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SAM SNEAD AND THE SERPENT
Gerald Holland
December 05, 1960
The serpent stands for trouble. At home in Virginia, it is the rattler or the copperhead that has pursued Sam since boyhood. To Sam the celebrity, the serpent represents a variety of other pests: elbow benders, people who blow smoke in his face, intruders who break in on him when he's watching a western. This is the first story about the true Sam, a wonder of an athlete and a wonder of a man, whose game keeps getting better
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December 05, 1960

Sam Snead And The Serpent

The serpent stands for trouble. At home in Virginia, it is the rattler or the copperhead that has pursued Sam since boyhood. To Sam the celebrity, the serpent represents a variety of other pests: elbow benders, people who blow smoke in his face, intruders who break in on him when he's watching a western. This is the first story about the true Sam, a wonder of an athlete and a wonder of a man, whose game keeps getting better

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"You're kidding, Bill Sloane," I said sharply.

"No," said Bill Sloane seriously, "I'm telling you the absolute truth. I wouldn't call Sam Snead at this hour to tell him his house was on fire. But I know that Sam can't resist a jam session any hour of the day or night. He loves to play that old horn of his with a combo like ours."

"Is he any good?"

"Well," said Bill, "he's considerably better at golf, I must say. He can't improvise much, but he'll be in there blowing his brains out on the melody."

So there we were at The Pines on a little side road part way up the mountain, and the joint was truly jumping. No liquor is sold over the bar in West Virginia, so a man must bring his own bottle or carry a load acquired elsewhere. No one seemed to be feeling any pain. Actually, The Pines is a private club, but the membership rules are very relaxed. Almost any politely speaking man can qualify for membership upon payment of a modest initiation fee. As for Sam Snead, dry states don't bother him. He likes a bottle of beer after 18 holes and maybe another one (or a dry sherry) before bedtime, but he rarely drinks anything stronger. A daiquiri tempts him after a match on a hot day, but one is usually enough. Sam doesn't smoke at all and one sure way to rile him is to blow smoke in his face.

Up on the bandstand, it seemed that Slammin' Sam just couldn't get enough music out of his system and the crowd was jitterbugging and sashaying every which way. Miss Ellie, the fine buxom hostess from the Colonial Club, neatly executed a dos-�-dos with her partner, a fine buxom businessman from up North. Nobody had to call out requests for numbers—they kept coming that fast. With Sam blowing his horn loud and clear, his eyes squeezed tightly shut, the combo ran through The Darktown Strutters' Ball, On the Sunny Side of the Street, Honeysuckle Rose, Goody! Goody!, Sweet Sue, You Always Hurt the One You Love and Sam's personal favorite (at which he considers that he excels), The Sheik of Araby. During one of the numbers, Gary Nixon took his clarinet from his lips just long enough to yell in Sam's ear, "You're getting ahead of the combo, Sam!" Sam dropped his horn an instant and shouted back at Gary, "Well, tell 'em to catch the hell up!" Gary passed the word and everybody finished together in the big finale, Basin Street.

We all went back and sat down at the table—Sam and Audrey Snead, Gary Nixon, a few Greenbrier guests and the dancers Howard and Betty Harvey. Then, all of a sudden, waiters appeared bearing huge platters of fried chicken and French fries and salad, compliments of the club management in appreciation of Snead's guest appearance. Everybody pitched in, but when Sam held a chicken leg aloft and said sentimentally, "Just think, this li'l ol' chicken was runnin' across the road yesterday mornin'," Audrey Snead, a petite blonde, the mother of Sam's two sons, Jackie, 15, and Terry, 8, put down her piece of chicken and said she believed she'd rather have a hamburger. The waiters went scurrying for that, but Sam's kindly thought for the chickens didn't seem to bother anybody else. The platter was swiftly cleared. However, Audrey Snead had definitely lost her appetite for any kind of food and Sam had to finish her hamburger.

Sam was through playing for the night, but the combo drifted back to the bandstand and played a cha-cha for Howard and-Betty Harvey. It was well past 3 a.m. now, but Sam (who had nothing special on next day) was in no hurry. He had played 18 holes in the pro-am tournament at the Homestead's Cascades course at Hot Springs, Va. some hours before (his son Jackie had caddied for him), but his early evening nap had refreshed him. He had played in the pro-am mainly for sentimental reasons. Hot Springs is Sam's home town, and it was at the Cascades course that he got his first job in the early '30s. It was there, too, that Freddie Martin, the Greenbrier pro until he was promoted to golf club manager, spotted Sam and hired him at Greenbrier.

I slipped away from the table and went over and sat on a bar stool and looked back at Sam, sitting there bald as an onion and looking more like a well-to-do dentist than a great athlete. It's amazing what a hat does for 48-year-old Sam Snead; he wears one with more aplomb than any other man alive. The coconut straws with the loud bands are, of course, his trademark, and they take 10 years off his age. Felt hats are just as effective on him. He tried a toupee once and still has it, but he never wears it any more.

But you don't get the full effect of Sam Snead when he's sitting at a table (as he was now), wearing light slacks and a rather conservative sports jacket. You get the full effect when he's wearing his Sam Snead brand of short-sleeved sport shirt and Sam Snead brand of slacks and Sam Snead-endorsed hat; you get the effect best when he's on the tee and he draws that celebrated 25-year-old driver from his bag and tees up his ball, maybe speaking to it ("Now stay up there, you little fooler, this ain't goin' to hurt hardly at all"), and then, with one practice swing and a roguish, sidelong look at the gallery, he flexes the muscles of his Popeye-the-Sailor-Man forearms and unleashes that graceful, powerful classic swing that is one of the dozen or so great sporting visions of all time: the Sam Snead drive, long, straight and true or fading right or hooking left as he may want it to. It is a sight to make men gasp and women sway and grow faint.

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