at the U.S. Amateur next week, but among the favorites, if not the favorite, will be 32-year-old William Joseph Patton, a weekend golfer who five months ago was barely known outside North Carolina. For a favorite, Patton's record in past Amateurs approaches the dismal. In five tries he has never survived the fourth round, nor until this year ever won an important sectional tournament. But, as if in defiance of this so-so past, last April Patton all but defeated Sam Snead and Ben Hogan in the Masters, won the North and South Amateur and then finished in a tie for sixth, top amateur, in the Open.
However he does in the perilous match play at the Amateur, this much is certain: 1954 will be remembered as the year Billy Joe Patton moved among the great ones of the game, speaking free and easy, playing hell-bent for the pin, and converting thousands to a new attitude towards big-time golf.
Admittedly others before, notably Walter Hagen, knew how to enjoy a tournament. But competitive golf—even amateur—has grown colder by the year. The player strives to contain himself within his game, too often to the insufferable point where he smashes a club, barks at the crowd, argues with officials, up and quits, or otherwise indicates that the big time is no fun. "Silly Joe," notes U.S.G.A. Executive Director Joe Dey, "is a return to what golf was meant to be, hard play but a good time."
At the Augusta Masters last April the golf world first discovered Billy Joe leading the select field and having a whale of a time. For a man in his first Masters, Billy Joe was enjoying himself almost indecently, playing with a raw boldness and telling the charmed galleries, "You didn't pay to see me play it safe." This Patton, the Augusta Chronicle declared, "would charge hell with a bucket of ice water." Even when he fell five strokes behind going into the final round, no one could really forget Billy Joe. At lunch on the last day, as a shout went up out on the course, the great Bob Jones relates, "The china started rattling. The walls trembled. I had to go out on the porch to see what Billy Joe had done now."
Billy Joe had made a hole in one. He was back in a tight race with Snead and Hogan. On the 13th, though, he gambled for a birdie, found the creek before the green, took a 7, and his big chance was gone. It was enough to make any man crawl inside himself. "This is no funeral," Billy Joe said to his glum-faced gallery of 8,000. "Let's smile again." The remark soon transcended golf. Here was lesson enough not only for a golf fan but for anybody. "Let's smile again," editorialized the London Sunday Times, "...a suitable Easter text if ever there was one."
Morganton, Patton's home town in the foothills of western North Carolina, strung up a banner, "Welcome Home, Billy Joe—Mr. Masters 1954." At the local Mimosa Golf Club during the tournament, outgoing foursomes had pitched in a quarter apiece to phone Augusta. From hole to hole they had shouted the latest reports on Billy Joe. "It's a wonder they didn't have semaphore flags," observed a member, George Squillario. Lodge brothers brought portable radios to the Saturday poker games. Though his friends had seen him play brilliantly for years and win often around North Carolina, oddly enough, back home Billy Joe had to explain how he had come on to such great golf. Heretofore, in the big ones, Billy Joe had always blown up somewhere along the way. "We didn't know," says Stanley Moore, Morganton's editor, as if speaking of someone just risen from a psychiatrist's couch, "about Billy Joe's new attitude."
This new attitude, Billy Joe puts it simply, was born of nerves and stomach rumblings. "Before, I had always played like a mummy, a cold game. At a tournament, every time they rang the bell, I ooped my breakfast." At the town's big dinner in his honor, Billy Joe explained further, "I scored 75s and 78s in tournaments, but back home playing dollar golf I'd knock it around in 67 and 68, playing free and easy. I decided I would play at Augusta the way I played here, not letting the game get too serious."
On the course, neatly dressed, with rimless glasses and flecks of premature gray in his close-cut hair, Billy Joe looks like a junior executive, which is exactly the job he holds in a wholesale lumber business to support his wife, their three children, and his golf. He hardly seems the sort to charm a gallery by merely talking. But the crowd just naturally takes to a man who, in the staid play of the Open, shouts down the fairway, "Officer, there are people under those trees. When I hit this one, I'm liable to flush them like quail."
Billy Joe's backswing is considered the fastest in the game. He is very long from the tee—but oh, so wild at times. In this wildness, of course, he has a special kinship with the galleries. Billy Joe's tee shot often goes where the duffer's goes. Hole after hole in the Open a shriek of "Fore" rang up the narrow fairways at Baltusrol. Like skirmishers under mortar fire, the van of the gallery would scatter, heads hunched, as Billy Joe's ball rattled through the branches. There, 270 yards out from the tee in the deep rough, a knot of officials would gather like pallbearers at a gravesite, staring glumly down at this latest golfing atrocity.
Thrashing in the tall grass—which is fast becoming known as "Billy Joe country"—seems to fortify his soul, possibly because there, on the spectators' side of the ropes, Billy Joe can share his misery intimately with others. In the first round of the Open his gallery was a writhing mass of body English, as Billy Joe made one unbelievable recovery after another, whacking the ball between tree trunks and hooking it around bushes. He used the fairway on only seven of the 18 holes and still scored a one-under-par 69 to lead the field.
Patton's wild scrambling, out of one golfing mess after another, has amazed galleries for years, has at times thoroughly unnerved opponents, and once recently even baffled a distinguished partner. This July on the Burning Tree Course near Washington, teamed with President Eisenhower in a foursome, Patton recalls, "On the 18th I went into the rough. And from there I hit it behind a garage where they keep tractors, and then through a parking lot."
By the time Billy Joe finally appeared on the green the President had lost track. "Billy Joe," he asked, "is that your first or second ball?"
"I'm only playing one ball, Mr. President," said Billy Joe. "You just think it's two because I'm hitting it a lot."