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In 1922 and 1923 he won the PGA Championship. In 1924 he married Mary Henry, a pretty, blue-eyed blonde. He wintered in Florida and summered as resident pro at some of the better clubs in the Northeast. For a carpenter's son with a sixth-grade education, he was doing fine, but as a golfer who had won the U.S. Open he was stymied. He came close several times but did not win another major title for nine years.
As the '20s came to an end, two things happened that altered Sarazen's future. The stock market crashed, taking some of his financial security with it, and Bobby Jones, golfs last great amateur, won the Grand Slam and retired. Galleries dwindled, purses shrank, and Sarazen faced the prospect of having to win to survive.
For years he had been trying this and that, as golfers do when things are not going right, and his natural caddie's game had become muddled. In 1930 he even tried changing his grip, a golfer's last resort. Now, with the wolf at the door, he set to work in earnest, and out of his work emerged his old game and a new weapon—the sand wedge.
Sand irons were not new. Jones had used a scoop-shaped iron that was effective enough, but it was banned by the USGA in 1931. In the winter of 1932 Sarazen was living in New Port Richey on the west coast of Florida and taking flying lessons in a small Stinson plane. One day while taking off, he watched the tail of the plane drop as the plane rose and wondered whether a club might not have a similar effect on a ball in sand. "It gave me a funny sensation," he says. "I called the Wilson Company and asked them to send me 12 niblicks, and I went to the hardware store and bought solder and rasps and files and spent four or five hours each day filing away till I got it just right."
That winter Sarazen made his first money with his new weapon, betting gullible golfers like Howard Hughes $5 he could "get up and down in two from traps. By the time the British Open began in June 1932, he was ready. Fearful that the Royal and Ancient, the game's governing body in Britain, would ban the club, Sarazen told his caddie to replace it in the bag blade down, and at night he smuggled it into his hotel room under his polo coat. "We waltzed around," says Sarazen, chuckling at the memory. "I was seven or eight strokes in the lead at one time and I won by five."
The British Open had been Sarazen's bête noire, and winning it, after five tries, launched him on the best year of his golfing life. Two weeks later he also won the U.S. Open at the Fresh Meadow Country Club on Long Island.
Until 1965 the Open was played in three days, with the final two rounds on Saturday, one in the morning, the other after lunch. Sarazen had started the third round at Fresh Meadow five strokes off the lead. His tee shot to the 9th green was well hit, but it overshot the mark and ended up on the fringe at the rear of the green. Jones, who was watching from the veranda as Sarazen trudged toward the green, thought he looked tired and beaten. Then Sarazen hit a perfect chip, and his ball rolled down the green into the cup. "As the ball disappeared," Jones wrote, "I could see Gene dart forward as though he had been hit by a galvanic charge. His whole appearance altered in that one second."
Sarazen played the back nine in 32, ate lunch, and shot a 66 for the final round to win by three strokes. In 1950, Jones wrote of that 66, "I have never seen a round of golf as relentlessly spectacular." After 1933 Sarazen became a country squire with a passion for farming. He and Mary raised their children, Mary Ann and Gene Jr., on farms, first in Connecticut, then upstate New York, and Gene financed his farming ventures with tours and exhibitions and a few tournaments each year. His knickers and his knee socks, his short, stumpy body, his hair, neatly parted and slicked back, remain a familiar sight at the Masters, where every year he still plays a ceremonial nine holes on the first day of the tournament. "You know," he says, at once both wistful and proud, "I'm the only one who has played with everybody from Harry Vardon to Jack Nicklaus. Except Gary Player. I don't know why I missed him."
After a pause Sarazen is reminded of another story. He pares them to their bare essentials these days, conserving energy, maybe, or time, or both.
"I was playing with Hagen and the Prince of Wales at Royal St. George's in 1928, the year Hagen won there. When we got to the 9th hole the prince said, 'We should stop and have a libation.' We said, 'Why not?' So we went into the dining room and the headwaiter, in tails, whispered something to the prince. I couldn't hear him, but I knew what he was saying—'These men are professionals, and they aren't allowed in the clubhouse.' And the prince said, 'You either stop this nonsense or I'll take the Royal out of Royal St. George's.' "