With absolutely no apologies to Sam Snead and Ben Hogan, the 1954 Masters began and ended with a fast-swinging, slow-talking player from the foothills of North Carolina who came within a whisker of being the one and only amateur ever to win a green jacket. By the time Snead beat Hogan by one shot in the Monday playoff, for most people, The Masters was already over.
Billy Joe Patton finished third in 1954, one shot and a few shouts out of the playoff, but he was in indisputable first place in the hearts of the Augusta National patrons. Patton cut and slashed his way through the Georgia pines and if he had only made par on the back-nine par-5s, Nos. 13 and 15, he would be a Masters champion.
Instead, playing with the lead on Sunday, he boldly, if not foolishly, went for the green in two shots on both holes and came away with three shots lost to par. And, sadly, the green jacket frittered away in the bargain.
Patton was 32 years old and a lumber broker from Morganton, N.C. He had been invited to The Masters by virtue of being an alternate on the Walker Cup team, which hasn’t been a criterion for invitation in many years. Outside the Carolinas, despite the fact that he was a standout at Wake Forest, Patton’s name wasn’t familiar to those paying attention to golf’s major championships.
“He had a homemade game with a backswing so fast it was nothing more than a steel blur,” wrote Ron Green Sr. (?) of the Charlotte Observer. And he hit it a surprisingly long way in the bargain. Patton won The Masters long drive competition – yes, they once held one of those – in the days leading up to the tournament. Patton fished a practice ball out of a competitor’s bag and smashed it a remarkable 338 yards. It was his only swing of the contest.
Patton put himself into the conversation by shooting a 2-under 70 in the first round, tying for the lead with E.J. (Dutch) Harrison. Despite a 74 in the second round, Patton held onto the lead. But he was written off by most after a third-round 76. Hogan shot 69 in Saturday’s third round to take a three-shot lead over Snead and five over Patton heading into Sunday.
But that’s when the thunder began to roar at Augusta National. Patton reached the sixth tee, seemingly without a shot at the title. But a 5-iron found the bottom of the cup for a hole-in-one that turned Augusta National upside down.
“Witnesses swore that the first surface it hit was the bottom of the cup,” the Augusta Chronicle reported the next day.
Bobby Jones himself described the roar from the clubhouse: “The china started rattling. The walls trembled.”
Patton watched as the number of patrons who followed began to swell. “Hogan’s gallery was coming up the third fairway and they came over in droves,” Patton said. “There was more applause to get the ball out of the hole than when it went in.”
Patton went on to make birdie at the par-5 eighth and another at the ninth to turn in 4-under 32 and the game was on. When Patton reached the par-5 13th, he had just come off a bogey at the previous hole.
A good drive left him within reach of the green in two and Patton took his 4-wood. The hole was located in the front right of the green and Patton’s shot was headed in that direction. But the ball had a little left-to-right spin and there might have been a puff of wind that came up that slapped the ball out of the air into the creek that fronts the green.
Here, history is divided on the tale. Some accounts have Patton taking a drop, pitching short of the green, chipping up and two-putting. Other accounts have Patton taking off his shoes, attempting to play the ball from the creek and leaving it in the hazard. Whichever story is correct, it all added up to a double-bogey 7 for Patton.
At about the same time, Hogan found the water, but a couple of holes behind. He hit his second into the pond that fronts the 11th green, costing him a double-bogey, as well. In subsequent years, Hogan would tell people that if he hit the green in regulation at the 11th, it meant that he had pulled his second shot.
Patton came back from his near-disaster with a kick-in birdie at the 14th, nearly holing his second shot. At the par-5 15th, believing he needed more birdies to win, Patton pulled his tee shot and was on a bare lie of red clay. With a 3-wood, he attempted to hit the green in two. Instead, he half-skulled his shot and found the pond in front of the green. He made a bogey, which put him one shot behind Snead, who had shot 72 in the final round and was the leader in the clubhouse.
Patton would not mount any sort of a charge after that, but still had an 18-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole that would have put him into the playoff with Snead and Hogan. When asked if he would reconsider going for each of the par-5s in two, he said, “I didn’t get where I was by playing safe,” he said. “That’s not the way I play.”
The 18-hole playoff was held the next day and both players shot even-par on the front nine. Snead chipped in at the 10th for a birdie but relinquished the lead with a bogey at the 12th. Hogan laid up at the 13th, while Snead easily made the green in two for an easy birdie.
Hogan had a chance to catch Snead by hitting his tee shot close at the par-3 16th, but three-putted to give Snead a two-shot lead. Snead bogeyed the 18th and finished the playoff with a 70 to Hogan’s 71.
Patton stayed over to watch the playoff, and at the awards ceremony, he was presented with the low amateur trophy by Jones himself. Snead told Patton, “Billy Joe, you nearly got the whole turkey.”
When Jones dedicated the bridges over Rae’s Creek to Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson, Jones’ wife suggested that he dedicate something to Patton. “I told her that Billy Joe doesn’t like anything that spans water,” Jones said. “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.”
Jones said those words in jest but Patton would not have been the least bit offended.
As it turns out, Patton was no mere interloper. Later in 1954, at the U.S. Open at Baltusrol, he shot 69 to lead the field after the first round and ended up tied for sixth. In the 1957 Open at Inverness, Patton tied for the 36-hole lead at a then-record 2-under 138 with eventual champion Dick Mayer. Patton went on to tie for eighth.
Patton played on Walker Cup teams and won a couple of North and South Amateurs and a couple Southern Ams. He never fulfilled his dream of winning the U.S. Amateur, his best chance coming in 1962 at Pinehurst No. 2, reaching the semifinals. In 1982, he was awarded the Bobby Jones Award by the USGA for sportsmanship in the game. And he remained a lifelong amateur, something that might have changed had he won The Masters.
“I might have been tempted to turn pro,” said Patton, who died Jan. 1 at age 88. “If I had won that tournament, I’d have had difficulty handling the money, the liquor would have been a problem, and with the women, I didn’t have a chance.”
Then, perhaps it’s only fitting that Patton didn’t win. Some things are more important than money. Now that all the protagonists aren’t with us any longer, the enduring story is worth more than gold.