Only old age could stop Snead

Updated: October 20, 2005, 2:52 PM ET
By Bob Carter | Special to ESPN.com

"When I'm judging a great player I see how long was he a great player. And that's why Sam Snead in my opinion is the greatest golfer the world has ever seen. I don't think there's anybody close," says Gary Player on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

Success in his golfing prime made Sam Snead a star. Longevity helped to build a legend.

Sam Snead
Sam Snead used his graceful swing to win seven Grand Slam tournaments.
Snead's fluid but powerful swing seemed effortless, a classic swing that kept him on course well into his 60s. Leaning on his natural ability, Snead didn't practice as much as his peers and didn't tinker much with his form.

"I figured early that the best swing was a one-piece swing that let you get rid of all the hitches, the things that throw you off," he said.

He played golf at an elite level longer than anyone. He won the most PGA Tour events, 82, and is recognized for winning 135 tournaments over his career, including seven majors.

Slammin' Sammy became the PGA Tour's oldest titlist when, at 52 years and 10 months, he won the 1965 Greater Greensboro Open. In 1979, his last season on tour, he became the first PGA player to shoot his age with a 67 in the Quad Cities Open and capped that weekend with a 66. He was around long enough to help get two U.S. tours rolling, the PGA and the PGA Seniors.

The only smudge on his record was the U.S. Open, the one major he didn't win. Snead was runner-up at the Open four times between 1937 and 1953, near-misses that hurt his image.

"Sure, it bugs me that they make such a big deal of it because I never won the U.S. Open," he said, "but I must have been playing pretty good and sinking putts when I won those three Masters, three PGAs and the British Open."

Snead was born on May 27, 1912, in the Back Creek Mountains hamlet of Ashwood, Va. Growing up in a poor farming family in the nearby town of Hot Springs, he hunted and fished and dreamed of becoming a football star. He caddied at the local resort to help his family, and began playing golf with his older brother, Homer. A back injury ended his football days, putting him in line to pursue a golf career.

He switched resorts in his early 20s, going from the Cascades in Hot Springs to the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., where he became a club pro. Snead played mostly local and regional tournaments in 1936, winning the West Virginia Closed Pro and placing fifth in a PGA Tour event in Hershey, Pa.

The next year, he went to the West Coast to play the tour fulltime. In his second California tournament, the Oakland Open, Snead came from third place on the final day to gain his first PGA Tour victory.

Days later, when he saw his picture in a New York newspaper, the story goes that he asked tour manager Fred Corcoran, "How could they get a picture of me in New York? I ain't ever been there." Snead later suggested that he was merely kidding, but the line got plenty of publicity and enhanced his hillbilly reputation.

He also was known for being a penny-pincher, a trait perhaps rising from his skepticism over the tour's viability. Snead, though, helped solidify the pro game, winning fans with his sweet swing, long drives and country charm. Snead, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson -- all born the same year -- formed the era's Big Three of golf, but it was Snead's style and accessibility that catapulted the pro circuit.

Nelson said that Snead disproved the notion that you couldn't hit the ball both hard and straight. "He had great rhythm and about the best turn of anybody," Nelson said. Golf writer Bill Fields said Snead's swing "used to resemble a Faulkner sentence. It was long, laced with the perfect pause and blessed with a powerful ending."

Snead won five tournaments in 1937 and at least two each season through 1946. He won big events and small. "I don't give a damn what tournament it is," he said. "If you're going to play it, you want to win it."

His first major came in 1942, the PGA, and he took that event again in 1949 and 1951. Snead never participated in the British Open until 1946 when he was forced to play at St. Andrews because of contractual ties to a sponsor. He won the championship and the $600 first prize, but went through four caddies and $2,000 in expenses.

At 36, he won his first Masters in 1949, shooting five-under-par 67s in the final two rounds to win by three strokes. He also earned green jackets in 1952 and 1954, the latter after a classic 18-hole playoff duel with Hogan that he won by a stroke.

"I can remember that Masters," Snead said 40 years later. "I can put the flags in every green. I can tell you what Hogan had on each hole, how many putts he had on each hole, how many greens he missed and how many greens he hit. I beat him on the par-5s."

In 1949, he won six titles, including two majors, and was the Player of the Year. The next season, he took 11 events and had a 69.23 stroke average through 96 consecutive rounds, a tour record. But Hogan, rebounding from a life-threatening car accident, won the U.S. Open and was voted Player of the Year in 1950, an award that rankled his rival.

"They could have given him a six-foot-high trophy that said 'Great Comeback,'" said Snead, who enjoyed competing against Hogan.

Snead encountered mostly tough luck at the U.S. Open. He had several good opportunities to win, most notably in a 1947 playoff with Lew Worsham when he led by two strokes with three holes left. A missed 30-inch putt on the 18th hole gave the title to Worsham by a stroke.

In 1939, he lost to Nelson when a miscalculation cost him. Snead thought he needed a birdie to win -- a par would have done it -- and ended up with a triple bogey. "I should have won the Open," he said. "If I shoot one 69 in the last round, I'd have won seven of them."

Later in his career, Snead lost confidence with his short putting and adopted an unorthodox, croquet-style pendulum stroke. That innovation was banished by a tour rule prohibiting anyone from straddling the putting line, so Snead went sidesaddle with it and found success.

He played 42 years on the PGA Tour, earning $620,126, and was the last pro to win 10 or more events in a season - his 11 in 1950. His 82 titles are nine more than Jack Nicklaus, the runner-up. While his peers dropped off the tour, Snead stayed competitive. And after leaving the tour, he played well into his 60s on the new Senior PGA Tour.

At 60, he won his sixth Seniors title. With all four rounds in the 60s, he won by 15 strokes. He even won a Legends of Golf championship with Don January when he was 71 in 1982. In all, he has 14 Senior tour titles.

"He's got such desire," said his son, Jack Snead. "That's why he went on as long as he did."

Said Slammin' Sammy: "I won a lot of tournaments because I was in better shape than other guys. I didn't smoke and didn't drink and went to bed at reasonable hours. I've never been drunk in my whole life."

Many modern golfers fascinated him, particularly the long-hitting John Daly, but he wouldn't rate them higher than the players of his time. "The scores are a little better now," he said, "but the greens and fairways are so much better and the equipment has improved."

Snead paired with Gardner Dickinson to win the first Legends of Golf in 1978, the only event he was still playing two decades later. As the years passed, Snead spent more time fishing and hunting, and because of deteriorating eyes, less time playing golf.

On May 23, 2002 Snead died at his Hot Springs home from complications following a series of strokes. He was 89.

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