Campbell: Patton ‘once-in-a-lifetime guy’
By now, you may have heard that Billy Joe Patton died Jan. 1 at 88 in his hometown of Morganton, N.C. One person who hadn’t was his old friend and competitor, Bill Campbell. When I reached the former USGA president on the phone at his winter home in Jupiter, Fla., his voice on the other end sank in sadness. He said, with a combination of shock and dismay, “I hadn’t heard. Nobody told me that.”
Campbell had recently eulogized his friend, former USGA president Buzz Taylor, who died in November. As the unpleasant news sank in, Campbell spoke in a voice both calm and firm of a man whom he called one of the great characters of the game.
“I could write a book about Billy Joe,” he began. “He was an old friend, both as a rival and a competitor as well as a colleague. I had the pleasure of being president when we named him to the (USGA) Executive Committee. I played on several (Walker Cup) teams with him.”
When I asked Campbell to share some of his favorite stories, he replied, “You don’t have the time, Adam.”
But Campbell couldn’t resist. He still had a little time before he had to leave for a scheduled appointment.
“The largest noise I ever heard was at Augusta in 1954*,” Campbell said. “I was coming out of the lunch room, the door swung open and I heard that noise where Billy Joe had that hole-in-one at the sixth hole.”
Campbell wasn’t exaggerating. This is how Bobby Jones described the roar: “The china started rattling. The walls trembled. I had to go out on the porch to see what Billy Joe had done now.”
Patton, the North Carolina lumberman and career amateur, had started the final round five strokes behind the lead. Now he had vaulted into contention with Ben Hogan and Sam Snead.
“So I rushed out and walked the rest of the way with him,” Campbell said of Patton. “I stood with him – right behind him for the shot at No. 13. It wasn’t a good lie. He was over by the pine trees. He had a 3-wood or 4-wood. The pin was on the right half of the green, toward the front. He hit a great shot, but he had just a bit of a turn on it, going left to right. If it wasn’t for that, he would’ve had a putt for eagle. As it was, he hit the bank and it kicked into the water. As you know from your history – you’re too young to have been there – he took his shoes off and played his third shot and left it in the water. He made a 7.”
Patton’s gamble didn’t pay off. It’s been said that a puff of wind kicked up and prevented Patton’s ball from reaching the green. The double bogey was damaging but not deadly. Did Campbell think Patton should’ve gone for the green, I interjected.
“I did,” Campbell said. “People asked him that, and Billy Joe said, ‘I didn’t get where I was playing it safe. That’s not the way I play golf.’
“People forget he went to No. 14 and had a kick-in birdie. He almost holed his shot. On No. 15, in those days, they didn’t have any rough, and (off the tee) he hit a low healer – an Oral Roberts, as they said – up the left side well short of the pine trees, but he didn’t have a good lie. Again, he used a lofted wood – Bily Joe was very long in that day – but I told him afterwards he could’ve hit a bucket of balls and I bet he wouldn’t have gotten any of the balls on the green from that lie. His mindset had to be ‘take a chance.’ Anyway, it didn’t work. He made a 6. But how about being only one shot behind Hogan and Snead? You never thought a man could come into the Masters as an amateur and steal the show.”
The stories continued. Campbell noted Patton’s accomplishments, winning the North & South three times and the Southern Amateur twice, and also offered an explanation for Patton’s failure to win the U.S. Amateur.
“He got nervous fever blisters in major competitions such as the Walker Cup,” Campbell said. “It was a reflection of the intensity of which he played. He certainly had the ability to win the Amateur, but it was too many rounds of golf, too many days for him to keep that emotional intensity.”
Patton was also renowned for his power game and a backswing considered the fastest in golf at the time.
“He won the Masters long drive contest,” Campbell said. “He hit one shot, a practice ball he borrowed from Paul Hahn’s shag bag. He hit it 338 yards. He was a born performer.
“He had his own style of play. How was he so long for a guy who was built like a running back or in these days like a linebacker? I’ll tell you this. When we were on the 1955 Walker Cup team, the U.S. team took the (ship) S.S. America and I had a practice club – still have it – and it’s a 26-ounce club and that’s double the usual weight, as you know. He was the only one who could swing it and hit balls into the ocean.
“I have slow-motion pictures of him. The key to his technique was he got his distance from the speed with which he pulled his left hip out of the shot. It wasn’t just a question of turning. He pulled his fanny and his left knee back, and his weight moved very fast. He was also a wonderful feel putter.”
By now, Campbell was running late. The memories kept flooding back. So he left me with one parting shot about a friend who made a lasting impression on him and the game.
“Joe, as I called him, had a great sense of humor, too. He said I was the only person who asked at the first tee of the Masters where the ball washer was.” At the recollection, Campbell chuckled. “He teased me mercilessly about my Scottish (heritage). He was a marvel. He deserves more than just notice of death. Once in a lifetime a guy like him comes along.”
Rest in peace, Billy Joe.