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Snead's an American legend

7/17/2001

Editor's note: This column originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on March 15, 1981.

"Legend -- That which is characterized as something wonderful that occurred in the past, a series of remarkable events occurring to an individual or group believed to have historical basis in fact." -- Webster's New 20th Century Dictionary

Indian Wells -- Ever regret you didn't see DiMaggio hit? Gehrig homer? Hubbell pitch?

Feel cheated you never got to see Dempsey punch, Grange run, Jesse Owens jump, Nagurski block? Like to have seen Jones putt, Luisetti shoot, Sande ride or Seabiscuit race? Maybe you wish you could have seen Nijinsky dance, Barrymore act, Tilden volley?

All those are yesterday's roses. Faded dance cards in the attic. The memories of old men nodding in the sun over cobwebbed chess pieces. Heirlooms of the mind.

The old-timers watch the moderns, shrug, shake their heads and say, "Yeah, but you should have seen Cobb." Or Pie Traynor.

Sam Snead belongs to that past. Sam Snead came up when DiMaggio did. Gehrig and Ruth were still around. So were Jones, Sande, Hubbell, Grange and Owens. None of them was a bigger legend than Snead.

No one ever swung at a golf ball with the purity, the poetry Sam Snead did. Snead on a tee was a thrilling thing to watch.

It was pure Americana. The barefoot boy with the trap lines and the fishing pole with a cork on the line came walking out of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, the trail of the lonesome pine, to shock the sports world. He came from a long line of people who slept with their hats on and their rifles by the bed. His first golf club was a swamp maple limb with a knot in the end and the bark left on for a grip. He didn't have boxes of new Titleists to hit -- he had round socks.

Sam could have been anything -- soda jerk, farmer, prizefighter. Or moonshiner. The sky was the limit down there in that army of North Virginia country where, Sam says, the hollows were so narrow "the dogs had to wag their tails up and down."

No one ever taught him how to hit a golf ball. He was double-jointed, rhythmical, had wrists like tongues and could coil like a spring. No one had ever hit the ball as straight as Samuel Jackson Snead. He drove into the president of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad on a green one day and the man was apoplectic.

"Son, don't you know better than to hit a fairway shot into an occupied green?" he shrieked. "Mr. Bradley, that wasn't no fairway shot, that was my tee shot," Snead said. Since Alva Bradley had never seen a 345-yard tee shot, he made him do it again. Snead did.

What is so remarkable about Samuel Jackson Snead is, he's not in a wax museum someplace with his porkpie hat and Popeye arms. He's on a golf course, where he's been for over 50 years. He's 68 years old, and he shot a 69 in the opening round of the Vintage Invitational here the other day in a field that should be a patsy for Samuel Jackson -- everyone in it is over 50. Sam is more used to shooting 69s in fields that include people 48 years younger.

Sam won the L.A. Open in 1945 -- and finished second in the same tournament on the same course in 1974. He won the Greensboro Open for the first time in 1938 -- and for the 12th and last in 1965. At age 52 years and 10 months, he was the oldest ever to win a tournament.

They never got Sam out of the hills -- or the hills out of Sam. He'd still rather hunt squirrels than tour Europe. He came to Hollywood periodically but it didn't take. Sam made the film, and then went home to soak his feet, and then back to Virginia to shoot ducks. His pleasures are biblical and simple. Once, when he went to a nightclub, he ordered soft drinks all night -- then took the bottles home in his pocket to claim the deposit.

He played in a hat to cover his bald head and, today, only about 11 people in the world know he is bald. He won't wear a wig, just a hat. His humor runs heavily to barnyard, but his vocabulary has the "oot" and "aboot" of the Old Dominion. His handwriting, in Elizabethan script, would gladden the heart of the oldest schoolmarm in the land. But, otherwise, no the social graces for Sam Snead.

You might think you would find this legend of golf in fading old movie clips, or on the yellowed pages of a scrapbook. After all, he did win his first tournament the year DiMaggio broke in with the Yankees. But Snead, through the miracle of his own remarkable genes, is present, in person and intact in a palmetto hat and a 1-iron at the Vintage golf course this weekend.

He won 84 tournaments, 22 more than anyone else, and 135 tournaments worldwide. He shot a 66 when he was 67 and a 68 when he was 69. It was figured out that, had he been able to shoot 69 in the last day, he would have won six U.S. Opens and tied four more. He never won any. But that was Snead.

No one was more exciting to watch on the golf course, with the possible exception of Arnold Palmer. No one had the trouble shots Snead had. Once, playing the Masters, on the third hole, a well-wisher, Freddy Corcoran, his manager, wondered where he was.

"He's over in the trees in the middle of all the squirrels and pine cones and needles and rocks," someone advised. "Good," nodded Corcoran, "he knows how to play that shot. I was afraid he was in the middle of the fairway."

He's an athletic marvel you might want to see before one of you dies. He's not gonna drive the ball into railroad barons 345 yards away anymore, but the singing swing is still there. He can still kick a doorsill 7½ feet up, he still crabs about photographers clicking on his backswing, he hasn't mellowed and he still won't give you strokes. "Every time a guy tells me he's 'between a 12 and a 14 handicap.' I say 'Oh-Oh, here we go again.'"

If you missed DiMaggio and Hubbell and Gehrig and Owens and Grange and Barrymore and Garbo and Tilden, catch Snead. And stand when he enters the room. He's a genuine, dyed-in-the-wool-hat American legend, Dan'l Boone with a 1-iron, Huck Finn in a hat. Mark Twain would have loved him. Sam Snead, coonskin golfer. We shall not see his like again. A legend past his time.

This column originally appeared in The Los Angeles Times. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Jim Murray, the long-time sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times, won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1990. He died Aug. 16, 1998.