On a Sunday afternoon 50 years ago this month, Gene Sarazen strode off the tee of the par-5 15th hole at Augusta National, heading for the spot, 250 yards away, where his drive had come to rest. Walking at Sarazen's side was Walter Hagen, the idol of his youth and the rival of his prime. The Masters tournament was in its second year, the Depression in its sixth. Sarazen, though he was 33 years old and had won the U.S. and British opens three years before, was viewed as a survivor from an older generation of golfers, a star of the '20s and a contemporary of Hagen's, but in fact Hagen was 10 years his senior. Craig Wood, who led that Masters by one stroke after 54 holes, had maintained his lead through the final round and was now playing the 72nd hole.
As Sarazen and Hagen neared their drives, a roar rose from the 18th green at the top of the hill, 600 yards away. Wood, the apparent winner, had closed out with a birdie that gave him a 73 for the day, 282 for the tournament and a three-stroke lead over Sarazen.
As Hagen's was the shorter of the two drives, he hit first, an iron shot that stopped safely short of the pond that fronts the 15th green. Sarazen, approaching his ball, asked his caddie, a tall black man known as Stovepipe, what was needed to beat Wood.
"Four threes, Mr. Gene," said Stovepipe. "Three, three, three, three." That meant eagle, par, birdie, birdie—an unlikely finish on any golf course, much less Bobby Jones's four-year-old Georgia masterpiece.
Sarazen's ball was resting on the right side of the fairway in a disheartening lie, nestled down in the grass rather than sitting up nicely on top of it. The distance to the pin—it had to be the pin—called for a spoon, but the close lie dictated the greater loft of a four-wood. Sarazen conferred with Stovepipe for a moment, then, taking his four-wood, stepped up to the ball. He glanced once toward the green, hooded the face of the club slightly to keep the ball low and swung with all the might that his sturdy 5'5" frame could muster.
As it happened, Jones, who had finished his own round, was watching Sarazen's shot from a mound 50 yards away. Jones later wrote, "His swing into the ball was so perfect and so free, one knew immediately that it was a gorgeous shot. I saw the ball strike the tongue of the green, bound slightly to the left, directly towards the hole, and then the whole gallery began dancing and shouting."
Sarazen had played a par-5 hole in two strokes for the rarest score in golf, a double eagle, the only one that has ever led to victory in a major tournament. Having made up the necessary three strokes with one shot, Sarazen parred his way in for a tie with poor Wood, and the next day, in a 36-hole playoff, shot 71-73 to beat Wood by five strokes.
The 1935 Masters was Sarazen's last win in a tournament of importance. Perhaps because of that, the double eagle took on greater significance than it would have otherwise. While Sarazen is too thoroughgoing a pragmatist to sneeze at a shot that served to extend his fame for decades, the double eagle did become something of an albatross. "Frankly, I'm tired of discussing it," he said in 1969. "You'd think I had never done anything else but hit that shot.... To me, the most interesting thing about the shot is that both Jones and Hagen saw it."
"How many people actually saw the double eagle, Gene?" asks Bob Taylor, a Chevrolet dealer who is Sarazen's partner in a local tournament at the Marco Island Country Club in Florida, where Sarazen has chaired the golf committee since 1965. The occasion is Sarazen's 83rd birthday, and the tournament is a benefit for one of his pet charities.
"Twenty-two," answers Sarazen, deadpan. Taylor is a friend, and the routine is a familiar one, staged for the entertainment of a gallery of well-wishers.