Billy Joe Patton, who nearly won the 1954 Masters as an amateur and later received the prestigious Bob Jones Award from the USGA in 1982, died on Jan. 1 at the age of 88 in his hometown of Morganton, N.C.
Known for his swashbuckling style of play and colorful personality, Patton was one of the finest golfers to come out of the Tar Heel State. While he never won a U.S. Amateur, he did represent his country on five Walker Cup Teams (1955, 1957, 1959, 1963 and 1965) and he captained the USA squad in the 1969 Match. He also represented the USA on two World Amateur Teams (1958 and 1962).
But the lumber salesman will be remembered most for his near-miss at the 1954 Masters, where he missed getting into a playoff with Sam Snead and Ben Hogan by one stroke. Then 32, Patton put himself into contention during the final round by making a hole-in-one at the par-3 sixth hole.
The tournament title was in reach when he stood on the par-5 13th hole, the last leg of Amen Corner. Facing a 225-yard approach, Patton pulled out a 4-wood in typical go-for-broke style. The ball found Rae’s Creek, leading to a crushing double-bogey 7. Two holes later, he found the pond fronting the par-5 15th. Still, he came within an 18-foot putt at the 72nd hole of getting into an 18-hole playoff, which Snead eventually claimed, 70-71, over Hogan.
At the prize ceremony, Augusta National co-founder and nine-time USGA champion Bob Jones presented Patton his award for being low amateur, and the champion Snead said, “Billy Joe, you nearly got the whole turkey.”
Despite coming up short, Patton’s flair and style won over a legion of spectators. He loved being on center stage, often chatting up fans between shots, and he enjoyed conjuring up extra drama by hitting remarkable recovery shots.
Once while playing with President Dwight D. Eisenhower at Burning Tree Club near Washington, D.C., Patton hit a wild tee shot deep into the rough on the 18th hole. From there, he told Sports Illustrated, “I hit it behind a garage where they keep tractors, and then through a parking lot.”
By the time Patton re-emerged at 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,” he explained. “You just think it’s two because I’m hitting it a lot.”
After his near-miss at Augusta, Patton became a fixture at the Masters and U.S. Open over the next decade. He held the 18-hole lead at the 1954 U.S. Open at Baltusrol Golf Club and set a 36-hole scoring record in the 1957 U.S. Open at Inverness Club.
Being a North Carolinian, Patton held Pinehurst No. 2 in tremendous regard, winning five times – three North and South Amateurs and two Southern Amateurs – on the famous Donald Ross layout.
Patton also was a two-time champion of the Carolinas Open.
Patton’s last significant victory came at Pinehurst in the 1965 Southern Amateur. He was 43 and hadn’t won a major competition in three years.
A few years later, Patton said of that win: “My wife thought it was just another tournament I had won. My kids felt about the same way. But that victory did something to me. I was alive.
“After I accepted my trophy, I got in my convertible, put the top down and drove out of Pinehurst. When I got on the highway and there was just me and the pine trees shootin’ by, I let out the damndest yell you ever heard. I kept shoutin’ and drivin’. I let it all out.”
Unfortunately, Patton failed to win the 1962 U.S. Amateur at Pinehurst. He advanced all the way to the semifinals before running into Labron Harris. Two down after 12 holes, Patton needed to make a move. He knocked his approach to the 13th hole within 6 feet of the hole. Before attempting the putt, Patton went to his golf bag in an effort to change his luck on the greens, pulling out a pair of battered glasses. The night before, Patton actually had sat on them, but it didn’t stop him from holing the putt to win the hole.
Patton won the 14th hole to square the match, but his good luck didn’t last and he eventually lost the match, disappointing a lot of fans in North Carolina. It was as close as Patton would come to hoisting the Havemeyer Trophy.
In later years, Patton often worked as a Rules official at the Masters. In 1979 and ’81, he won the Carolinas Senior Amateur.
The USGA then bestowed its highest honor on Patton by naming him the recipient of the 1982 Bob Jones Award for his distinguished sportsmanship in golf.
David Shefter is a USGA communications staff writer. E-mail him with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. Some information for this story came from the Charlotte Observer.