Comparisons are inevitable. Any son who follows his father’s path – in sports, business, politics, whatever – has to understand that going in, regardless of how good, bad or in between the elder was on said chosen path. When the father is a larger-than-life legend, well, that only amplifies things more.
Colby Patton’s father was a larger-than-life legend – at Clemson, in golf, in anything he did. I mean, Chris Patton was a big man – 6-foot-1 and comfortably north of 300 pounds in his prime. His nickname was “Big Daddy” in an era when “Big Mama” JoAnne Carner was still a staple and legend of her own in the women’s golf universe. And Chris Patton possessed a combination of simple country charm and homemade skills of raw power and soft hands that made him a fascinating U.S. Amateur champion two years before John Daly burst onto the scene and stole the spotlight at the 1991 PGA Championship.
People were simply drawn to Patton’s magnetism and his successes at Clemson the way they were drawn to William “The Refrigerator” Perry. He was a farm boy from Fountain Inn, South Carolina, who taught himself the game and lifted the biggest trophy in amateur golf. He broke the mold of what people expected a golf champion to look and act like. What was not to like?
“I think his size had a little bit to do with it – you’re not that big and don’t stand out in the crowd out there,” the younger Patton says. “Everybody now is real fit and skinny and hits it miles. He kind of changed the status quo back then being as big as he was being able to play the way he did.”
When Chris Patton decided to go 40 miles due east of the family farm in 1986 and play for young coach Larry Penley’s Clemson program, he and teammate Kevin Johnson put Tiger golf on the map.
“Chris was such a special player,” said Penley, who will retire after the NCAA Championships are over next week having coached 38 years and two generations of Pattons. “He was really the guy that came in and changed our world. He was such a tremendous talent and when you combine him with Kevin Johnson who came in the year before, man those guys did a lot of winning for sure.”
Chris, as he does, downplays it: “I don’t know if you’d call us star players. We were good college players. If I was a star, I’d have me a few green jackets and some other hardware right now.”
Regardless, Colby knew what he was getting into when he, too, chose to play at Clemson. Everywhere he goes, coaches and players talk about his dad. After all those years of being introduced at annual Tiger gatherings that include a host of alums with decorated PGA Tour resumes, how could he not be drawn those same 40 miles due east of Fountain Inn?
“Once they had me on radar it was a no brainer for me,” Colby said. “It’s such a great program and with Coach Penley being able to coach my dad, I was kind of like why not? Fit for me, was close, awesome program and I would be able to develop a lot.”
Tiger fans might not have expected Chris Patton’s son to show up 6-foot-3 and skinny as a goalpost, but they certainly expected a golf pedigree – which he quickly delivered with a victory in the Hummingbird Invitational less than two months after walking onto campus in 2017. But Colby Patton was determined to chart his own course even if the fairways were familiar. He took a big step in that direction when he helped Clemson win the ACC Championship and secure a No. 1 seed in the NCAA regional.
“My dad always said. ‘I never want you to live in my footsteps; I want you to create your own legacy and don’t want you to be overshadowed by whatever I’ve done at Clemson,’” said Colby, now a senior and pursuing an NCAA Championship this week that eluded his father. “I feel like I’m doing a decent job of that – being able to win the ACC was awesome and the way our team has grown over the last couple of years. There was never any pressure to live up to his expectations or anything. He just wanted me to be the best person I can and the best golfer I can and whatever happens happens.”
That Colby got into golf at all is credit to his father, who ironically quit competing shortly after his son was born. The exception was at the local country club, Fox Run, where he taught Colby how to let the game come to him as naturally as it did his father.
“I was never overly technical with him,” Chris says. “If he was struggling, I’d kind of ease my way in hoping he’d ask me for help or offer a tidbit. But I wanted Colby to learn to find his own thing. I don’t think you can retain something and repeat something over and over again unless you, in a way, happened into it on your own.”
“He’s always been the person who would come up and greet you with a big ol’ hug. I think he’s always been a better guy, even now, versus golf. People recognize him more by the way he treated people.” – Colby Patton
Colby did get a taste of what kind of impact his father made on peers and fans as a golfer. As a past U.S. Amateur champ, Chris Patton got a special exemption to compete in the 2018 U.S. Senior Open at the Broadmoor in Colorado. He accepted despite having not competed in a tournament in 14 years. Colby went along as his caddie.
“He got to see a little bit of what the inside life was about. That was the goal,” Chris said.
Colby realized just how popular his father was among peers as diverse as David Toms, Jerry Kelly and Miguel Ángel Jiménez who all embraced his cameo return.
“It was so funny because everybody greeted him with open arms when we got out there because a lot of those guys on senior tour are guys he grew up with in junior golf and college golf,” Colby said. “It was really cool to see how much of an impact he had on their lives and how much of a good guy he was to them.
“He’s always been the person who would come up and greet you with a big ol’ hug. I think he’s always been a better guy, even now, versus golf. People recognize him more by the way he treated people.”
Chris has always been as likeable as he is naturally gifted. Colby has a lot of those qualities in him as well, even if he has to dig his game a little harder out of the dirt.
“Colby has had to work hard on his short game and his dad’s came very natural,” said Penley. “Chris just had great hands and the best touch and imagination around the greens of any player I’ve ever had. Colby has learned that from his dad. And he’s worked hard at it and developed into a very good putter.
