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Billy Joe Patton nearly won '54 Masters, undoubtedly won hearts

Billy Joe Patton, the most endearing and colorful golf star to ever come smiling and slashing out of North Carolina, is gone.

He died Saturday in Morganton, his hometown.

There has never been another like him and there likely never will be.

He came down out of the foothills of North Carolina, where he sold lumber for a living and played golf for fun. He had a name out of a country song, Billy Joe. He talked like Sheriff Andy Taylor. He played to a gallery like he was on a stage, gabbing away with the people between shots, and he was not above milking a little extra drama out of a trouble shot.

He had a homemade game with a backswing so fast it was nothing more than a steel blur. (Later in life, he said, "You can tell I'm gettin' old: You can see my backswing now.") It was a swing that often put him in close touch with the creatures of the forest, but he was a magical escape artist and he had a putter that was as good to him as a doting mother.

Patton was 88 years old at the time of his death. It had been several years since he had been able to play golf. A few years ago, he told me that most of his trophies were scattered here and there "but I still have the memories."

There was a lot to reminisce about.

For all his wins, Patton neared the end of his competitive years without having captured the U.S. Amateur, but in 1962 it was played on the No. 2 course in Pinehurst. Perfect. Billy Joe had won the Southern Amateur there in 1960 and the North & South Amateur there in 1961 and 1962. In the national championship, he ran his winning streak on Pinehurst No. 2 to 20 matches, which brought him up against Labron Harris in the semifinal.

Billy Joe struggled in that match, and when he came to the 13th hole he was 2 down. He needed to make something happen. He hit his approach shot 6 feet from the hole. He studied the putt for a while, then went to his golf bag. Trying to change his luck, he pulled out a battered pair of glasses that were so crooked, they looked like he had sat on them. Which he had, the night before. He hung them on his ears, then dug around in the bag some more and pulled out a wrinkled hat that looked like it had been reclaimed off a garbage truck. He pulled that hat down over those glasses hanging sideways on his face. Finally ready, he crouched over that putt and nailed it to win the hole. Billy Joe being Billy Joe.

The magic didn't last. He won the 14th to even the match but eventually lost, breaking a lot of Carolina hearts.

When Billy Joe was enjoying a great run of success in the Augusta Masters in the 1950s and '60's, Ken Venturi took note of the way Billy Joe loved the crowds and fed on the adoration. "If they locked the gates and didn't let anybody in but the players, Billy Joe wouldn't break 80," Venturi said.

By the early 1950s, Patton had a nice resume: one Carolinas Amateur championship, one Carolinas Open Championship and a Carolinas Open co-championship that he shared with the renowned South African Bobby Locke. He had been named an alternate on the Walker Cup team, which at that time qualified him for an invitation to play in the Masters. But for all of that, he was a relative unknown outside the Carolinas.

And then, he nearly won that 1954 Masters, missing a playoff for the green jacket by one shot. Sam Snead beat Ben Hogan 70 to 71 in the playoff. That was great stuff, but the story of that tournament was Billy Joe Patton. The folksy, loquacious 32-year-old lumberman had already stolen the show, had become a national folk hero unlike any that golf had seen in this country since Snead himself came down from the mountains.

Billy Joe, taking chances, hit the ball into the water twice on the final round and still came within an 18-foot putt of making the playoff.

Driving to Augusta, he had rehearsed an acceptance speech, in case he won. No amateur had ever won the Masters, but Patton, confident and naive, thought he might.

At the presentation ceremony, Bobby Jones presented him with his award for being low amateur and Snead said, "Billy Joe, you nearly got the whole turkey."

Over the next decade, Patton was a fixture in the Masters, led the U.S. Open after one round at Baltusrol and set a 36-hole record in the U.S. Open at Inverness, along with winning a couple of Carolinas Amateurs, a couple of North & South Amateurs and a Southern Amateur and making a long list of international teams.

"Full bore, full guts," is the way Billy Joe once described his golf. It often got him into trouble, but he seemed to always find a way out of it.

After the dedication of bridges across Rae's Creek on the Augusta National course, honoring Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson, Bobby Jones' wife said, "Bob, I think we should dedicate something to Billy Joe Patton."

Jones, recalling Patton's watery fate on the 13th and 15th holes in 1954 when he lost by a shot, said, "I told her that Billy Joe doesn't like anything that spans water. I remember the first time I ever saw Patton. It was in the woods to the right of the 14th fairway. I think it would be a fitting tribute to him to name those woods the 'Patton Woods,' and I'm going to suggest it to the board of governors." He was joking, of course, but it would have been appropriate.

Billy Joe played swashbuckling golf, happy golf, golf that was splendid only in its result. He played golf that substituted soul for mechanism, golf that always had a dramatic uncertainty to it, golf that had a joy to it that we don't often see anymore among the best players. And in 1982, he was presented the Bobby Jones Award in recognition of distinguished sportsmanship in golf, one of the game's most revered awards.

Patton's last significant victory came in 1965 when he won the Southern Amateur for the second time in Pinehurst. He was 43 years old and had gone three years without winning a tournament. He knew twilight was settling over his game, and he needed to prove he had one last victory in him.

A few years later, he said, "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."

Along the way, through his glory days, down all the fairways and through all the brambles and brush, he did just that. He let it all out.

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