By Tim Bourret
If you go through the files of the Clemson Sports Information Office you can almost rank the legendary status of an athlete’s career according to the size of his file. Former greats William Perry, Horace Grant, Tree Rollins, Terry Kinard, and Jeff Davis are among the largest.
But, one athlete from a non-revenue sport who is among the top 10 is former Tiger golfer Chris Patton. The main reason the volumes of articles, magazines and photos in his manila folder that measures almost four inches took place 25 years ago this week.
Patton became a household name in the golf world when he won the 1989 U.S. Amateur at Merion Country Club on August 27. As is the case today, the tournament is contested over a six-day period. Starting with a 36-hole stroke play event, the top 64 players go into a match play format similar to the NCAA Basketball Tournament. The only difference is the championship match features 36 holes, which would be like playing an 80-minute basketball game in one day.
Patton won the U.S. Amateur during a period when the event had great respect from the national media. It receives national attention through NBC and the Golf Channel today, but the national media landscape today does not travel to such events. A look to Patton’s file shows that his victory was a major story in the New York Times, Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Sports Illustrated, The National, and USA Today.
Of course, Patton was good copy and gave the media something to write about. He was not your typical country club kid. As Clemson Head Coach Larry Penley once said with a smile, “We kept him hidden.” He didn’t want other national programs to find out what Penley had determined. That changed some when Patton won the South Carolina State Championship in 1985 and 1986. But the native of Fountain Inn came to Clemson.
Patton had been an All-American as a sophomore and a junior, but he basically played in the shadows of Kevin Johnson, who led the Tigers to a national third-place finish at the 1989 NCAA Tournament in Oklahoma.
Johnson, who won the 1986 US Public Links Championship, should have won the NCAA title in June of 1989, but his second round score was disqualified because he left his scorecard in the scoring area without signing it when he was asked to leave the area to go meet with the media.(I did not go to the NCAA Tournament that year and it is one of the great regrets of my career. Had I been there, that would not have happened.)
With Johnson’s disqualification, Phil Mickelson, then a freshman at Arizona State, won the National Championship. Later that summer Mickelson was one of the players in the 1989 US Amateur field so Patton got some revenge for the Tigers.
Patton had many close matches to reach the US Amateur final. He played a conservative approach around the course that had been the scene of two of Bobby Jones US Amateur titles (1926 and 1930). He defeated Randall Lewis of Alma, Mich. 2 and 1 in the first round, then downed Takahiro Nagkagawa of Osaka, Japan 5 and 4 in his biggest blowout of the week.
In the third round it took Patton 19 holes to defeat Mike Podolak of Oxbow, N.D.. In the elite eight, he defeated Kevin Wentworth of Manteca, Calif. 2 and 1, then faced giant killer Michael Brannan of Trumbull, Conn. in the semifinals on Saturday afternoon.
Brannan, who had played on the PGA Tour for a time before regaining his amateur standing, had beaten two Walker Cup players in Eoghan O’Connell of Ireland and David Edger of the United States, who was the reigning Mid-Amateur Champion. Patton trailed by three holes at one point against Brannan, but came back to win 3 and 2.
That set up the 36-hole final between Patton and Danny Green, a 32-year-old part time insurance agent from Tennessee who had an unusual lunging swing. Green once said of his own swing, “I am a disgrace to the game of golf.” Green had recorded a landmark victory already, a victory against two-time US Amateur Champion Jay Sigel.
But the 21-year old Patton was not intimidated in the least. He was just a South Carolina youngster having fun on a beautiful golf course without cart paths in Ardmore, Penn. He took a 3-up lead after the first 18 holes when he made a 15-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole. He then made a birdie on the second hole to go 4-up.
Green then won the eighth and 10th holes to get back to two down. The 12th hole became pivotal. Green hit an eight-iron to within 10 feet. A birdie could have cut the margin to just one. But, Patton hit a nine-iron to within two feet. Green then missed his 10-footer and Patton made his two-footer to go back to a 3-up lead.
The match ended on the 17th hole. Green hit his drive on the par three hole that was 225 yards in length into the lip of a greenside bunker. He determined it to be unplayable. After Green’s approach to within 10 feet, Patton hit his birdie putt to within two feet. Green conceded the putt and Patton was the winner of the 89th US Amateur.
It was quite a performance for Patton on one of the world’s great courses (site of 2013 U.S. Open). To win the title Patton played 155 holes, all but 18 of them at Merion. In six days he played 36 holes of medal play, the won six head-to-head matches, including 35 holes in the final. He never trailed in the championship match and was just four over par for his last 105 holes.
A joyous Patton accepted the trophy and promptly put the top of it on his head, much to the delight of the crowd.
“I played as well as I could play this week,” said Patton after the final match “I had a lot of tough matches. It wasn’t a cakewalk for me to get here.
“If there was a turning point today, it was the 12th hole during the afternoon. Danny hit a good shot in there and I felt he thought the momentum had swung to him. Then I hit the shot to two feet and took it right back to win the hole.”
With the victory Patton qualified for the 1990 Masters and gained even more fame by making the cut while playing the first two days with defending champion Nick Faldo, who would go on to win the tournament. Patton finished 39th and was the low amateur for the tournament. No active Clemson golfer has made a cut in a PGA Tour event since.
Chris Patton is still the only Clemson golfer to win the United States Amateur and it must be considered one of the greatest individual accomplishments in Clemson golf history. And that is saying something, because this program has a pretty strong history.