"When I miss it," said Sam Snead, who was standing in rough only Seattle Slew would love, "boy, it's dead. I'm in jail every time." Like James Earl Ray, Snead still escapes now and then, and knows he'll soon be doing time again. His back betrays him.
"I'll just get a little catch in my downswing," he said later. "I can't move to the left, so I go over the top and get this big banana of a drive. Hell, I almost whiffed on 17 and 18. It's awful, 'cause you know where it's going before you ever hit it."
You also know that one of these rounds it will be time for Sam Snead's golfing obit, when his back and his putter no longer allow him to play the major tournaments. Not today, though, because the fossil who could not break 80 at the Masters this April - at age 64 - shot as well as Jack Nicklaus and half the field in the first round of the U.S. Open.
At 65 years and 20 days, Snead shot a four-overpar 74. For the 31st time, he will not win the Open. He might make the cut though, which would be remarkable. This is a man, after all, who won his first pro tournament when Arnold Palmer was 7 and who got the yips about the time Tom Watson was born.
On the annivesaryof his first Open 40 years ago, the U.S. Golf Associationgave Snead a special exemption this year. So Snead gave the gallery that had come mainly to see his playing partner, Palmer, a chance to jog its collective memory with a bird on the first hole today.
Down the second fairway one could pass customers saying to one another, "Remember when 'ol Sam and Ben Hogan would get it going and . . ." And the 'ol Sam suddenly putted them back to reality. From the same distance he birdied the first hole, 25 feet, Snead three-putted the second.
By the fourth hole, after he had outdriven his other playing partner, Burce Lietzke, by 50 yards only to watch another putt stop several feet short, Snead was mumbling, "One slow, one fast."
By the time Snead had taken anothr bogey from "jail" at the ninth hole, the birdied No. 16 from 18 inches after a fine bunker shot, the crowd chasing that threesome was beside itself with envy. Snead was just two over, Palmer was even par at the time.
What could be comparable to what Snead was doing? Certainly George Blanda tossing touchdown passes for the Oakland Raiders at 48. Possibly Hoyt Wilhelm's geriatric genius in baseball. Michael Scott won the British Amateur at 55, someone remembered, and Harry Vardon, at 50, had led the U.S. Open with nine holes to go in 1920.
At that point, It was a fine time for anyone with any affection for nostalgia. Off in the distance Tommy Bolt was one under after six holes and Jack Fleck was babout to tee off. Nicklaus was off the leader board by 1:0:30 a.m., and when was the last time in a major tournament that had happened?
THen Snead stepped to the 17th tee, began his swing and all of sudden felt that awful twinge of pain agian. Almost instantly, he was in jail agian, en route to a double bogey.
"The doctors tell me now that they believe I was born with what's giving me all the problems now," Snead said after he sank a 12-foot, parsaving putt on No.18. "I have a very short torso. In fact, J.C., (his nephew, J.C. Snead) who's 6-2 actually can step right into my clothes. The jackets are just right as far as the sleeves and chest go.
"They actually wanted to fuse some things in my back when I was in the service, but I would'nt let 'em. It's only the last three years that it's started bothering me - and only the last two that it's really been bad.
"For a normal life, it's not bad - and I'm never gonna let 'em cut on me. But anytime I pick up anything heavy, or something just stoop over, it can get pretty bad. An then I was in that auto accident last year wher I messed up my thumb pretty bad on the steering wheel." The thuml still is swollen and at an odd angle.
Golf stil is fun "sometimes," Snead said, then he allowed as how the only "easy" hole on the Southern Hills course was the 175-yard sixth "and I have to put the thing in the trap." He did not add that he saved par with a pitch to 18 inches.
"I'm about 30 yards shorter than I was 20 years ago," he said, "but I was getting it out there with Lietzke every once in a while today. I had 75 Tuesday and Wednesday, and thought I was gonna be right at that again until that (par) putt on 18 went in there."
In 1939, Snead blew the Open when he took an eight on the final hole, when a bogey six would have won it. His ball landed in sand three times before he three putted. In 1977, Snead is not totaly sure he will get through the second round without his back telling him to quit - at last.
As Snead was leaving the locker room for some refreshment today, a veteran Open and Snead wathcher walked toward him an recalled one more special number. Snead today had shot one stroke better than he had the last time the Open was at Southern Hills, in 1958, when he was a fresh young kid of 46.