“Chris was maybe a little further along at this stage of his career but there’s no reason Colby can’t get to any goal he chooses with his golf.”
Right now, that goal is doing something his dad never did (and only the 2003 Clemson team ever accomplished) – win the NCAA Championship, which starts Saturday at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariona. Colby is bullish on that possibility considering the Tigers won the ACC title in a conference that placed five teams as a No. 1 or 2 seed in the six regionals. They advanced out of their regional in Tennessee tied for fourth with NC State, two shots better than Charlotte thanks to two late birdies by Patton.
“I told (my dad) we moved up to No. 3 and he said, ‘Well son, my team was never outside of the top five when I was in school,’ ” Colby said with a laugh. “They won the ACC championship so we’ve got that in common now. If we were able to win a national championship, it would be really fitting for Coach Penley to go out like that.”
If it happens with a deep and experienced team made up of three seniors and two juniors, Patton will be a key part of that as he was at the ACC, which decided its title via match-play final four to better prepare any teams that reach the match-play portion of the NCAAs. Facing NC State in the semifinals, Patton came through with the decisive match in extra holes.
“Colby made a great save to force a second playoff hole – made a slippery 12-footer to continue the match,” Penley said. “Then he hit a great drive and stuffed a wedge to 3 feet for victory.”
With a 300-acre farm to run, his father doesn’t get to attend Colby’s tournaments often. But he was at the Capital City Club’s Crabapple Course in Atlanta to see that and likes what he sees in this team’s chances.
“I can’t imagine a greater scenario for Colby or any of the Clemson kids,” Chris said. “To win a national championship would be something that nobody could take away ever. Larry already has his name on record books but that would be a great finale to a fantastic career. For Colby it would be something he could be able to say for the rest of his life.”
Penley will retire one way or another, but Colby isn’t ready to leave school yet. While he officially graduated with his bachelor’s degree in business marketing just before the Tigers competed as the top seed in the NCAA regional in Kingston Springs, Tennessee, Colby will take advantage of the COVID clause allowing another season of eligibility and will return for the 2021-22 golf season (along with fellow senior Kyle Cottam) and start working on his MBA.
Considering his sophomore season was marred by some injuries and his junior year was wiped out by a pandemic, it made perfect sense to come back to keep developing.
“First, I’ll get another year of experience and get to play again and hopefully get a little higher ranking in the PGA Tour University thing,” Colby said. “Then even if I wasn’t able to succeed at a higher level, I’d have some higher education to fall back on. All in all, I thought it was a pretty good deal for me since they’ll be able to give me another year of scholarship still.”
Penley endorsed the “smart move” that will not only help the program, his successor and the players, but it sets an example for younger guys in the program who all come in with big aspirations.
“Once they enroll in college as freshmen, they’re doing everything they can to get out. They can’t wait to get out,” Penley said. “And then once they get out they’re like, ‘Oh gosh. Now I realize just how good I had it.’
“I think Colby realizes how good he has it and an additional year of eligibility will do nothing but help his game. He’ll continue to mature and his game will continue to mature. He can start a masters degree. It’s a win-win.”
“Any time your child’s gonna have an opportunity to get a masters degree, that’s just gonna create opportunity in the business world and job world if golf don’t pan out for him.” – Chris Patton
Colby’s father certainly knows why it’s better to cover all the bases before trying to make the step up from college golf. After his four years at Clemson and all the success he had, the pro life was still a rude awakening in spite of all his talents. While Chris won on every single professional tour he had status on – Nike (now Korn Ferry), Canadian, Australasian and Hooters – he could never quite earn his PGA Tour card and only made one career PGA Tour cut in 16 starts.
“Any time your child’s gonna have an opportunity to get a masters degree, that’s just gonna create opportunity in the business world and job world if golf don’t pan out for him,” Chris said. “I’m gonna guess and think Colby would say he’s not at a point where he’s ready for professional golf right now. Those decisions are going to be his decisions. My personal opinion is pretty much if you’re not dominating college golf, winning fairly often, the professional golf career is gonna be tough.”
Colby has his head on straight on what he hopes to achieve. However far his golf takes him, he doesn’t aspire to take over the family farm the way his daddy did – chasing around 125 head of cattle and baling hay.
“I’ve grown up helping him feed the cows when I was younger,” Colby said. “Different mindset and different era. I feel like I would do better getting a normal-person job or trying to pursue golf versus taking over the farm.”
When he’s not fixing tractors and feeding cows, Chris Patton has a different passion himself these days – bowling. In local leagues or friendly play with his wife, Megan, he can be found three or four nights a week at the bowling alleys around Greenville. He bowls scores higher than his significantly trimmed down frame, with a high score of 289 when he had only a nine-pin spare in the first frame.
“He’s actually really good. I go bowling with him more than I go golfing with him now,” Colby said.
“I like the weather a lot better than golf,” Chris says, downplaying his skills as usual. “I’m pretty average. Just an old man who likes to play. I maybe play golf once a year now.”
Penley knows better.
“I vividly remember Chris playing basketball and taking on all challengers in free-throw shooting contests and nobody could beat him,” his old coach said. “That’s how good his hand-eye was. I can only imagine how good it is with a bowling ball in his hand. I know how good he can be at anything he chooses to do.”
Top: Chris Patton at his farm in Fountain Inn, South Carolina. Photo: Chris Keane, USGA
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