SI Vault
John Underwood
March 04, 1974
Like the Mississippi, 61-year-old Sam Snead keeps rolling along, and his play the last two weeks proves that he may actually be improving
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March 04, 1974

That Old Man River Of Golf

Like the Mississippi, 61-year-old Sam Snead keeps rolling along, and his play the last two weeks proves that he may actually be improving

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The pleasure of a buxom young golf tournament like last week's Jackie Gleason Inverrary is in the company it makes. The tournament, which ushers in the Florida portion—Phase II—of the pro tour, burst through the ropes two years ago with the noble intention of throwing prize money around in record amounts, an idea Gleason had while getting smashed one day and night in Jamaica, and in no time its irresistible swank has made the game come true for...well, for the girl in the red terry-cloth halter and plaid vinyl clogs who found the forced silence around the 15th green on Friday excruciating. "Golf is like television with the sound off," she whispered hoarsely.

And for the round-eyed blonde in the straw hat and banana-colored shorts whose boyfriend pointed out the legendary Sam Snead, way up the 11th fairway, informed her that Mr. Snead is now 61 years old, and, yes, sure enough, that was his ball skipping past them toward the green. The girl was properly amazed. "You mean he put it way up to here in one scoop?" she said.

Discovering Sam Snead is nothing new, of course; galleries have been agog over him for generations. And since Snead himself has always been a sucker for the cash-attracts gambit, it was not surprising to see him striding after a share of Inverrary's $260,000 pot, the second largest on the U.S. tour.

What is surprising is that Snead is not exactly acting the part of an old dog sniffing for leftovers. Slamming Sammy is up there snapping and slamming and, uh, scooping for the top money again. That treacherous little utensil that brings them all down eventually, the common putter, is no longer an alien in Sam's wondrous hands. He is putting with conviction, if not overwhelming confidence, and suddenly he is 31 again. Well, 41 again.

Snead did not win at Inverrary. Leonard Thompson did, picking up $52,000 for his first tour victory—while Snead finished 15th, fading slightly in the last two rounds when he was one over par. But until then he had put the fear of Sam in his younger, hairier adversaries, as he had the week before when he tied for second in the Los Angeles Open. Victory was on the tip of his blade then, and he made a bold run for it at Inverrary where he was only a stroke off the lead after 36.

Snead has won 84 tournaments in his career, more than anyone, but he has not won since the 1965 Greensboro Open when, at 52, he became the oldest player to win a regular tournament (not counting seniors events). At one point at Inverrary, late in the third round when he was in a dogfight—and loving it—with a large group of leaders, the combined years of experience of five of the players ahead of him, Thompson, Kermit Zarley, Bud Allin, Roy Pace and Hale Irwin, were fewer than his 37 in the service of his sport. In the last two tournaments, the L.A. Open and Inverrary, he has outshot Jack Nicklaus by 3 strokes, Lanny Wadkins by 5, Johnny Miller by 6 and the current heartthrob Ben Crenshaw by 19.

The classic shockproof, waterproof, 24-hour, self-winding Snead swing was still very much intact, as if its delicate mechanism were sealed in butter. There is none—not one—prettier on the tour, and though he has to get a little more belly out of the way to complete it there are many younger bellies more prominent than his. It is true that some of the slam is gone from Snead's game, too, but he has become what fellow pros call "sneaky long." "Just when you've been outhitting him all day," says one, "and you think he's on the ropes, wham, he sends one past you 20 yards. It can shake you up."

The better news is that Snead's putting has regained the flush of youth. Or at least a more glowing twilight. Everyone knows from all the funny pictures that Snead years ago adopted the so-called croquet style of putting. He had begun to "get the yips" over short putts, and his scores soared. But before he could master the action the USGA—which couldn't stand the sight of it either—outlawed the croquet and any stroke that involved "straddling the line."

Did that stop Sam? Does a vegetarian eat pork chops? He simply repositioned his right leg on the same side of the ball as the left and dropped into a position somewhat reminiscent of a man teetering on a skateboard. "Sidesaddle," Sam called it. That way he could still look directly at the hole and could grip the club the way a surveyor might, carrying through the stroke with his right hand, "like pitching pennies," he says.

Humbling himself in that manner "would never bother Sam," says Jack Tuthill of the PGA. "Hogan wouldn't have done it. Most great stylists probably wouldn't, not if they thought it would make them look bad. But Sam's a competitor. If he can't do it one way, he'll find another." The name of the game, says Snead, "is to get the ball in the hole and pick up the check. That's all."

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