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Sam Snead and the end of an era
Sam Snead died just four days short of his 90th birthday last week and with his death an era ended. Breaking 90 would have amused him greatly.

He was the last of the great American triumvirate with Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson, all born within months of one another in 1912. He was the last from a time when great players were unaffected by PR training and practised performances before TV cameras and the press. With Sam, what you saw was what you got.

His honesty could be unnerving. The great links courses of Britain did not compare favourably to him with the emerging great manicured courses in the US. He described the Old Course as 'the sort of real estate that you couldnt give away.' Unlike his contemporary, adversary and friend, Johnny Bulla who vainly persisted in trying to win The Open, Sam came only once and won at St Andrews in 1946. He never contested the Open again and every British visitor to his home in Greenbriar, West Virginia, was subjected to the story of how, when he received the $600 winners cheque and was asked if he would return to defend his title at Hoylake? He replied: 'No sir, 600 bucks is tippin money. Why, I can take that of my buddies back home before lunch.'

His avarice was legendary, but as his friend, the equally legendary Big Bill Campbell, was quick to point out, it was mostly tongue in cheek. He was after all involved in seven Ryder Cup matches, twice as captain, winning 10 out of his 13 matches - and this at a time when nobody made money out of the Ryder Cup. He was inordinately proud of his Ryder Cup and Open success as much as he was distressed by his failure to win a US Open, an event in which he took second place four times.

Dismissive about his Masters and PGA titles, both of which he won three times, it was his local country boy pride that insisted that his greatest hour was in winning the West Virginia Championship. This he did with a round of 61 and, not surprisingly taking the course record; a record that he reduced to 59 some 23 years later.

Sam Snead was at one and the same time a proud and modest man. I met him at Greenbriar in 1965 when he was 'makin more dough than the bank could count.' He was clearly impressed and almost disbelieving of the amount of money that was flooding into the game. He was equally unconcerned that, at 52 he was the oldest player to win a PGA event when he won the Greater Greensbro Open in 1965. He was in his fifties when he had three successive victories in the Canada Cup, two partnering the young Palmer and one with Jimmy Demarat when their combined ages was close to 100. Age was of no concern to him and any mention of it prompted a high kicking demonstration often accompanied by flatulence.

His demonstration was unnecessary for he was clearly a born athlete graced with the perfect physical golfing form. Short of leg and as lithe as a willow his swing said it all.

Since his first PGA tournament win at Oakland, California in 1937, his swing has been eulogised. Indeed, his swing has inspired more words than Tolstoy wrote. His favourite was 'anyone who would pass up an opportunity to see Sam Snead swing would pull down the shades driving past the Taj Mahal.'

His swing was indeed a thing of great beauty. Thankfully there is enough film-footage of it to keep documentary filmmakers going till Tiger Woods is 90. Like that of Jones, Sneads swing appears effortless, yet he did not earn the title, Slammin Sam, without reason. At a time when 220 yards was a lengthy drive, Snead routinely drove the ball over 270 yards.

More important was the reproducibility and durability of his swing. Testament to the former is seen in his 84 USPGA tour victories, a number not nearly matched by Jack Nicklaus. Had the war not intervened at the peak of his prowess he would surely have won more.

His durability is reflected in the time span of his play. His first win was in 1937 when he was already 25 years old and in 1972, at the age of 60, he was joint fourth in the PGA Championship.

He broke his age on many occasions at Greenbriar and cost a lot of people a lot of money for he enjoyed social golf as long as there was an 'interest' in the game. He also broke his age on the tour at the Quad Cities Open in1979 when he was 67 and returned a 66.

Sam Snead was a charming man and a gentleman who played his part to perfection. He neither smoked nor drank but he was the life and soul of the clubroom at Greenbriar. As a storyteller he was peerless and, if frequently apocryphal, he was nonetheless brilliant. I refuse to believe that, when as a boy on the farm, a hog ate his golf ball and he followed it around for days 'till the precious object was eventually voided.'

Much of his story repertoire was what the Americans call 'a bit blue' but was in fact downright dirty. He was simply one of the lads at Greenbriar.

Sam Snead will most certainly be remembered for his appearance at the age of 88 at the Open at St Andrews in 2000 when he played four holes in the company of Nick Faldo. Faldo himself will never be forgotten for the supporting part he played in helping the great old man relive what he grudgingly admitted was a great moment in his life.

Sam Snead is dead and the age of innocence is ended.

©    28 - MAY 2002

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