Ol' Chris Patton, the 6'1", 305-pound Clemson senior from Fountain Inn, S.C., rears back with his driver on the 16th tee at Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head Island and hits the ball large. A little too large. Huge, actually.
The ball lands way downfield, somewhere amid Patton's ever-expanding army in the right rough. It seems to ding a tree or a human, and then, surprisingly, it rolls into a playable area inside a roped-off section near the TV cables.
"Must be Clemson fans there," says pro Doug Weaver, part of Patton's threesome here at the MCI Heritage Classic.
Patton appears not to hear him. He can't believe he hit the ball that ugly. He is overwhelmed by shock, disgust and self-loathing. He looks at his caddie, fellow Clemson golfer and roommate Max Fain.
"That's pitiful, isn't it, Max?" he asks. "Huh? Isn't that bad?"
Patton has a crooked smile on his bright red face, a smile of utter disdain for his driver, his swing, his sport and his worth as a big ol' farm boy daring to perform with the sleek country-club fellows on the PGA Tour. No matter that Patton is the reigning U.S. Amateur champion, with a swing so sweet that a photo crew from a Japanese golf magazine flew to Clemson to immortalize it. No matter that Patton, now 22, won the South Carolina 4A high school golf championship in 1985 and 1986, in '85 wiping out the scoring record by six strokes. No matter that he is a two-time collegiate All-America with 17 rounds in the 60s and a school-record 72.78 stroke average. No matter that in a practice round at this year's Masters—as the Amateur champ he earned an automatic invitation—he blasted a 65. No matter also that he has never had a formal golf lesson, belonged to a country club, earned a dime of prize money or tanned properly.
Patton laughs at his wretchedness in this godforsaken sport. He seems prepared to kneel down, rip off his XXX-large golf shirt and have someone—any real golfer—flog him with a sand rake for his sins. "Pitiful," he's still murmuring as he studies his lie. Burned grass, hard dirt, 225 yards from the pin. Fifty yards of sand in front of the green to carry. Eeyore looks happier on a rainy day. Patton's attitude is so unprofessional, so innocent, so plain ol' human, that it clearly has endeared him to everyone in the burgeoning crowd. "Look at this gallery," says Judy Bowes, who is scoring Patton's group. "They're all for him. I told him that. 'Yeah,' he said. 'They love me.' "
Fain hands Patton a two-iron. Patton wraps his meaty hands around the skinny piece of metal and without further ado rips a shot that scorches through the midday haze like a laser beam, screams over the sand, hits the green and stops 15 feet from the cup. Wild applause. Patton smiles in wonder.
Patton will finish at one over par for the day and six over for two rounds, just missing the cut for this tournament. But there will be other days and better outings. And if the American viewing public has any say in the matter—and it will be rooting hard for the big kid—he'll pop up more and more on the screen in the den on golf Sundays. Folks say the pro tour is filled with dull, flat-bellied clones who can be identified only by their golf bags. "Poisoned with parity and big fourth-place checks," is how Golf Digest puts it. Certainly, Payne Stewart's plus fours set him apart from the crowd, and Greg Norman looks like the Olympic torch coming up the fairway, but it's nigh on impossible to identify most of the other golfers from more than a nine-iron away. Not so with Patton. He's like the first part of a Green Bay sweep coming at you.
And you never know what he might say in the interview tent. Before the Heritage he told a reporter about the "range wars" he and his buddies used to wage as kids back on the farm. Standing a hundred yards apart and armed with five-irons and cheap balls, "we'd rifle low hooks at each other," he said wistfully. "We'd be headhunting. I wish we still had that." After he won the 1989 Amateur at Merion, he told reporters who wondered about his practice routine that he "didn't feel like hitting 700,000 golf balls a day," that he would prefer to "just sit here and eat some watermelon."