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SAM AND THE OPEN
Herbert Warren Wind
June 11, 1956
One of golf's alltime great players, Sam Snead, the magnetic man from the mountains, has won every major championship except—tragically—'the big one,' the National Open
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June 11, 1956

Sam And The Open

One of golf's alltime great players, Sam Snead, the magnetic man from the mountains, has won every major championship except—tragically—'the big one,' the National Open

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SAMUEL JACKSON SNEAD'S 20 YEARS ON THE TOURNAMENT TRAIL

U.S. Open

PGA

British Open

Masters

Canadian Open

Western Open

The Crosby

Goodall R.R.

Los Angeles Open

Tam World

Tam all-American

Greensboro Open

Inverness

North and South

Jacksonville Open

Miami Open

Texas Open

St. Petersburg

ASLO WON

Yearly Winnings

1937

2

3rd rd.

11

9

3

1

3

1

Nassau, Oakland, St. Paul

$10,244

1938

38

2

31

1

2

1

1

30

1

1

7

Chicago, Westchester 108, Greenbrier

19,534*

1939

5

2

6

3

5

2

3

1

1

Miami Biltmore 4-Ball, Ontario

9,712

1940

16

2

7

1

3

2

1

2

4

14

4

Anthracite

9,206

1941

13

� finals

6

1

6

1

24

4

8

1

3

3

1

Rochester Times Union, Henry Hurst,

12,848

1942

1

7

18

3

7

2

3

1

Cordoba ( Argentina)

8,078

1943

not in competition

1944

Richmond, Portland

5,755

1945

1

12

6

8

1

19

Guflfport, Pensacola, Dallas, Tulsa

24,436

1946

19

2nd rd.

1

7

9

10

1

31

1

5

2

1

1

3

2

Virginia

18,342

1947

2

2nd rd.

20

6

3

14

24

5

16

5

4

Crosby Pro-Am

9,704

1948

5

� finals

15

30

4

2

8

21

16

4

1

42

Seminole Pro-Am

6,980

1949

2

1

1

1

11

3

7

3

2

1

3

9

5

2

6

Washington Star, Dapper Dan

31,594*

1950

12

2nd rd.

3

9

1

1

7

1

6

4

1

1

1

4

1

1

6

Colonial, Reading, Miam Beach

35,759*

1951

10

1

8

3

3

8

3

2

1

La Gorce

15,072

1952

10

1st rd.

1

1

5

1

3

1

2

Seminole, Eastern, Boms

19,908

1953

2

2nd rd.

16

12

34

2

2

9

2

Baton Rouge, Greenbrier

14,115

1954

6

� finals

1

16

3

Palm Beach, La Gorce

7,889

1955

3

2nd rd.

3

21

10

1

22

11

1

1

Insurance City

23,464

*Indicates leading money winner

Total 282,640

Every June, as another United States Open Golf Championship comes into view, two ancient enigmas are annually pondered by golfers throughout the world: Will Sam Snead win the Open this year? Will Sam ever win the Open? It hardly seems possible, but when Sam tees off at Oak Hill on the 14th of June, it will mark 20 full seasons since his first start in that most important of all golf competitions. Over those two decades, he has won one British Open (1946), three PGAs (1942, 1949, 1951), and three Masters (1949, 1952, 1954). He has garnered more points in the international Ryder Cup matches than any other golfer, British or American. He has four years won the Vardon Trophy for the lowest strokes-per-round average in PGA-endorsed competitions, and, though the arithmetic gets complicated, he may well possess the lowest career-length strokes-per-round average of any golfer. He has won more tournaments than any golfer who ever lived. He has won more prize money than any golfer who ever lived. However, as everyone knows only too well, Sam has never been able to win "the big one," the U.S. or National Open. Snead is 44 now, and, though his wonderfully supple frame and coordination have endowed him with a remarkable athletic longevity, Sam had better hurry up and win that Open or he may never do it. If he never does, it will be, historically, as tragic an injustice as if Rogers Hornsby had never captured a National League batting crown or Paavo Nurmi an Olympic title. If he ever does—and each June every contestant in the Open field hopes that if he himself doesn't win it, Sam will—it will be, without overstatement, one of the most popular triumphs ever recorded in the complete annals of sport.

