The Sam Snead Classic? Why, the Man's a Classic
By Shirley Povich
The ruminations were about golf, and soon it came to mind: Where have all the legends gone? Nicklaus and Palmer are around, of course, but they are too visible, too current, popping up in too many TV commercials to be granted full legend status. The vintage element is missing.
It's different when you conjure up Hagen and Sarazen, Jones and Nelson, Hogan, Demaret and Snead. They were era players who lived to become icons of the links, clothed in golf's history and constituting a roll call of men renowned for their wondrous deeds with the instruments of the game.
And the most durable of these and still an activist at 78 is the man who burst onto the scene as a rookie pro in 1937 and by outdriving all the others on the tour established for himself an enduring identity: Slammin' Sammy Snead. That he had skills beyond those power drives straight and true was also apparent. He went on to win more tournaments, 84 of them, than any other pro who ever picked up a club.
All of this is being noted because Sam Snead is a Washington visitor this week, to preside on Tuesday at the Sam Snead Classic at Bowie Golf and Country Club, a hospice charity affair sponsored by the Mark Vogel company. It is at Bowie that the Sam Snead Design Co. will later construct Snead's own version of an 18-hole course with appeal for the average golfer, "not for those three or four hotshot golfers who inhabit every club."
Snead is not quite the slender lad who came out of the Virginia hills to captivate the golf world with the silken swing that seemed to defy dysfunction and was the envy of his peers and everybody else.
Today he's a bit wider of girth, balder of pate and slower of step (the middle toe of his right foot was recently amputated to stall a severe infection). But he's still the Snead of the quick smile and the country wit, and his affection for talking about the game that has been his life.
And these are some of the things he said:
"I guess I was pretty naive back in 1937 when I won that Oakland Open. . . . They ran my picture the next morning in the San Francisco newspaper and underneath it said 'New York Times photo.' And I couldn't understand that because I'd never been in New York in my life. . . .
"About my golf swing, I figured early that the best thing was a one-piece swing that let you get rid of all the hitches, the things that throw you off. . . .
"Yes, I'm still teaching part of the time, and I tell my pupils right away that it's not an easy game, and 'that little ball is staring up at you, daring you to make a mistake.' . . .
"Sure, it bugs me that they make such a big deal of it because I never won the U.S. Open but I must have been playing pretty good and sinking putts when I won those three Masters and three PGAs and the British Open . . .
"They talk about my putting because I missed some short ones here and there, but I must have sunk a lot of little ones too and some long ones when I won all those tournaments. And a lot of guys will say I was the best long putter on the tour . . .
"You get older, you get the yips on the green. If it could happen to Ben Hogan it could happen to anybody . . . Ben says his putter used to freeze just before he could move it into the ball . . . He told me he had one round with seven three-putt greens and one four-putter. . . .
"It happened too to Tom Watson, and even Nicklaus is jumpy now. . . . It used to be every time you watched television you'd see Nicklaus dropping a 15- or 20-footer. Not now. He's one of us. . . .
"Nicklaus could win in any era. . . . But he's still the worst wedge player on the tour. . . . comes up short too often . . .
"And about those new, fancy graphite shafts . . . They are for the rich amateurs. No pro on the tour uses them. You hit three shots with the same graphite shaft and you get three different distances. . . .
And now some personal memories of Sam Snead. . . . like the day in our foursome at Marco Island, Snead and Joe DiMaggio and Fred Corcoran and I are playing and DiMag has the honorary honor on the first tee. . . . And now Sam is telling him, "Play the whole course, Joe." DiMag looked up and was being told he had teed up three inches in the front of the marker. Snead was smiling. . . .
And the day Dizzy Dean and I are walking with Snead in the PGA at St. Louis, and golf-smitten Dean is saying, "Sam, you got the world's greatest life, playing golf and getting paid for it." And Snead says: "Stick with your own game, Diz. When you make a mistake you got eight other guys there to help you out. When I make a mistake it can cost me the tournament." . . .
It was something of that sort, too, when Ted Williams was making light of golf and Snead told him: "Ted, when I foul one off I'm in trouble. When you foul one off you get another swing."
Also, that day at Congressional when Snead is qualifying for the U.S. Open, no sweat, but one of his drives lands in the matted rough with the kind of nasty lie that would cause any golfer to brood about the fates. Sam simply whips out a 3-iron and booms the ball to mid-green. I say, "Sam, that was a nasty, tight lie." He says, "Oh no, that wasn't bad at all." In the eyes of the beholder?
For years there's been a border war between Hot Springs, Va., where Sam grew up and caddied, and White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., where he also caddied and played. Both states claim him and that has never been resolved. In 1952 when Eisenhower was running for the White House, West Virginia Congressman Cleveland Bailey nominated Snead for president, on the basis that "if we are going to have a golfer for president, we might as well have a good one." Hi, Sammy.