ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) _ Chris Patton's game has found an unplayable lie - a slump that is threatening to bury a swing that was good enough to turn heads at Augusta four years ago.

For Patton, low amateur at The Masters in 1990 and U.S. Amateur champion in 1989, golf has become a weekly struggle to make the cut and expenses on The Nike Tour, the minor league of professional golf.

The former All American from Clemson has won only once in two years on the Nike circuit. That victory came here last year in the New Mexico Charity Classic, where rounds of 64-66-65-67 gave Patton a five-shot victory.

Patton earned $31,500 with the win in Albuquerque and finished last season with earnings of more than $53,000.

Not much has gone right for him since.

''I'm not happy at all, not happy with golf right now,'' says Patton, in Albuquerque on a promotional appearance for the New Mexico tournament scheduled Sept. 1-4 at The Championship Course on the University of New Mexico campus.

Patton, who won the 1993 tournament here on the Valle Grande Course at Santa Ana Pueblo, will return next month to defend his title and to search for some reassurance that he can still earn a living on a golf course.

''I'm hoping to find some confidence out of it. All I have from here last year is positive memories,'' he said. ''I putted well and that's the bottom line. I made some putts here I haven't made all year.''

Going into this week's Nike stop in Texarkana, Texas, the 26-year-old from Fountain Inn, S.C., had played in 16 tournaments and failed to make the cut in 10 of them. He has earned just over $13,000, with his best finish a tie for fourth at the Gateway Classic in St. Louis last month.

Patton says he's tired of the travel and overall grind that is part of the Nike Tour. He travels mostly by car, but took a commercial flight to Albuquerque for the promotional event.

He planned to fly to Springfield, Mo., pick up his car and drive all night to get to Texarkana.

''If I don't drive all night, I won't have a chance to play a practice round.''

From Texarkana, he'll drive 16 to 17 hours to get back to his home in South Carolina and spend the week before the New Mexico tournament at home working on his game.

Along with trying to keep his game together, Patton has embarked on an aggressive diet. When he won here last year, he weighed 340 pounds; he topped out at 352 right after Christmas. He lost 35 pounds in a 10 weeks earlier this summer. He's now down to 290.

Patton says he decided to lose weight because he got tired of answering questions about his bulk.

''About half of it was so people would leave me alone,'' he says. ''It's just a hassle answering questions: 'Why are you this? Why are you doing that? Why don't you lose the weight?''' Patton doesn't blame the weight loss for the slump. He points out he missed the cut in four of five tournaments before he began dieting. But it all has contributed to his growing frustration.

''It's been such a struggling year. I've been working so hard on my golf game and I've dedicated myself to losing weight,'' he says. ''It just seems like things are getting worse instead of better.''

Patton began dieting May 7 and managed to qualify for the U.S. Open in June. But he played just eight holes, withdrawing because of dehydration.

Patton says he's hitting the ball probably as well as he did when he won here last year, but poor putting and chipping have kept him from consistent playing.

That, and the psychological side of the game.

''At times, it looks like the hole is smaller than the ball.''

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