Former Wake Forest Golfer Billy Joe Patton Passes
Jan. 3, 2011
Billy Joe Patton, a 1973 inductee into the Wake Forest Sports Hall of Fame, died Saturday, Jan. 1, 2011, in his hometown of Morganton, N.C.
Patton was the first in the long line of Wake Forest golfers to gain national prominence.
A 1943 graduate of the University, Patton gained national headlines for his phenomenal play while an amateur in the major professional tournaments. Included in his lengthy list of golfing achievements are berths on six Walker Cup teams, serving as captain once, and championships of the North-South Amateur (three times) the Carolinas Amateur (three times), and the Southern Amateur (twice). In 1954, at the age of 32, Patton challenged two of professional golf's greatest players, Sam Snead and Ben Hogan, in the Masters.
Patton grew up in Morganton, N.C. and had already taken up golf by the age of 5. He practiced at the Mimosa Hills Golf and Country Club while growing up during the Depression.
After graduating from Wake Forest College in 1943, Patton spent the next three years in the Navy, much of it in the Pacific.
Patton earned an invitation to his first Masters after serving as an alternate to the U.S. Walker Cup team. He would eventually be invited to 13 consecutive Masters Tournaments. In 1954, Patton won the long drive contest held on Wednesday with a drive of 338 yards. Winning the contest also gave him confidence heading into the start of the tournament.
"Rather than think I was the new kid on the block and had no business being there, I said, `I know I can play as good as most of these fellows, or better.' I said `If I can also drive the ball as far, or farther than most of them, I had an advantage," said Patton in a 1984 interview with the Winston-Salem Sentinel.
Patton was the 18-hole leader and was tied for the lead after two rounds. He fell five shots back after the third round but then staged a remarkable rally on the front side on Sunday. He aced the par-3 sixth hole at Augusta National en route to a front-side 32 to put him even with Hogan and Snead heading to the back nine. A daring golfer, Patton tried for the eagle on both par 5s, 13 and 15. Both of his approach shots landed in the water. Eventually, Snead would beat Hogan in a playoff.
"The `7' (at the 13th) didn't kill me because I birdied the 14th," Patton told Chip Alexander of the Raleigh News and Observer. "But I lost the tournament at the 15th with a dumb shot - skulled a 2-wood into the water in front of the green from a bare lie.
"It wasn't choking and it wasn't pressure. I got birdies going for the pins, and I got the `6' and `7' going for the pins. I came down from Morganton with the intention of going for the pins for 72 holes. No regrets, no alibis."
"It kind of changed my life," said Patton to the Sentinel on his Masters rally. "One tournament. Suddenly, from being unknown, I was known. It gave me identity. That June I went to the U.S. Open and people knew who I was."
Ron Green of the Charlotte Observer wrote in a 1986 column that Patton "Played swashbuckling golf, happy golf, splendid in its result; golf that substituted soul for mechanism, golf that had dramatic uncertainty to it, golf to which bystanders could relate.
"His saving grace was a putter that loved him. He has often said that back when he was young, nobody could handle a 6-footer the way he could. He just didn't think he could miss."
Green continued: "There was a joy to his game that few playing at the upper level of golf could equal.
"All of it - his scrambling, his nerve, his down-home gabbing with the spectators, his passion, his grace, his humor - all of it made him the most delightful and endearing person I've ever come across in sports."
During his career, Patton would compete on six Walker Cup teams, post three wins in the North and South Amateur and two more wins in the Southern Amateur. He twice led the U.S. Open after 36 holes and each time finished as the low amateur. He was elected to the North Carolina Golfers Hall of Fame and in 1983, was elected to the U.S.G.A. executive committee. He also received the Bobby Jones Award presented by the U.S.G.A in recognition of distinguished sportsmanship in golf.