The times Sam has come close to winning golf's most important championship constitute perhaps the game's epic tragedy. In his first attempt in 1937 at Oakland Hills, unharried then as he was to be later by any complex about the Open, Sam was second. He finished comparatively early in the afternoon with a 71 for a four-round total of 283, the low score up to that point. It stood up until late in the day when Ralph Guldahl, on the wings of a 70-yard chip that rolled into the cup for an eagle on the eighth, shuffled around in 69 strokes for a total of 281, incidentally a new record for the event. (If Sam had managed to win that first time out, many observers were to conclude years later when his problem had become patently acute, he would have probably gone on to take a slew of Opens.) Then there was 1939, the cruelest year of all. He stood on the tee of the 72nd hole of the Spring Mill course of the Philadelphia Country Club, needing only a 5 on a routine par-5 hole, 558 yards long, to lead the field. He proceeded to take that awful 8—one, in the rough to the left; two, a ducking wood into the side of a fairway trap; three, still in that trap; four, out but not well out; five, barely onto the green with a wobbly chip; and then, to cap the whole sad sequence, three putts. (He should have played safely for his 5 and would have, but he was not informed on what score was needed to win.) In 1940 at Canterbury, Sam was up front with 18 to go. A 72 would have seen him through a stroke. In a collapse that brought back shuddering memories of old Mac Smith foundering in the 1925 British Open at Prestwick, Sam took an 81.

And so it continued to go. In 1947—the first of the two climaxes is generally forgotten—the hard-luck man went briefly out of character when he holed a 15-footer on the 72nd green of the St. Louis Country Club to tie Lew Worsham for first. In the play-off, though, he tossed away a one-stroke advantage down the stretch and ultimately lost out when he failed to get down a 30�-inch putt on the last green. In 1948 he led at the halfway mark with 69-69-138, a new record for the first 36 of the championship. Then he began to miss those crucial four-footers and seven-footers, and Hogan pulled away to the first of his four great victories in the Open. 1949: another "almost but" year. With the 71st and 72nd to go, the first a reasonably staple par 3 and the second a stock par 4, Sam needed only two pars to tie for the top, and a par and a birdie would nave won for him. He got his par on the 72nd all right, but it was of no matter since he had previously taken three to get down from off the fringe on the 71st. (Broadcasting Snead's finish, Bill Stern, in one of his finest moments of misidentification, mistook Bobby Cruickshank, playing from the 71st tee in the group just ahead of Sam's, for Sam; before the appalling letdown set in, golf fans thought it was Sam and not Bobby who had placed his tee shot 10 feet from the pin and had that all-important birdie right in his hands.)

At Oakmont in 1953 Sam lay one stroke off Hogan's pace after 54 holes, still one stroke behind after 63. On the long 66th, where he had his best chance to catch the true-tempered Texan, Sam mis-hit his second and finally three-putted for a 6—not that a birdie would have, in the final analysis, made much difference, the way Ben finished that round. In 1955 at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, off with a miserable 79, practically out of the tournament before it began, Sam buckled down hard to business and midway in the final round was miraculously in a position to win. He couldn't hole—he couldn't even come close to holing—five or six eminently holeable birdie putts and at length faded out of contention on the 70th. All in all, in this long chronicle of frustration, Sam has had to be discontent with four red ribbons and the blues.

The tremendous hold Samuel Jackson Snead has on the affections of the sports public rests on many other things besides the indubitable fact that he is the greatest golfer who has never won the Open. To begin with, he is abrim with natural color both as a person and a player, more so perhaps than any golfer since Walter Hagen. His appeal extends to every, type of golf fan. Wherever he plays, he is followed not only by the most sedate pillars of the host club but also by "da poolroom crowd" who adopt him as their guy and root as pugnaciously for him as if they were spurring on a hard-pressed Marciano. As a result, the salvos of applause that arise from Snead's gallery carry, as you hear them erupting in other sectors of the course, a barrelhouse belligerence that is different from the sound sent up by any other worshipful gallery. In the Greensboro Open Sam is almost unbeatable because he invariably plays excellent golf there, but he is so sympathique—to use that old North Carolina expression—to the loco gentry that they have had to be restrained from improving his lies and lousing up his closest competitors.

