Gene Sarazen is still a human volcano at 76. The stocky son of an Italian immigrant [born Saracini] came out of the Harrison, N.Y., caddie pen to become the first man ever to win the four major golf titles - the U.S. and British Opens, the Masters and the PGA.
Since then, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player have won the four majors - none, of course in the same year. Sarazen won three PGA titles, two U.S. opens on British Open and one Masters.
Sarazen talked over the telephone from his home in Marco Island, Fla., where he lives eight months of the year. His summer home is in New London, N.H.
"I keep busy", he said. "I work with Ken Venturi, who won the U.S. Open at Congressional in 1964, on the Tony Lema tournament every year. You remember Tony. He was a promising young golfer when he was killed in a plane crash in 1966. I've also played customer golf for the Martin Marietta Co. for 17 years.
"Along with that, I work for the advisory staff of Wilson Sporting Goods. I just got back from Japan Deltona Corp. and I'm still on the and I tell you I'm really impressed with the golfers they have there, that brings me to one of my long-standing crusades - to reconstruct the Ryder Cup along the lines of the Davis Cup tennis play."
Many of Sarazen's colleagues, all of whom he outlasted as a competitor except for Sam Snead, who is 11 years younger, have considered Sarazen a nuisance. As one fellow pro once described him: "He's a publicity hound always in heat." But the appraisal is not quite accurate. Any innovator attracts "boatload of detractors, whether through envy or skepticism.
It is Sarazen who long has complained that today's golfers take too much time playing a round.
"The're ridiculous," he said with his accustomed candor. "Can you imigine a golfer taking 5 1/2 hours for a round? I've played several rounds in major competition in no more than two hours. Most golf shots are simple ones and should be studied before you swing, not while you're fidgeting on the tee.
"As far as the Ryder Cup is concerned, it has lost its meaning as an international golf event with only the U.S. and Great Britain competing. They've been doing that since 1926 and now it's a joke. The only way to revive competition is pattern the Ryder Cup after the Davis Cup matches involving several countries.
"There are over 10 million people playing golf in Japan and the top players there would give anybody a test. The problem with the Japanese is the language barrier. They can't speak English and when they compete in the U.S. they feel out of it and don't really mix with the other pros execpt their own countrymen."
Sarazen is something of an ananchronism because he has always worn the "knickers," or "plus fours," so popular in the 1920s and 1930s.
"I'm going to be buried in knickers," Sarazen chuckeld. "I have never worn long pants on the golf course in my life. Oh, you might have seen me wearing long pants at the Masters, but that's when I'm socializing and not on the golf course I must have a couple of hundred pairs of knickers with the stockings to match."
Sarazen introduced the interlocking grip to golf. His fingers were too short to use the popular overlapping method with comfort.
He also is credited with introducing the sand wedge in the early 1930s and he became one of the best trap players in the world.
Sarazen never had much formal schooling. He had to quit grade school because his family needed another wage-earner, so he went to work at the various golf courses that populate New York's Westchester County.
Fame came quickly when he fired a 68 in the final round to win the 1922 U.S. Open at the Skokie club in Glencoe, III. He took only 100 strokes over the last 28 holes.
Sarazen perhaps is best remembered for his double-eagle two on the par-five, 520-yard 15th hole at Augusta in the 1935 Masters. It gained him a tie for first place with Craig Wood, whom he defeated by three shots in the 36-hole playoff.
"I had to step down to an overhanging downhill lie on a wet fairway," he recalled. "I remember telling Walter Hagen, who was in the gallery: 'This is the one that count's when I went to hit a spoon, 220 yards from the hole, for the second shot. The ball hit two feet in front of the green, rolled toward the cup and dropped in. I heard a yell from the gallery and I just knew it had made it. People have been telling me through the years they say the 'miracle' shot. Actually, there weren't 15 people in the gallery and Bobby Jones was one of them.
"Money doesn't mean that much," he insisted. "We played for a top prize of $750 in the British Open but it was worth it for the wonderful memories. The biggest purse I ever won was in 1930 when I took first place in the Agua Caliente Open and was paid off in $10,000 in silver dollars. Everybody today is judged on how much money he makes, like a horse's purses. It's money, money, money. When we Americans went to the British Open, it was a matter of national pride to win - not money."
Sarazen's summer home in New Hampshire was robbed two years ago. "They took the Masters trophy," he said, "and I lost about $15,000 in gold medals and such. But the loss of that trophy was the hardest blow because it was signed by all the great players of the time - the signatures were engraved - and most of them are gone now."
Sarazen follows all sports and has contempt for Jimmy Connors. "Hah," he exploded, "a two-handed tennis player. Bill Tilden would have wiped him out."
Sarazen says that there are many good golfers today, "but not great ones like in my time, except Jack Nicklaus. I consider him the finest of all time. Excluding myself, I'd place among the greatest I ever knew such golfers as Jim Barnes, Jock Hutchinson, Ben Hogan and Walter Hagen."
What about Sam Snead?
"He doesn't belong with this group," said Sarazen brusquely. "Snead never won the U.S. Open."