Ol' Chris Patton, the 6'1", 305-pound Clemson senior from Fountain Inn, S.C., rears back with his driver on the 16th tee at Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head Island and hits the ball large. A little too large. Huge, actually.
The ball lands way downfield, somewhere amid Patton's ever-expanding army in the right rough. It seems to ding a tree or a human, and then, surprisingly, it rolls into a playable area inside a roped-off section near the TV cables.
"Must be Clemson fans there," says pro Doug Weaver, part of Patton's threesome here at the MCI Heritage Classic.
Patton appears not to hear him. He can't believe he hit the ball that ugly. He is overwhelmed by shock, disgust and self-loathing. He looks at his caddie, fellow Clemson golfer and roommate Max Fain.
June 17, 1990
"That's pitiful, isn't it, Max?" he asks. "Huh? Isn't that bad?"
Patton has a crooked smile on his bright red face, a smile of utter disdain for his driver, his swing, his sport and his worth as a big ol' farm boy daring to perform with the sleek country-club fellows on the PGA Tour. No matter that Patton is the reigning U.S. Amateur champion, with a swing so sweet that a photo crew from a Japanese golf magazine flew to Clemson to immortalize it. No matter that Patton, now 22, won the South Carolina 4A high school golf championship in 1985 and 1986, in '85 wiping out the scoring record by six strokes. No matter that he is a two-time collegiate All-America with 17 rounds in the 60s and a school-record 72.78 stroke average. No matter that in a practice round at this year's Masters—as the Amateur champ he earned an automatic invitation—he blasted a 65. No matter also that he has never had a formal golf lesson, belonged to a country club, earned a dime of prize money or tanned properly.
Patton laughs at his wretchedness in this godforsaken sport. He seems prepared to kneel down, rip off his XXX-large golf shirt and have someone—any real golfer—flog him with a sand rake for his sins. "Pitiful," he's still murmuring as he studies his lie. Burned grass, hard dirt, 225 yards from the pin. Fifty yards of sand in front of the green to carry. Eeyore looks happier on a rainy day. Patton's attitude is so unprofessional, so innocent, so plain ol' human, that it clearly has endeared him to everyone in the burgeoning crowd. "Look at this gallery," says Judy Bowes, who is scoring Patton's group. "They're all for him. I told him that. 'Yeah,' he said. 'They love me.' "
Fain hands Patton a two-iron. Patton wraps his meaty hands around the skinny piece of metal and without further ado rips a shot that scorches through the midday haze like a laser beam, screams over the sand, hits the green and stops 15 feet from the cup. Wild applause. Patton smiles in wonder.
Patton will finish at one over par for the day and six over for two rounds, just missing the cut for this tournament. But there will be other days and better outings. And if the American viewing public has any say in the matter—and it will be rooting hard for the big kid—he'll pop up more and more on the screen in the den on golf Sundays. Folks say the pro tour is filled with dull, flat-bellied clones who can be identified only by their golf bags. "Poisoned with parity and big fourth-place checks," is how Golf Digest puts it. Certainly, Payne Stewart's plus fours set him apart from the crowd, and Greg Norman looks like the Olympic torch coming up the fairway, but it's nigh on impossible to identify most of the other golfers from more than a nine-iron away. Not so with Patton. He's like the first part of a Green Bay sweep coming at you.
And you never know what he might say in the interview tent. Before the Heritage he told a reporter about the "range wars" he and his buddies used to wage as kids back on the farm. Standing a hundred yards apart and armed with five-irons and cheap balls, "we'd rifle low hooks at each other," he said wistfully. "We'd be headhunting. I wish we still had that." After he won the 1989 Amateur at Merion, he told reporters who wondered about his practice routine that he "didn't feel like hitting 700,000 golf balls a day," that he would prefer to "just sit here and eat some watermelon."
Not that he eats a lot, mind you. Or, he "never eats a lot at one time," as Fain puts it. "He'll eat a sandwich before he goes to bed. I'm sure he's got a low metabolism."
Indeed, he's on the way down from a career high of 324 pounds. He reached that peak, he says, partly because he's an amateur.
"I like ketchup and mayonnaise and stuff like that," he says. "And I admit I eat at bad times. But if you travel, everything you eat is fried. Especially if you ain't got a lot of money." Patton will turn pro after he defends his U.S. Amateur title Aug. 21-26 at Cherry Hills in Engle-wood, Colo.
