Chris Patton appeared to be thoroughly enjoying himself in the 1989 U.S. Amateur and the crowd at Merion Golf Club loved him for it. The 300-pound self-described "country farm kid" from South Carolina impressed with his self-deprecating humor, his homespun personality, and his game.
You figured that after Patton swept through six matches to win the championship and the Havemeyer Trophy that you'd be reading about him on golf pages for years to come once he completed his senior year at Clemson. He was long and straight and owned an incredible short game.
But somehow it just didn't work out for Patton, who turned pro in 1990 and retired from competition in 2004 without ever making it to the PGA Tour. There were injuries, bad breaks, and some purely bad luck, like during the 11 times he tried without success to qualify for the tour.
However, he doesn't look back with regret. He refers to the time shortly after he lost his sponsor and decided to leave competitive golf when he learned that his mother, Linda, had ovarian cancer, a revelation that gave him a new perspective on life and family.
"You know, everything works out for a reason," Patton, now 45, said Thursday in a telephone interview. "It wasn't two months from the time that I quit playing golf that my mother told me. I was there for her, any and every day she needed me. I got to spend the last 21/2 years of her life with her and she actually got to learn who I was as a man. She passed away in 2007, right before Christmas.
"Now I see my dad every day. He got remarried last year. I've been home with my children to watch them grow up and participate in raising them. So it's all worked out."
Lewis Patton, 75, owns the 250-acre farm in Fountain Inn, S.C., on which Chris was raised and still works today raising 50 head of cattle and tending hay that he sells. The younger Patton has two sons, Zachary, 16, a musician, and Colby, 14, an aspiring golfer with a 2-handicap.
Patton, who plays "maybe a handful of rounds" every year, finds the time to give an occasional golf lesson. That has restored the fun side of golf for him, a side that gradually disappeared as he sought to carve out a professional career.
"I won't say it was a disappointment, but in a way it was," he said. "Obviously, I had bigger things in mind when I turned professional. But I'll be honest, it was a lot of shock because I didn't know what to expect. I didn't realize all that goes with it - the travel, the loneliness, doing it by yourself. I'm a country farm kid and to be thrown into the world of international golf was hard.
"I'm not going to make excuses because I had the opportunity in front of me. I felt the expectations and I was too young to realize that it was just support. The only pressure I was making, I was putting on myself. I lost my love for the game. Now I've been away from golf long enough to realize what it is that made me play good - when I go and chill out, show off, laugh around and have fun playing the game. That's when I did special things in golf."
The most special came during one week at Merion. Four of Patton's six match wins came over opponents who had won, or would go on to win, U.S. Golf Association championships.
The 36-hole final pitted Patton against Danny Green, who had posted a surprising 19th-hole victory over local favorite Jay Sigel in the semifinals. Patton took a 3-up lead after the first 18. Before he went to lunch, he had an interview with ABC's Bob Rosburg that fired him up a bit.
"He asked me, 'It's so hot, do you think you're going to be able to make the next 18?' because I was a big guy," Patton recalled. "If we were in private, I would have smacked him upside his head. I played 36 holes three straight days and 18 holes for three days in a row prior to that. What's the big deal?
"I kind of took it as a smack in the face. People always told me I couldn't do anything because I was fat. That was just a motivating factor for me."
By the 12th hole of the afternoon 18, Patton was 4-up. Green made a late surge by winning Nos. 14 and 16 to trim the deficit in half, but Patton closed him out on 17 for a 3-and-1 victory.
Asked about his best Merion memory, however, Patton turned to the club's first tee, which is adjacent to an outdoor dining area.
"From my recollection, it was kind of noisy because you have that little patio area there for the members to have breakfast and everything," he said. "I remember a lot of silverware being clanged around. But then, when they're announcing your name, it gets real quiet."
For the U.S. Open next month, Merion will play at 6,996 yards, or 473 yards longer than when Patton competed. He said the added length will have no impact.
"From what I remember, it's more about positioning and accuracy off the tee," he said. "I'm sure the rough is going to be extremely tall. They'll have that protection, or the wind, or really hard greens. But positioning is everything. You can make birdies if you have a real accurate iron game and position yourself on the right side of the hole."
Since he retired, Patton has mostly stayed out of public view. But he appeared last year on the Golf Channel show Chasing the Dream, in which Patton caddied for Robbie Biershenk as Biershenk sought to qualify for the PGA Tour.
Patton said he is down to 270 pounds and his waist size has shrunk to 42 inches, 10 inches fewer than when he played in the U.S. Amateur. While farming is physical work, he said the lower weight may be a result of "living a low-stress life . . . it's not a mental yo-yo ride like playing golf for a living."
One more part of that low-stress life comes from his recent engagement to Megan Sloan, a golf professional with whom he has lived for 10 years. Asked about their wedding plans, Patton laughed.
"We're just going to do the paperwork and throw a freakin' hillbilly shindig for our wedding celebration," he said. "We've both been married before. We've grown real close. Our relationship gets better as time goes on. We didn't want anything formal. I told her, 'Meg, if I ever get married, it's going to be blue jeans, tank top, flip-flops, and a cowboy hat.' "
He's still a "country farm kid" having fun, and Patton wouldn't change it. And he has no qualms over his golf career.
"I've been to 34 countries," he said. "How can you pay for that education? That's a privilege that most people in the world don't get the opportunity to do. I don't regret it one bit."