The Legends of Golf is that event for the game's immortals that annually furnishes televised proof that it is possible to get your driver and your long irons all the way around your stomach. It's also the tournament that proves from time to time, as it did last week, that Sam Snead is the greatest golfer who never died.
Down there at the Onion Creek Club in Austin, Texas, Samuel Jackson gave us yet another hint that he's going to be around in the year 2000, winning his 5,000th trophy. Snead will be 70 years old on May 27, but he was making the better shots as he and his 52-year-old partner, Don January, won the fifth renewal of this seniors (50 or older) spectacular. They came in ahead of the other paunches and creaking bodies competing for the richest ($450,000) of the over-50 purses by a mere 12 strokes.
Snead's swing is a little shorter these days, but it still has that classy old look, even if his putting style resembles something out of a carpentry manual. While the Ralph Guldahls of the tournament were striking their three-irons 130 yards, Snead was becoming the first man who can say he won a professional golf tournament in each of six decades. He started winning back in 1936, and it looks as if he's never going to stop.
When Snead was asked if he realized he had been winning golf tournaments over such a long stretch, he said, "Is that right? How long are decades nowadays?"
As January said Sunday evening, "I can't conceive of any athlete in any sport ever reaching what Sam has done. I just played three rounds of golf with a man who'll be 70 soon and he never hit a single iron that wasn't right at the pin."
Granted Onion Creek played to only 6,600 yards, and granted the oldtimers were allowed to ride in carts for three rounds of competition, and granted they were allowed to improve their lies, even in the rough, because of the rain that shortened the event from 72 to 54 holes. Still there's no reason for a 69-year-old man to make 14 birdies himself and lead his partner to rounds of 62, 60 and 61—unless, of course, he's Sam Snead.
For the three days, Snead and January were a record 27 under par. Near is what the runners-up—the teams of Roberto de Vicenzo and Bob Goalby, Gene Littler and Bob Rosburg and Bob Toski and Chin Sei Ha—were if you want to call San Antonio near Austin. That would put them only 80 miles back, at 15 under. In brief, Snead and January led by one after the opening round, by eight after Saturday and finally by the dozen that got them $50,000 apiece.
Precisely what Snead and January did was blend their games so perfectly that they never made a bogey while playing the par 3s in 10 under, the par 4s in nine under and the par 5s in eight under. If this proves anything, it's that seniors like shorter holes. Over the last few holes on Sunday, when Snead and January were supposedly just trying to get to the clubhouse, old Sam up and birdied the 15th and 16th. At which point January turned to him and said, "Man, how many do you want to win by, Sam?"
Replied Snead, "You never know, them folks up ahead might be cheatin'."
The first Legends in 1978 gave birth to what has since become the Senior Tour. In that initial event, regarded then as simply something quaint, the 65-year-old Snead teamed with Gardner Dickinson to win by one stroke over the Australian pair of Peter Thomson and Kel Nagle and set a pattern. Until last week's tournament, every Legends had been closely contended if not downright thrilling.