One hundred and fourteen of the country's best amateur golfers gathered in the little North Carolina village of Pinehurst last week, congratulating each other that Jack Nicklaus, the big young man who had overpowered them for the past two years, had turned professional and was a safe thousand miles away. Then they set about assailing par and each other in one of the sport's most revered tournaments, the 62-year-old North and South Amateur. The five-day, match-play event started what will be a summer-long scramble for the position vacated by long-gone Jack, and it was expected that the young golfers who have done so well in recent years would dominate the scene from the very beginning. But by the time the North and South was over late Saturday afternoon the kids had been routed, the veterans had all the silverware and the top amateur golfer of the early season was a familiar old fellow with a brand-new style, Billy Joe Patton.
He won six matches against one of the strongest fields ever assembled for a North and South and thrashed his friend and fellow lumber dealer, Hobart Manley, 7 and 6 in the finals. In the process, 40-year-old Billy Joe shot a remarkable eight under par for 117 holes on the famed and rugged Pinehurst No. 2 course. What's more, he did it in most uncharacteristic fashion, sticking to the fairways as he never has before.
Since 1954, when he came within a stroke of being the only amateur ever to win the Masters, Patton has been recognized as a hard-swinging, joyously quixotic golfer who sends his tee shots crashing deep into the woods and then hits impossible recoveries back out again. Galleries like to follow him, it is said, because they are always in the shade, and Patton's Fairway is the name the initiated have given to the deep evergreen forests that border so many holes at Pinehurst.
It is an interesting reputation to have, but not one that leads to lots of victories. It is eight years since Patton's challenge at the Masters, eight years since he last won the North and South, eight years since his opening round 69 in the National Open at Baltusrol made him the first amateur since Bob Jones to lead at that stage and three years since he last played on the Walker Cup team. His erratic but often brilliant golf and his cheerful personality made him one of the most stimulating performers—amateur or professional—in the game. But always, and especially since 1959, he has been an agonizing disappointment in the country's major match-play events. Patton has never, for instance, played beyond the fourth round of the National Amateur. And even in the homelike atmosphere of the North and South, he had only struggled as far as the semifinals once since he won the tournament in 1954.
Wife and wine
Two years ago Billy Joe, discouraged by the hopelessly unpredictable quality of his game, had just about made up his mind to give up major tournament play and settle for an occasional friendly round in the pleasant Carolina climate. "I guess in my good years I was playing way over my head," he told his friends at the time.
Even as late as this spring he announced that he was coming to the North and South "only because my wife Betsy needs a vacation." So the Pattons drove over from their home in Morgan-ton, N.C. and celebrated Billy Joe's 40th birthday with a bottle of sparkling Burgundy. That's all that sparkled at first. When Billy Joe stumbled through a couple of practice rounds in 79 and 78, it looked as if wife Betsy's vacation at Pinehurst was going to be both short and dreary.
On Monday Patton qualified for the match-play phase of the tournament with a mediocre 75, three over par. In the first round the next day his iron play was shaky, and though he engineered a two-over-par, 2-and-1 victory over Jack Penrose of Miami, he needed a birdie and a par on the last two holes to get his winning margin.
Then on Wednesday Billy Joe's golf suddenly blossomed like the rich, red azalea bushes that mark the coming of spring in Pinehurst. This happened as favorite Deane Beman and four other members of last fall's Walker Cup team were falling from the tournament like so many fading morning glories.
From there through the finals Patton played spectacularly efficient golf. He used the same rapid, whiplike swing of old, the same low, twisting motion in his follow-through. But the ball was traveling on a new and straight trajectory, instead of falling too often into the weeds and woods.