What does Sam's fabulous appeal consist of? A large part of it, naturally, is that his whole personality projects like a ton of bricks. There he is, wherever he is, the likable, handsome, impressionable mountain boy from the Appalachian town of Hot Springs. Over the years Sam has acquired a formidable poise (which, among other things, has transformed the erstwhile inarticulate young man into one of the country's most engaging and accomplished after-dinner speakers), but a spectator can still feel what Sam is going through every minute of a tournament, his emotions and his thoughts are that readable. At the heart of the man, there is an instinctive graciousness and a kindness of spirit and an innate sportsmanship surpassing that of many athletes celebrated for their sportsmanship—and all these qualities somehow come through. Besides this, of course, it is just plain exciting to watch Sam Snead hit a golf ball. The first driver in the game's long history who was both very long and very straight, Sam possesses a swing of such beauty that a person who knows nothing about golf can recognize at once that he is watching something as functionally and artistically "right" as the motions of an Astaire or a Toscanini. Like no other, Snead's renowned swing integrates strength and ease—"flowing power," as Bill Campbell once termed it. Whereas Hogan's magnificent swing conjures up the image of a dynamic machine approaching metallic perfection, Snead ripples into his shots with a lazy, controlled, lyrical grace that explodes into a tremendous burst of boff as his body uncoils and his hands unleash their pent-up power when he enters the hitting area. (The terrific unleash Sam gets has been explained as deriving from his being double-jointed; he is, only to the extent that he can bend his wrists back a bit farther than most people can.)

Some knowledgeable old golf hands contend that there never was and never will be a "natural golf swing." their argument being that the movements involved come naturally to no one and must be mastered. Be that as it may, if anyone was born to hit a golf ball, it was Sam. Propelling a ball with a stick is hardly less native to his talents than walking. In 1945, playing with one hand—his left—he toured the Homestead course at Hot Springs in consecutive rounds of 83, 82, 81. (This included holing a three-iron for a hole-in-one.) Last year, for the curiosity of it, he played the Old White course at White Sulphur left-handed. He had an 86 which, with practice, he felt he could have improved on considerably. Sam can apparently play any which way and with any equipment.

Two years ago, in mind of his boyhood when he had banged at rocks with sticks of hickory and dogwood he had cut from the woods, he decided to see if he had lost that skill or enhanced it over the years. He found, growing near a creek, a piece of swamp maple which had a knobby bulge, shaped something like the head of a golf club, curving out of the "shaft." He trimmed down the shaft (which was about 48 inches long), got the head balanced, added a leather grip, and was ready to go. Using only this club and a wedge, he got around Old White in 76 shots. Other golfers couldn't get the ball off the ground with the homemade wood, but Sam could smack it great distances and once carried on his second shot into the trap before the green on the 17th, a fairly long par 5.

As this last feat of timing suggests, Sam has an extraordinary sensitivity for the "feel" of a shaft as it relates to the head of a club. As is generally known, he still uses the same driver he had back in 1937 when he shot into the spotlight. "You can put that driver," he claims, "into a room with 20 or 30 other drivers and then blindfold me and Ah'll go in and tell you which one it is." He has broken the club three times but has always gone back to it, for none of the duplicates made to replace it has struck him as having exactly the same nice balance or quite the same look as the head sits to the ball. The original shaft of that beautifully battered relic is still patched to the original head. For 15 years now the head has been cracked and the crack kept packed with wood filler. The seasons have worn all the markings off the sole plate and the plate is as thin as a razor blade. The lead weight insert in the head, jockeyed about by impact, is all beat up. The insert in the face has been replaced three times. The complete antique has been refinished five times. Sam carries no brassie, going with the driver whenever he gets that rare blessing, a perfect brassie lie, and he plays his one-iron instead the rest of the time.

Over the years his swing has remained remarkably constant. "Ah've tried to keep it as simple as possible," he explains, "but Ah git those periods when man backswing gits out o' whack. When that happens, Ah'll come too much over the ball and have to block the shot out with mah left hand. To correct things, Ah try not to change mah swing one eeny bit. Ah've changed mah turn a li'l bit sometimes or reset the feet a trifle, but mostly Ah work to git mah timing back where Ah want it." Sam is almost unique among his colleagues in the deep pleasure he receives from picking up a club, when he is hanging around a course on a non-tournament day, and swinging it back and forth lazily and sensing that his rhythm is right. "When Ah play mah best," he once stated, "Ah feel Ah'm playin' with mah legs and mah feet."

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