Possessions? Patton owns the obligatory stereo, an electric guitar (he can almost play some of his favorite heavy-metal tunes), a couple of fishing rods and a 1985 Honda with 125,000 miles on it. "Those are some hard miles," he adds. "I sleep in it sometimes, waiting for tournaments."
"We're just common country people," says his father, Lewis Patton, a friendly man who works for the Holly Oak Chemical Company in Fountain Inn (pop. 4,426). His mother, Linda, is a fifth-grade teacher in town, and his sister, Cindy, a sophomore, is a scholarship soft-ball player at the University of South Carolina-Spartanburg. The Pattons' 300-acre farm is situated amid a slew of kinfolks' farms in rolling country off Scuffletown Road—north out of town on Route 418, turn right at the FIREWORKS—1 MILE sign—and its real value won't be realized until the family sells the grazing land to the developers marching relentlessly southward from Greenville. But then, the Pattons have been here a while, and they're in no hurry to cash in their chips. Money isn't what moves them, anyway. They like the rural life, and as Linda says, "We're all very stubborn." That, she explains, is why she graduated from Furman in just three years. "Everybody said I couldn't," she says with a wink. "Don't tell me that. Don't tell any of us that."
These are not hayseeds, mind you. Chris has an easygoing, self-deprecating demeanor, but he wants to win big, and he knows what the future holds for his chosen sport. "Golf's so popular now with everybody," he says. "That's why I'm a travel and tourism major, so that if I don't make it on the Tour—and I think I will—I'll do something golf-related at one of these resorts they're constantly building around golf courses."
"Golfers are all types," says Oswald Drawdy, his Clemson teammate who has known Patton since they were in high school together. "It's not whether you're rich or not. As long as you have access to a course, that's all that matters. Chris has been playing in tournaments since he was 15; he has been shooting in the mid-60s since he was 16. He can do things that other people just aren't comfortable doing."
Patton trudges away from the throng at the Heritage, head low.
"How'd you do?" a fan asks.
"Awful," says Patton.
A reporter seeks him out and asks him about his game.
"I'm missing putts forever," he responds. "It seems there's no end to the bad scores. I won the Amateur because I putted. I could win any tournament, if I could putt. It's old. It's like being around somebody you don't like being around." He looks at the ground. "I need a big limo with tinted glass to take me out of here. My brain's mush."
His mother and father sit near the clubhouse, nearly as upbeat as their son is despondent. "Sometimes I can't fuss at him," says Mom sweetly, watching him go. "He expects so much of himself. But we're all behind him, 100 percent. He's a good boy, even if he is mine."
When the Pattons got the news from friends last summer that Chris had just won the Amateur title, Lewis broke down and cried.
"Yes, I did," he says. Lewis wants Chris to do whatever makes him happy. Himself, he would just like to unload the empty blue grain elevator behind the house. "Got no use for it anymore," he says. One reason is that the 75 head of cattle have plenty of grass to eat now that Chris isn't playing through their fairways.
The Pattons are still somewhat amazed that their son even plays golf. He started out as a typical, if large, sports-minded kid, playing basketball, baseball and football. He was a good pitcher and power hitter in Little League—"One time against Simpsonville they walked him four times with nobody on base," says Lewis—and he showed a natural hand-eye coordination that benefited him in all sports. "He's excellent in typing," says Linda. "Unbelievable with Nintendo."
At 13 he got a job cutting grass at the Carolina Springs Golf and Country Club, just two miles from home, and before long he was hitting golf balls in his spare time at the club and then teeing it up with old clubs in the pastures at home. His practice balls were scrounged from lakes and ponds on nearby courses.
That Christmas Chris asked for his own set of clubs. By the following summer he had a four handicap, and by age 16 he had shot a 38 for nine holes, using just a sand wedge and a putter. "I'll bet his swing was the same the very first time he picked up a club as it is now," says Larry Penley, his Clemson coach.
Because he was always large—180 pounds at age 10,220 at 14,265 as a high school senior—Patton is accustomed to the paunch in front of him, and it affects his swing not a whit. He's strong, once having benched 330 pounds, but as even he acknowledges, "I shouldn't weigh this much. At 245, 250 I'd hit the ball farther. In high school I knocked the crud out of it."
