2002: Obituary - So long to Slammin’ Sam: His swing was the thing

From the time he helped carve his first club out of a maple limb from a Virginia swamp at age 7, the swing was Sam Snead’s thing. With a golf club in hand, he was rhythm in motion. All that was missing was music.

He was a joker. He was a gin player. He was a hustler. He was a storyteller. But most of all he was a natural, smooth swinger.

“Watching Sam Snead practice hitting golf balls,” fellow touring pro John Schlee once said, “is like watching a fish practice swimming.”

Snead was the embodiment of effortless power, not powerful effort. He was about balance and tempo. He made it look easy. In that sense, his nickname didn’t really fit. Slammin’ Sam? Even Snead, whose fluid game produced a record 81 PGA Tour victories, said he would have preferred to be called “Swingin’ Sam.”

“That was the name that showed off my true strengths,” Snead said. “Smoothness and rhythm.”

Sam Snead is gone now, but his legacy remains. His death May 23, four days before he was to turn 90, came after he suffered complications from a series of strokes that began just after the Masters. His health problems actually started with a mini-stroke suffered before his trip to Augusta National, but that didn’t stop Snead. In his last public appearance, the three-time Masters champion, clad in his trademark straw hat, struck the ceremonial opening drive at Augusta, just as he had each year since 1983.

Snead died at his home in Hot Springs, Va., holding hands with his son, Sam Jr. – who is known as Jack – and his daughter-in-law, Anne Snead.

“He didn’t seem scared,” Anne Snead said. “I think he was very much at peace.”

Along with fellow legends Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson, Snead was born in 1912, the year before the advent of federal income tax and the Ford Motor Co. assembly line.

Snead learned the game as a caddie at The Cascades Golf Course at the Homestead, which was less than two miles from the family farm. When his daily loop was completed, he would pitch and putt with the other caddies for 2 cents a hole, and he even set up a makeshift course in his backyard, using tomato cans for cups.

Gene Sarazen got a glimpse of Snead when Snead turned pro in 1934 and observed, “I just watched a kid who doesn’t know anything about playing golf, and I don’t want to be around when he learns how.”

He learned. Quickly. Snead won a couple of events in West Virginia in 1936, and the next year, at age 24, he ventured west with fellow player Johnny Bulla with $300 to begin his career as a touring pro.

Snead finished sixth at the Los Angeles Open and then won the Oakland Open, pocketing $1,000.

When Fred Corcoran, the tour’s tournament director, showed Snead a photo that had run in the New York Times along with the story on Snead’s victory at Oakland, the young West Virginian was puzzled. “How’d they ever get my picture?” Snead asked. “I ain’t never been to New York.”

The headline “Unknown Sam Snead beats par; wins Oakland Open” ran in a San Francisco sports section. But Snead wouldn’t be unknown for long. Over the next 23 years, he won titles in all but one season.

“I was never amazed at anything he did,” Nelson said. “Sam was one of the very first long hitters who could hit the ball straight. He had great rhythm and about the best turn of anybody. It didn’t look like it was any effort whatsoever for him to play.”

Snead arrived on the golf scene at a time when the American public was still awaiting a successor to Bobby Jones, who had retired seven years earlier.

“Wherever Sam Snead played, he made a fan of every person in the gallery who subconsciously was waiting for another Jones,” famed golf writer Herbert Warren Wind wrote in The Story of American Golf. “In personality and manner, Sam and Bobby were miles apart, but when it came to that indefinable quality called magnetism, the shambling mountaineer had it. Spectators ignored the proven stars to give the newcomer the once-over, and after they had seen him hit one or two shots, they found it was impossible to leave. Snead’s shots were far more beautiful than the raving sportwriters had claimed they were. Watching him, like watching Jones, provided an aesthetic delight. Here was that rarity, the long-hitter who combined power with the delicate nuances of shot-making, this slow-speaking, somewhat timid, somewhat cocky young man from the mountains.”

Snead’s fans would not be disappointed. During four decades he bagged a record 81 PGA Tour victories and had 358 top 10 finishes. He won seven major championships, and won 11 times in one year (1950).

By Snead’s count, his PGA Tour victory total was 84. But in 1986, then-PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman subtracted three from Snead’s official list. “Deane Beman just played God,” snapped the sometimes ornery Snead.

In any case, Snead won more American professional tournaments than anyone else.

His resume included three PGA Championships, three Masters and a British Open title at St. Andrews in 1946, though he wasn’t particularly fond of that victory. His trip to St. Andrews cost him $2,000; his first-place winner’s check was for $600.

He was asked, “Are you going back?” Responded Snead, “Are you kidding?” He didn’t play in another British Open until 1962. “If you’re not in America,” he once said, “you’re camping.”

Independent record keepers have credited him with anywhere from 135 to 160 worldwide victories. Snead said he owned 185 professional victories.

As impressive as his talent was his longevity. Snead won in six different decades. He won 17 PGA Tour titles after age 40. The last arrived shortly before his 53rd birthday, in 1965, when he won the Greater Greensboro Open for the eighth time.

At 61, he made the cut at the U.S. Open at Oakmont. At 62, he tied for third behind Lee Trevino and Jack Nicklaus at the 1974 PGA Championship. Five years later, at age 67, he shot 66 in the final round of the PGA Tour’s Quad Cities Open. At age 73, he shot 60 on the Lower Cascades course near his Virginia home.

