On a moonlit night, Sam Snead said, you could turn your headlights off and drive those old Southern roads for half an hour without meeting another car. Barns and darkened farmhouses flew by in the milky light. Telephone poles provided a visual rhythm. "Cows would be sleeping in the middle of the road," he once told an interviewer, "and you had to be careful because they were black and black-and-tan and blended into the road." Moving at speed in the night was intoxicating for a young man like Snead, born before the Great War in the Back Creek Mountains hamlet of Ashwood, Va. Another Southerner, the novelist Thomas Wolfe, wrote about trains hurtling through "the huge and secret night, the lonely everlasting earth...." Snead, with his golf clubs and clothes piled in the back of his Model A Ford, must have felt like a moon-shiner hauling white lightning.
He was never a deep thinker, Snead, but he knew that his life was extraordinary. When he died last Thursday at age 89 at his home in Hot Springs, Va., flags at the nearby mountain golf resorts were lowered to half mast and tributes poured in from around the world. No golfer between Bobby Jones and Tiger Woods—not even Arnold Palmer, whose swing was too much a wild swipe to inspire imitation—was as iconic as Snead. With his coconut-straw hat and long, syrupy swing, Snead was the only golfer that casual fans could identify at a distance or in silhouette. His follow-through spoke like poetry; the club face finished parallel to his shoulders, and his balance was so exquisite that he could hold the pose indefinitely. "I try to get 'oily,' " he explained in his 1986 autobiography, Slammin' Sam. "Oily means a smooth motion. It's the feeling that all your bones and muscles are so in sync, any movement you make is going to be smooth and graceful."
Legend has it that Snead developed his swing on the family farm in Virginia, hitting stones with clubs he fashioned from branches. Later, when he wasn't hunting squirrels, doing chores or playing banjo in the family band, Snead cad-died at the Cascades and The Homestead golf resorts, just up the road. After high school he took a job repairing clubs at the Cascades for $20 a month plus playing privileges. He didn't own a set of real clubs until he was 22, but he entered the Cascades Open in 1936 when he was 24 and finished third, earning a whopping $358.66 and landing a professional's job at the fancy Greenbriar resort, just across the West Virginia border. A year later he won a PGA Tour event on just his second try, shooting four rounds in the 60s at the Oakland Open. (When Tour promoter Fred Corcoran showed him his photo in The New York Times, Snead innocently asked, "How'd they ever get my picture in New York? I ain't never been there.") Before he was finished, Snead would win a record 81 PGA events, the last at the 1965 Greater Greensboro Open, at the age of 52 years and 10 months—also a record. "Quit competing," he said, "and you dry up like a peach seed."
Snead's reputation rested on conventional measures of greatness—he won the Masters and the PGA Championship three times each, the British Open once, was the Tour's leading money winner three times and played on seven U.S. Ryder Cup teams—but his appeal transcended the records. He had an alliterative name, like Mickey Mantle, and a marketable swagger, like his friend Ted Williams. "Any guy who would pass up a chance to see Snead on a golf course," Jim Murray wrote, "would pull the shades driving past the Taj Mahal." In his prime Snead promoted headache powders, tires, deodorants and cars. His Wilson clubs were used by more golfers than any other brand. There was even a chain of Sam Snead Motor Lodges.
Above all, he was voluble. Snead would kill an hour swapping blue jokes or debating the best way to skin a deer. He'd even jaw at his golf ball. ("Now stay put, you little fooler, this ain't gonna hurt none at all.") He claimed that he swung in three-quarter time, and with a bit of urging he would leave his table and join a nightclub combo, playing trumpet on tunes like Honeysuckle Rose and The Sheik of Araby.
Snead's travels gave him plenty to talk about. He'd tell you how he was bitten by an ostrich in Argentina and how, on his first visit to St. Andrews, in 1946, he mistook the Old Course for a vacant lot. How in '38 he escaped injury from a lightning bolt that killed two golfers standing beside him and how he played two holes barefoot during a practice round at the '42 Masters. How he survived a small-plane crash in Iowa, and how he turned down an offer to be flown in a twin-engine plane by Palmer, a licensed pilot, saying, "Thank you, Arnold, I don't fly with learners."
Snead was four days shy of his 90th birthday when he finally came to the end of the road. Hours after his death a gibbous moon floated over the Back Creek Mountains. It was almost bright enough to drive by.