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Guest Writer's Ode to Billy Joe

NOTE: The writer is John Fischer III, president of the Golf Collectors Society:

The Masters Tournament always creates an air of excited anticipation, the first major of the year held at a beautiful setting, but in 1954 expectations were higher than usual. Ben Hogan was defending champion, and in addition to the 1953 Masters, Hogan had won the U.S. Open and The Open Championship, the “Hogan Slam.” Hogan was the clear favorite, and had arrived at Augusta two weeks ahead of The Masters to practice.

Patton accepted his low amateur honor from Jones while proudly wearing his new sportcoat.

Patton accepted his low amateur honor from Jones while proudly wearing his new sportcoat.

The spring of 1954 brought another player to the field, William Joseph Patton, known to all as “Billy Joe,” a 31-year-old lumber salesman from Morganton, N.C. While the field might have felt the pressure of lining up against Hogan at the top of his game, Billy Joe felt none; in fact, it was Billy Joe who would apply the pressure to Hogan.

Billy Joe wasn’t well known outside North Carolina, although he had won the Carolina Amateur, the Carolina Open and the North & South Amateur, all solid events, and starred on the Wake Forest University golf team. Patton had been selected as the first alternate to the 1953 Walker Cup team, although he didn’t play.

Masters Tournament Director Clifford Roberts suggested to Bob Jones that alternates for the Walker Cup be invited as part of the amateur contingent at The Masters and Jones liked the idea. The Masters was, and still is, an invitational tournament, and Billy Joe's invitation was sent. Billy Joe was long off the tee and an excellent putter, a good combination for the Augusta National course.

Billy Joe readily accepted. He felt his game was in good shape and that he had a crack at winning, so much so that he ordered a new white cashmere sport coat to wear at the presentation ceremonies. While driving from Morganton to Augusta, Billy Joe composed his acceptance speech. Billy also also had a game plan for Augusta: bold play, shooting for every pin, no holding back or laying up.

Today on the Wednesday afternoon of tournament week, a competition is held on Augusta National’s Par-3 Course, but in 1954 the Par-3 Course did not exist, and the pre-tournament festivity was an exhibition on the practice range by the Masters contestants, including a long-driving contest, which Billy Joe entered.

Billy Joe possessed a lightning fast swing and an odd tilt to his follow through, but he could hit the ball “a ton.” He hit his first ball in the driving contest 338 yards. The contest rules allowed for the best of three drives, but Billy Joe turned down the opportunity with the quip, “No, thanks, the next shot I might miss altogether. I couldn’t possibly beat that first one.” And that first one was indeed good enough for Billy Joe to win the driving contest.

Beating the field in the driving contest gave Patton reinforcement that he could not only play with the professionals, but that he could beat them. The Augusta National course was set up at 6,950 yards, long for 1954 and, as true today, favored the long hitter.

On Thursday, the first day of tournament play, the weather was a mixture of thunder, rain and lightning and scores were high, but Billy Joe returned a score of 70, two under par, tied with E.J. (Dutch) Harrison for the lead. Hogan was two back at 72 and Sam Snead, a tournament favorite, was in with a two-over-par 74.

Suddenly there was a new star and the press was asking who this guy with the Southern drawl was. Patton seemed to throw a bit of cold water on his lead commenting, “now hold on a minute boys, let’s not get get too strong on this thing. Tomorrow, I may shoot an 80z—I probably will.”

Patton slipped to 74 on the second day of play but surprised himself with the sole lead at the halfway mark. Hogan was one stroke back.

Patton had proven he was long off the tee, but his ball was not always on the intended line. His game had a dramatic uncertainty to it; no one, including Billy Joe, knew where his ball was going to end up on any shot. Except for putting. Augusta National’s greens have a lot of subtle breaks and rolls, but Billy Joe was making putts and dropping six-footers like they were tap-ins.

Billy Joe’s “go for it” style was not unlike what Arnold Palmer would do a few years later, and his talkative manner presaged Lee Trevino’s style. When Billy Joe found himself in the trees, as he frequently did, he’d look for an opening, however small, and go for it, telling the gallery what he was going to do. He had great confidence and was becoming a gallery favorite.

On Saturday Billy Joe came in with a three-over 75, which left him five strokes behind Hogan, who made a move with a 69, and two strokes behind Sam Snead.

Billy Joe’s dropoff was not entirely unanticipated. It was not unusual for an unknown to lead a major event at the beginning of the tournament. As the pressure built, the seasoned players tended to move up the leader board, eclipsing newcomers.

Unlike today when the leaders go off last—very  convenient for the all-powerful television broadcasts that bring in revenue—in 1954, the leaders were scattered throughout the field spreading out the galleries and making it easier to follow the leaders.

