I’ve spent a big chunk of my lifetime watching and writing about golfers. I’ve spent more than a year in Augusta, in weekly increments, covering the Masters. I’ve watched Hogan and Nicklaus and Palmer and Woods and a thousand others, here and abroad. I’ve marveled at Ballesteros and shaken my head at Daly and smiled with Mickelson.
Lots of good stuff, but there is a special place in my memories for what I saw 50 years ago—Sam Snead winning his eighth Greater Greensboro Open at the age of 52. Nobody wins eight anythings in professional golf, especially those who have 52 years on their odometer, but this ol’ Virginia boy did. People began calling it the Sam Snead Open.
That unlikely victory was the perfect third act for Sam’s saga. He would continue to play, mostly on the Senior Tour, but this was storybook.
Even Sam, who could be a tough, salty character at times, knew it. More than once, after he had won another GGO and said a few words at the presentation ceremony, he had hurried away. Once I actually interviewed him through a car window. This time, though, after the obligatory ceremony, we sat down in the locker room at Sedgefield Country Club and he was uncharacteristically emotional.
Before the ’65 GGO began, the mayor of Greensboro had proclaimed it Sam Snead Week. A big party was held for him at a nightspot named the Plantation Club (where Sam often sat in with the band and played his trumpet during tournament week); the master of ceremonies was Ed Sullivan. Left up to Greensboro golf fans, Snead could have been elected governor. They loved him, worshiped him.
Snead was enjoying the festivities but there was still a tournament to be played and he was a bit apprehensive. He said, “I wish I could pull these old nerves of mine out and replace them with a set from a 17-year-old.” But when he came in from his first round, a 68, shivering from the unseasonable cold despite a layer of long underwear, he was smiling.
“I putted wonderful,” he said. “Maybe it wouldn’t be wonderful for Arnold Palmer or Billy Casper, but for me, it was wonderful.”
The next day was warmer. He shot 69, then went fishing.
He wasn’t as long as he had been when he earned the nickname “Slammin’ Sam” and his short game was not as certain, but a third-round 69 had him running out front with one round to go.
He wasn’t home free. Phil Rodgers made up four strokes in 10 holes, thanks in part to Sam’s three-putts on the 10th and 11th holes. I watched the lead melt and said to another writer, “That’s it. The party’s over.”
But this story couldn’t end like that. Rodgers’s tee shot on 13 hit a marshal’s heel and bounced out of bounds. He double-bogeyed and Snead holed what he described as “a 60-foot gobbler,” followed with two more birdies, and ended up winning by five.
Standing behind the final green, watching Snead approach in that familiar, casual gait, still a dashing figure in dark blue pants, white shirt, light-blue sweater, and trademark hat with a gaudy band, I thought of how unlikely this all was.
I thought he was too old, too nervous with the putter to ever win again. But when he burst through the ring of people at the green, he was greeted by the kind of roar reserved for champions. Teasing the spectators, Snead acted as if he would take off his hat but, with a big grin, he left it on. Because he was balding, he was rarely seen in public without it.
“I don’t think I could be much happier if I had won the Masters,” he said later in the locker room. “Dedicating this thing to me sort’ve gave me a little more go. Everybody’s been so wonderful. I tried to put forth a little more effort.”
Surprised that you won again?
“I never did doubt I could win again,” he said. “I figgered if I could ever get my putter talking again, I could win again and she talked sweet this week.”
As the conversation wound down, Snead asked, “Fifty years from now, nobody will know the difference, will they?”