Patton thought about taking lessons one time, but he gave up the notion quickly. "He's self-taught, self-made, and he's always played for the enjoyment of the game," says Penley. "And his swing is perfect. He's practiced hard sometimes, and it hasn't helped him."
A natural is what we're talking about here. People worry that the vicissitudes of the Tour could ruin the kid. "His attention span isn't very long, for practice or anything," says Penley. "But what he has is imagination. He can work the ball right to left, left to right, high, low, hook, slice, trouble shots-things that most golfers can't even imagine. He's very creative, a free spirit, which is a plus. But if he could use that along with stricter work habits, we would see a player of unlimited potential. The Tour isn't nearly as much fun as amateur golf is. And that's going to be tough for him."
At teammate Drawdy's vacation house on Hilton Head, Patton slumps in a living room chair and talks about the fleeting joy of having played with Norman and Arnold Palmer before the Masters. Then, too, there was that practice-round 65 he shot with Ben Crenshaw in his group. Crenshaw helped him read the greens, treated him with respect, made no jokes about the youngster's weight. "Ben Crenshaw is the nicest man I've met in a long time," says Patton. "He's like a big brother. A small big brother."
Naturally, the talk comes back to Patton's erratic play today.
"That drive," says Fain, eating a cracker. "I think that was the worst shot I've ever seen. How can you swing that good and hit that bad? It scared me."
"How can I do that?" implores Patton, his cheeks like burnished apples. ("I used to use sunscreen," he says, "but it doesn't work on me.")
"Lack of focus," Fain says, yawning. Patton ponders this in silence for a while.
"Max," he says finally.
"You turn in the caddie shirt?"
"Get the money?"
"Give it here."
Fain reluctantly digs in his pocket, pulls out a $20 bill (the caddie shirt refund), crumbles it into a ball and throws it at Patton. The big guy snatches it gracefully from the air. Good hands; good sense.
Three days later Patton is back at Clemson, ambling into his 8 a.m. Tuesday class at Tilman Hall—Coaching Education 353: Prevention and Treatment of Athletic Injuries—taught by assistant sports trainer Danny Poole. Patton is sucking ice from a Hardees's cup, and he doesn't look so hot. Though he has been at Clemson four years, he's still a long way from graduating; the night before, he stayed out with friends, having a good time, and—what do you know?—all of a sudden the sun was coming up.
"A wounded animal is a dangerous animal," he says as he takes his seat.
There are a number of jocks in this class, and one of them, football player Stacey Seegers, is so huge he nearly blots out the left side of the room.
"He ain't a big 'un," says Patton of the kid listed at 6'4", 310 pounds. "You should see the weight room when the whole team is in there. Whoo!"
Patton has his ankle taped by Donny Shuman, the baseball student manager, then they switch places. "Godal-mighty, Donny!" Patton cries. "When was the last time you washed your foot!"
"This morning," says Shuman. Nevertheless, the strain is too much for Patton, and after a quick wrapping of Shuman's ankle, he leaves class to get some fresh air. "More pressure than the first tee at Augusta," he says on the way out.
It may just be that Clemson allows big guys to flourish. Coach Penney says, "Chris just has a huge bone structure. Our nursing center checked him out and found that it's bigger than both Perrys [former Clemson football players William and Michael Dean]. They said he'd be fine and healthy at 275."
Patton himself is sensitive about his size; he wants to be known for his golfing skills and not because he's a "big 'un," though he's finding the media can latch onto his waistline like flies onto a roast. "I've pleaded with him to lose weight, but I'm not gonna talk about it with him anymore," says Lewis, standing on the lush turf of the family farm. "He'll lose it when he wants."
Spread all around the elder Patton is some of the greenest grass in the South. "I always worried about one of my cows eating a golf ball," he says, laughing. "The balls are still out there. I used to say, 'Chris, go over that tree'—that one way down there—and he would. 'Hit that barn.' Plow! He'd nail it. He's a good kid. Humble, polite, courteous."
He is all that, and standing here in the South Carolina gloaming you can almost see him walking with a gallery over the back forty at the Patton farm—high, wide and handsome. Hitting it large.