SI Vault
Small Wonder
Jaime Diaz
May 24, 1999
Although he stood only 5'5", Gene Sarazen was one of the game's giants
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
May 24, 1999

Small Wonder

Although he stood only 5'5", Gene Sarazen was one of the game's giants

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

There was something indomitable about Gene Sarazen, the first man to win all four of the modern majors. That's why the news that he had died of pneumonia last week at his home on Marco Island, Fla., came as a shock, even though he was 97 Watching Sarazen open the Masters the past 19 springs by spanking a ceremonial drive down the 1st fairway, we came to feel that this man would be with us forever.

Sarazen's career spanned almost an entire century and was one of the most remarkable and varied of any golfer's in history. His numbers are impressive. He won seven majors—and only Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus have matched his career Grand Slam—plus 30 Tour events. But those numbers tell only part of his story. Sarazen was born Eugene Saraceni on Feb. 7, 1902, in Harrison, N.Y., the son of an Italian carpenter from Rome. As he walked to his job as a caddie at the Apawamis Club, in nearby Rye, Sarazen would hit a ball on a four-mile "course" he had devised along country roads and through fields, schoolyards and back lawns to the 11th green at the real course. He turned pro at 16 and soon after saw his name in a newspaper for making a hole in one. "Not a bad name for a violin player," he wrote in his autobiography, Thirty Years of Championship Golf, "but a rotten name for an athlete." Starting with Sara, he struggled for a suitable replacement until he added zen. He then searched the phone book and found no other Sarazen listed. "No question about it," he wrote, "that was what I was looking for."

The 5'5" Sarazen was built like a fireplug and tore through the ball with such force that Harry Vardon, the great English pro, advised him to play more toward the flag because the wind didn't affect his ball as much as it did the other players'. In 1922, at 20, Sarazen won the U.S. Open at Skokie Country Club in Glencoe, Ill., to become the youngest player in this century to win a major. Later in '22 he also won the PGA.

Sarazen was a pugnacious competitor. "When he saw a chance at the bacon hanging over the last green, he could put as much fire and fury into a finishing round as Jack Dempsey could into a fight," wrote Bobby Jones in the introduction to Sarazen's book. Later Paul Runyan, also known as a fierce match player (and now, at 90, the oldest major champion), would admit, "Sarazen was the only player who gave me an inferiority complex. I was scared of him."

Sarazen was as great an innovator as he was a player. In 1931 he came up with the idea for the sand wedge while flying with his friend Howard Hughes. "Hughes was a daredevil," Sarazen said. "He told me to pull up on this stick. When I did, I saw how the flap came down and the plane went up." When he got home to New Port Richey, Fla., Sarazen bought all the solder in town and added varying amounts of it to the soles of a dozen niblicks. He then went into a bunker and started splashing out soft shots loaded with backspin. The club was the key to his victory at the '32 British Open, during which he kept it upside down in his bag so no competitor could see it.

Sarazen hit the most famous shot ever, at the 1935 Masters, holing a 235-yard four-wood at the 15th for a double-eagle 2, which enabled him to tie Craig Wood, whom he defeated in a playoff the next day. Sarazen scoffed at the thousands of people who would claim to have seen the shot. "There were 23 people there," he said. "It was a luck shot." He was only proud of the fact that Walter Hagen, his playing partner; Jones, in the gallery; and Byron Nelson, waiting to hit from the 17th fairway, all saw it.

Sarazen was the greatest ambassador of golf among the early U.S. pros, playing exhibitions around the world. He earned his nickname, the Squire, for running two farms in upstate New York. In the early '60s he returned to the public eye as the host of Shell's Wonderful World of Golf, which traveled to 58 countries in its nine years.

At the '73 British Open, at Troon, the 71-year-old Sarazen carved a five-iron through the wind at the Postage Stamp, the 126-yard 8th hole, and into the cup. Sarazen looked skyward and exclaimed, "Eat your heart out, Hagen!" After the round he added, "My old friends Hagen, Jones and [Tommy] Armour are all waiting for me up on the 1st tee. They're going, 'Hurry up, Sarazen. Hurry up.' But they got a long wait."

The wait is finally over, and they make a helluva heavenly foursome.