Snead would struggle with his putting, eventually moving to a croquet style that later was ruled illegal and then a side-saddle method (“If I had just made some of all the putts I missed, I really would’ve been something,” he once sighed). But his swing never wavered. Snead’s tempo was the envy of players decades his junior.

“Just watching him on the range in his 80s, his athleticism was still very evident,” Tom Lehman said. “Even at his age, I felt he was more flexible than some of the young guys out there hitting balls.”

The only void in Snead’s career was the lack of a U.S. Open victory. He came close often. He lost to Lew Worsham in a playoff in 1947. In 1949, he bogeyed the 71st hole and lost by a shot to Cary Middlecoff at Medinah No. 3. In all, he was an Open runner-up four times, with his most infamous finish occurring in 1939 at Philadelphia Country Club’s Spring Mill Course. There were no scoreboards on the course, and Snead thought he needed a birdie on the final hole to win. All he needed was a par. Playing aggressively, he hit his drive into the left rough, flubbed a 2-wood with his second shot and made triple bogey.

“That night, I was ready to go out with a gun and pay somebody to shoot me,” Snead said. “It weighed on my mind so much that I dropped 10 pounds, lost more hair and began to choke even in practice rounds.”

Snead said he thought of the U.S. Open void on his resume frequently, even in his later years, and figured had he averaged 69 in the final round in that championship, he’d have won a handful.

“It goes without saying that my biggest disappointment was never winning the U.S. Open,” Snead said this year. “I’m reminded of it all the time. It hurts when people remember you for the things you didn’t do, rather than for the things you did do.”

And Snead did so many things so well. He was an incredible athlete who starred in football and basketball and could run 100 yards in 10 seconds. He was double-jointed, and so limber he could pluck a golf ball from the cup without bending his knees. Even in his 50s, he still could stand flat-footed in a doorway and kick one leg high enough to touch the top of the door frame.

And then, of course, there was the swing, long and fluid, with a tempo that could have led a symphony. He routinely hit drives more than 300 yards.

“If Sam Snead was playing with equipment we have now,” Chi Chi Rodriguez said a few years ago, “he would shoot in the 50s once a week.”

Another big hitter, Jack Nicklaus, always maintained a good rapport with Snead.

“Even when I got to be in my 30s and 40s, I tried to copy his rhythm,” Nicklaus said. “He was a piece of work, a real character and a great player. I’ve always said he had the greatest swing, and the most fluid motion, in the game of golf.”

Beneath the maestro swing, Snead’s personality was far from harmonic. There were times in social settings he could be coarse and abrasive. He always was ready with an off-color joke, traditionally ending the evening with one at the Masters’ Champions Dinner.

Snead was more than happy to take an amateur’s money if he wanted to put his game to the test against Slammin’ Sam. He loved to play big-money Nassaus, and once clipped $10,000 off an amateur named Tommy Taylor, who was famous for beating most of the pros on Long Island. He paid Snead and told him, “I don’t believe I ever want to see you again.”

Snead was a fierce competitor and took great pride in such accomplishments as never losing against Hogan in a playoff. Bobby Jones termed Snead’s victory over Hogan in an 18-hole playoff at the 1954 Masters the greatest tournament he ever saw.

In 1950, on the heels of a six-victory season in ’49, Snead won 11 times, including a playoff victory over Hogan in the L.A. Open at Riviera. His stroke average for 96 rounds was 69.23, a PGA Tour record that stood for 50 years until Tiger Woods eclipsed it. When Hogan, who had recovered from a horrific, near-fatal car accident, was named player of the year in 1950 having won only the U.S. Open, Snead, ever the fiery competitor, could not believe it.

“I said, ‘What the hell is this? I win 11 tournaments and had the lowest stroke average, and Hogan wins one tournament and gets golfer of the year?’ ” Snead said. “They said, ‘Well, you won it last year.’ They could have given him a 6-foot-high trophy that said ‘Great Comeback. . .’ ”

Even as a pallbearer at Hogan’s funeral in 1997, Snead, nearly five decades removed from the moment, still was grousing about the slight.

In a tiny church across the street from where he learned the game, Sam Snead was remembered May 26 as a “common man” who evolved from barefoot caddie to “national treasure” and one of golf’s greatest competitors.

“No one will ever duplicate Sam Snead,” PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem told 250 friends, family members and fellow golfers during a funeral service at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.

“What do you say when a legend passes or leaves us? Sam was, in so many ways, the best player the game has ever seen.”

Samuel Jackson Snead, the barefoot, backwoods, self-taught golfer – late columnist Jim Murray once described him as “Dan’l Boone with a 1-iron” – who came down from the Virginia hills and parlayed a silky swing into stardom worthy of induction into golf’s Hall of Fame, was laid to rest in a private burial on the scenic hillside farm where he was raised in Hot Springs.

Snead is survived by two sons, Sam Jr., 58, and Terry, 49.

“I had the best life that Sam Snead could possibly have,” he once said. “I don’t know of anybody who’s had one better.”

– Using Associated Press reports and other research, this tribute to Sam Snead was co-authored by Jeff Rude, Jeff Babineau and Dave Seanor.

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