Snead was off at noon, a half hour before Billy Joe and an hour before Hogan. Snead faltered a bit early in the round and the galleries decided Hogan was on his way toward winning the Masters for a second year in a row.

Then there was an explosion of yelling and cheering that rolled through Augusta’s hills. Billy Joe had scored an ace on the 190-yard sixth hole, his ball hitting the pin six inches above the cup and dropping straight down into the hole.

Suddenly, everything was askew, and the tournament opening up. Billy Joe was now three under par overall, three strokes behind Hogan. No matter how advantageous, a hole-in-one can shake up a player by interfering with his focus. But not Billy Joe. He parred the seventh, and then birdied eight and nine, making the turn in 32.

Patton parred 10 and 11 and, standing on the 12th tee, was tied with Hogan for the lead. Hogan was out in 37.

It’s a well-worn saying that the Masters doesn’t begin until the back nine Sunday, and in 1954 the excitement was just beginning. Patton would make a bogey-4 at 12 and, in keeping with his “full bore, full guts” philosophy, decided to hit a 3-wood to the green at the par-5 13th, which was guarded in front by a tributary to Rae’s Creek. Billy Joe dumped his shot into the creek, considered trying to play from the water, but decided to drop the ball behind the creek and take a stroke penalty.

Patton then proceeded to hit a poor pitch over the creek, had to chip to the green and took two putts. A disastrous 7.

Hogan was now standing over his second shot to the 11th green. Instant scoring was not available in 1954. There were fewer scoreboards and players did not know where they stood against the field or the leader, or even who the leader was. That was Hogan’s situation.

Hogan had a game plan for every course he played, and how he would play each hole was mapped out before he stepped on the first tee. On 11, there is a pond to the front-left of the green and a gathering slope at the edge of the green that can pull the ball into the water. Hogan had said that if you ever saw his ball on the 11th green in two, you would know he had missed the shot. His plan was to play to the right of the green, chip on and make a par.

It was here that Hogan made a disastrous error. He broke with his game plan, pulled out a 3-iron and hooked it into the pond. The result: a double-bogey 6. Afterward Hogan said, “If I’d known what happened to Patton I would have played it safe.”

As Billy Joe walked off the 13th green with his double bogey, his large and loyal gallery was was quiet and crestfallen. Patton looked over at them and said, “C’mon, folks, let’s smile again.” And then Patton gave them something to smile about—a birdie at the 14th. He was back in the hunt again.

Patton decided to go for the green at the par-5 15th requiring a carry over a pond that runs across the entire front of the green. Billy Joe mis-hit a 2-wood and his ball splashed into the water. He was on in 4, and two-putted for a 6. His gallery’s emotions were bounced around on the back nine. Billy Joe parred the last three holes, but his fabulous day was over. He finished at 290, one stroke behind Hogan and Snead who had tied for the lead. In the 18-hole playoff on Monday, Snead won, beating Hogan 70 to 71, but 1954 was still Patton’s Masters. Snead and Hogan had played under-par golf in their playoff, but all Augusta was talking about was Billy Joe.

At the presentation ceremonies, Billy Joe was wearing his new cashmere sports coat. In accepting the award for low amateur (solo third place), the gallery may have been expecting a remorseful recap of his double bogey at 13 or the bogey at 15, but that wasn’t Billy Joe’s mindset.

“I don’t feel bad about that 6 at 15 and I don’t feel bad about that 7 at 13, and I don’t want my rooters to feel bad about that. I told myself I wasn’t going around after the tournament thinking I could have saved a stroke if I hadn’t played it bold. So I played it bold and the way I made those birdies was the same way I got that six and that seven."

The 1954 Masters was the first of 14 times Billy Joe would play in the tournament, although he never came as close again to trading his white sport coat for the green jacket, the symbol of the Masters champion. He did, however, take low-amateur honors two more times.

Billy Joe didn't change his style. He was always the swashbuckler going for the pin, finding an opening in the trees to redeem a wayward shot and never playing safe. Over the years several groves of trees were designated as “Patton’s Woods” by his followers. At one time, Bobby Jones jokingly suggested that the grove of pines to the right of the 14th fairway be officially dedicated as “Patton’s Woods” since that was where he’d first seen Billy Joe in 1954.

Billy Joe never turned professional. He kept at the lumber business and playing golf. He played on five Walker Cup teams and continued winning amateur events including two more North & South Amateurs in addition to one in 1954. And the galleries continued to love watching his bold play and listening to his chatter. Billy Joe clearly loved playing the game.

Interested in golf history? Go to golfcollectors.com, print out a membership application and join the Golf Collectors Society, an international group of golfers interested in golf history and the memorabilia of the game. You will be made welcome.

Cliff Schrock