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Doug Sanders used to have followers. Men admired Sanders, the golfer who dressed like a rainbow and often played like a dream, for winning 20 Tour titles between 1956 and 1972. Women admired him too and followed golf's leading hedonist on and off the course from Scotland to Augusta to Las Vegas, where the man called Peacock partied with his drinking buddies Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. "It was what every man dreams of: fun, beer and pretty women," he says.
Today Sanders, 64, lives alone and waits for the phone to ring. "I want to play," he says. "I've been asking for sponsors' exemptions, but everyone turns me down." A player of Sanders's stature, with 154 top 10 finishes and 20 wins, might expect to be welcomed back, yet his colorful past keeps shadowing him.
Before he wore ruby spikes, he ran barefoot in Polk County, Ga., whose prime exports included whiskey and fire-breathing religion. Sanders reached the PGA Tour in 1957 and lived what he now calls a "sinful" life as he flirted with golf greatness. At the 1970 British Open at St. Andrews he had a two-foot putt on the final hole to beat Jack Nicklaus. He missed it, then lost in a playoff. Some say Sanders never recovered from that defeat, but as rumors of drunken binges as well as sexual and financial excesses dogged his heels, he kept playing life fast and loose. After joining the Senior tour in 1983, he became host of the Doug Sanders Celebrity Classic, but the event collapsed four years ago amid charges that he had looted tournament coffers for his personal usecharges he denies.
"There's no halo over my head," Sanders admits, "but I have turned my life around. I haven't drunk a drop since Aug. 28, 1993." He says he became a born-again Christian in 1995, a time when he was bedeviled by a painful twitch that nearly drove him crazy. His head and hands would spontaneously jerk sideways. On the course he bit down on his collar to keep his head steady when he swung. He hoped for a miracle but got a diagnosis instead: He had torticollis, a rare muscle disorder.
"I didn't party anymore, couldn't play golf, couldn't get away from the pain. I'll admit it, I thought about suicide," he says. Finally he flew to Montreal to endure a risky seven-hour operation. "My heart stopped when I was on the operating table," he says. Doctors resuscitated himhis miracle, as Sanders sees itand after two days in a coma he woke. The twitch was gone.
During his recovery, Sanders shrank to 135 pounds. Now up to 177, he recently returned to the 18th green at St. Andrews to make peace with the putt he blew three decades ago. Last month he took 15 sweaters and 23 pairs of shoes to the three-day Legends of Golf, where he teamed with Tommy Armour to win $12,000.
In seeking sponsors' exemptions to Senior events, Sanders is asking for pro golf's version of charity. "I deserve it. I helped found this tour," he says. "God gave me another chance to live. Now I hope somebody gives me a chance to play golf."
Issue date: April 6, 1998
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