This is the 11th in a series of 18 stories looking back at every USGA championship and international team competition held at Merion Golf Club, site of the 2013 U.S. Open, which until 1942 was known as Merion Cricket Club.
Hailing from Fountain Inn, S.C., 21-year-old Chris Patton arrived at Merion Golf Club in August 1989 for the U.S. Amateur, his first USGA championship appearance. Possessing the build of a football lineman and the touch of a master jeweler, Patton was a self-taught golfer. As a teenager, when he wasn’t riding a tractor on his family’s 300-acre farm, he was hitting golf balls across its pastures.
“I wasn’t your typical amateur or junior,” recalled Patton. “My family didn’t have the funds to send me all over the place to play junior golf.”
That summer – the one between his junior and senior years at Clemson University – Patton only had enough money to play in one big tournament. So he entered the U.S. Amateur Championship.
At Merion, Patton evinced a folksy charm that won over spectators and a preternatural poise that wore down opponents all the way to the championship match, in which he defeated Danny Green, 3 and 1. (See accompanying Photo Gallery)
Twenty-four years later, Patton is back on the farm on which he grew up, having returned with enough experiences to fill every square inch of his property.
“It’s almost like a dream,” said Patton. “I’ve been to 32 countries around the world. I’ve had dinner and played with presidents and ambassadors. Seeing how other cultures live, their philosophies and the differences in people – that was the best educational thing I’ve had in my life. And I’ve done it all because of playing a game.”
That journey began at Merion, where Patton defeated an impressive roster of players, including four past and future USGA champions. After tying for third in stroke-play qualifying, Patton beat Randal Lewis, who would go on to win the 2011 U.S. Mid-Amateur, in the first round.
He then defeated, in succession, 1985 Japan Amateur champion Tokohiro Nagawaka, 1984 U.S. Mid-Amateur winner Michael Podolak, collegiate player of the year Kevin Wentworth and 1971 U.S. Junior Amateur winner Michael Brannan to reach the final.
Patton doesn’t retain the details of those victories, but he does recall vividly how each match began. The first tee of Merion Golf Club’s East Course sits hard by the clubhouse’s outdoor seating area, and diners situated along the railing can just about touch players teeing off.
“I’ll never forget the silverware clanking and the noise, and how quiet it got when they called your name,” said Patton.
In the 36-hole final, Patton met Green, another self-taught golfer. Green, who still lives in Jackson, Tenn., was 32, having taken up golf just 10 years earlier. Like Patton, Green was playing in his first USGA championship.
In the 1930 U.S. Amateur final, Bob Jones closed out Eugene Homans on the 11th hole to win the championship and capture the Grand Slam. In 1989, the 11th hole was where Patton took his first step to victory. After halving the first 10 holes, Patton won the 11th hole to take the lead, thanks to a double bogey by Green.
No. 11 also played a key role in the afternoon round. Green birdied the 10th hole – the 28th of the match – to cut his deficit to 2 down. But instead of building on that momentum, Green made another double bogey on the 11th to fall to 3 down again.
That deficit was too significant for Green to overcome, and Patton won the U.S. Amateur after Green’s tee shot on the 222-yard 17th hole plugged in a bunker. He took an unplayable lie, while Patton two-putted for par.
“I think you have to do everything well if you’re going to win an event like that,” said Patton. “The rough was unbelievably tall, so I hit a lot of irons off the tee. You were able to score on the golf course if you played well.”
After his runner-up finish in his USGA debut, Green played well in several other championships before winning the 1999 U.S. Mid-Amateur.
Patton turned pro in 1990, playing around the world for nearly 15 years. He won tournaments on the Web.com, Canadian and Australasian tours, but never earned status on the PGA Tour.
He retired in 2004 due to chronic injuries to his fingers and left shoulder. That allowed him to spend time with his mother, Linda, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer shortly after Patton’s retirement. She died several years later.
“Me being here for her and spending as much time as I could with her,” said Patton, “that’s just something that’s not replaceable. I’m glad she passed away knowing who I was.”
After nearly a decade away from the game, Patton returned to the public eye last year as Robbie Biershenk’s caddie on “Chasing the Dream,” a Golf Channel program that chronicled Biershenk’s pursuit of an opportunity to qualify for the PGA Tour.
“I enjoyed doing the show,” said Patton. “It’s hard to be a caddie and not have any control, though. I tried to help him with his mental approach. I played a long time; I made enough mistakes along the way that I know what not to do.”
Patton can offer plenty of lessons about the game, and he teaches part-time at Shank’s Driving Range in Greenville, which is owned by Biershenk, and at Fox Run Country Club in Simpsonville. But he spends most of his time on the farm, which he took over from his father, Lewis.
“I don’t want to spend 50 hours a week on the practice tee,” said Patton. “But if someone wants my help, I’m not going to deny them. I owe people the knowledge I’ve acquired over the years.”
The main recipient of many of those insights is Patton’s younger son, Colby, 14, who is on the golf team at Hillcrest High School, Patton’s alma mater. (Patton’s older son, Zachary, 16, is a musician.) Patton only plays a handful of rounds a year, but he enjoys helping Colby with his game.
Said Patton: “He’s the golfer in the family now.”
Hunki Yun is the USGA's digital publisher. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.