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Players remember Snead's swing, words
Only old age could stop Snead
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Sam Snead: Career highlights
Wednesday, June 12, 2002
Sam Snead, golfer with the sweetest of swings
By Mike Meserole
Special to ESPN.com
Sam Snead, the Virginia hillbilly with the sweetest of swings, winner of more PGA tournaments than any player in the history of the tour, but never champion of the U.S. Open, died May 23 in Hot Springs, Va., from complications from a stroke. He was 89.
Perhaps the best all-around athlete ever to play professional golf,
Jack Whitaker, the noted television analyst, went further in his 1998 autobiography, "Preferred Lies and Other Tales." "One of the best golf lessons I ever received," wrote Whitaker, "was just watching Sam warm up one day. It was on the range at Inverrary. Sam began with the wedge, hitting it with that beautiful swing that is the most graceful in golf. He went through most of the clubs in the bag, hitting each of them with the same easy motion until, twenty-five minutes after he began, he was booming 280-yard drives with the same tempo and action that he had used with the wedge."
Snead was a football, basketball and baseball standout at Valley High School in Hot Springs, Va., but his favorite sport was golf, which he had started playing as a 7-year-old shagging balls for his older brother, Homer, and whacking rocks across fields with a maple stick that had a big knot on the end. He passed up several college scholarship offers to pursue a golf career, first as an assistant pro at the Cascades Club in Hot Springs, and then as resident pro at the famous Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va.
He was 23 when he won the first of his 81 tour victories at the West Virginia Closed Pro championship in 1936. Twenty-nine years later, he became the oldest player to win a tour event, as well as the first to win the same tournament eight times, when he shot 68-69-68-68 and coasted to a five-stroke victory in the 1965 Greater Greensboro Open at the age of 52 years, 10 months and 23 days. Nine years after that, he finished second in the Los Angeles Open and third in the PGA Championship. The winner and runner-up of that 1974 PGA, Lee Trevino and Jack Nicklaus, were each 2 years old when Snead won the PGA for his first major title in 1942.
Although Snead won three PGA championships, three Masters and one British Open for a total of seven majors, his misadventures at the U.S. Open kept him from a career Grand Slam. In 1937, his breakout year on the tour, he almost captured the Open on his first try, carding a 71 in the final round for a 283. The clubhouse leader for nearly two hours, he was overtaken by Ralph Guldahl, who burned up the back nine at Oakland Hills for a closing 69 and a new tournament record of 281.
Two years later at Spring Mill outside Philadelphia, Snead went into the 558-yard final hole needing a par 5 to win or a bogey 6 to tie. He got neither, making 8 to come in fifth in one of the biggest collapses in Open history. His bad luck continued after the war with three more runner-up finishes, losing by a stroke to both Lew Worsham in 1947 and Cary Middlecoff in 1949, and by six shots to Ben Hogan in 1953. In '47, Snead tied Worsham on the last hole of regulation at St. Louis Country Club to force an extra 18 holes. The playoff came down to the final green with both players at 68 and each within 30 inches of the cup. As Snead prepared to putt out, Worsham called for a measurement which revealed that he, not Snead, was away by half a inch. Worsham stepped up and tapped his ball in the hole. Rattled, Snead missed his putt and lost the match.
Samuel Jackson Snead was born on a cow and chicken farm in Ashwood, Va., on May 27, 1912, three months after Byron Nelson and three months before Ben Hogan. No other single year has given golf three such legendary and distinctive champions. The genteel Nelson, the mysterious Hogan and the gregarious Snead--American golf's second great Big Three after Bobby Jones, Walter Hagan and Gene Sarazen--combined to win an astonishing 196 PGA Tour events and 21 major championships.
Snead turned pro a few years after the two Texans, but was a much bigger attraction on the tour. "He came out of the mountains of western Virginia in 1937 to revive interest in tournament golf almost single-handed," wrote no less an authority than Sarazen in his 1950 book, "Thirty Years of Championship Golf." "Sam is the one new player since 1930 with that evanescent but definite quality, magnetism, which lures fans from miles around and sustains them every shot of the way. It took extensive technical knowledge to appreciate the flawless execution of Hogan and Nelson. Snead is an esthetic delight as well as a sound technician. Moreover, he has developed his native ability to be entertaining with exhibition galleries."
Unlike gallery favorites Bobby Jones and Walter Hagan, who came before him, and Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods, who came after, Snead in his prime was seen as a genuine character--a well-dressed hillbilly with a thick twang and a straw hat, who was tight with a dollar, quick with a yarn or an off-color joke, and prone to malapropisms.
This image of Snead as lovable rube was nurtured by Fred Corcoran, the Boston-bred sportswriter and public relations whiz who was hired as manager of the PGA's tournament bureau the same year Snead arrived on the scene. "Slammin' Sammy" won the Oakland Open on Jan. 17, 1937, and a few days later Fred had a story out on the wires saying that Snead had been shown a write-up and a photograph of his big victory in The New York Times and reacted incredulously, "How'd they ever get mah picture? Ah ain't never been to New York." A legend was born.
Corcoran once had country boy Snead play a few well-publicized practice holes in his bare feet to help promote the Masters, a stunt that outraged purists but delighted the less sensitive. A few years later, when he won his first Masters in 1949, Sam inadvertently began one of the great traditions in sports when he took a shine to the green blazers worn by the members at Augusta National and was given one as tournament champion.
In 1967 another innovation credited to Snead, the "squat-shot" or between-the-legs croquet putting style that gave Sam a better look at the hole by straddling the line of his putts, was outlawed by the U.S. Golf Association. He got around the ban by moving both his feet to left of the line and, still facing the hole, striking the ball side-saddle. "Didn't take long to get the hang of it," he said. "I'd pitched horseshoes by the hour out behind the barn when I was a kid and just put that movement into my putts. It kept me going." Dan Jenkins of Sports Illustrated said it made Snead, who loved to fish, "look as if he were paddling his boat to a spot where the catfish were biting."
Eleven years later, in his 43rd and final season on the PGA tour, the 67-year-old Snead became the first player to shoot his age or better when he did it twice in the 1979 Quad Cities Open. He shot a 67 in the second round and a 66 in the fourth. By then he had already won the PGA Seniors' Championship six times and teamed with Gardner Dickinson to win the first Legends of Golf tournament for players 50 and over. In 1980 he helped found the Senior PGA Tour with Dickinson, Bob Goalby, Julius Boros, Dan Sikes and Don January.
Independent record keepers credit Snead with 135 career victories worldwide, including the 1946 British Open at St. Andrews, which the PGA doesn't count among Sam's record 81 tour wins. A charter member of the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974, he led the PGA Tour in scoring average four times (1938, 1949, 1950, 1955), money won three times (1938, 1949, 1950), was Player of the Year in 1949, and won 11 tournaments in 1950. He also had a record of 10 wins, two losses and one draw in seven Ryder Cup appearances as a player, and was 2-0-1 as U.S. captain.
In 1988 the PGA Tour ranked its Top 500 golfers of all time based on winning percentage, Top 25 finishes and Ryder Cup record. First on the list was Snead, whose continued excellence over five decades enabled him to outrank the next five players: Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Billy Casper and Snead's old sparing partners, Hogan and Nelson.
No one played golf better for a longer period of time and had more fun doing it than Snead. "I love the competition," he once said. "I truly play just as hard for five dollars as I do for 50,000. It may be hard to understand, but it's the way you have to be. I have to play for a little money to get my interest up, but I don't care how little. Competition is what keeps the blood flowing."
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