Sam Snead, golfing great, dies at age 89

Thursday, May 23rd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Sam Snead, the golfing great known as ``Slammin' Sam'' who used the sweetest swing in the game to win seven major championships and a record 81 PGA Tour events, died Thursday at age 89.

Snead died at his home in Hot Springs, Va., daughter-in-law Anne Snead. He had suffered a series of recent strokes and died while she and his son Sam Jr. were with him. ``He didn't seem scared,'' Anne Snead said. ``I think he was very much at peace.''

Snead was raised during the Depression in the backwoods of western Virginia and blessed with as much raw talent as anyone who played golf. He grew up playing in bare feet with clubs made from tree limbs, but his swing was a combination of grace and power.

``I don't think there's ever been a golf swing as aesthetically pleasing as Sam Snead's,'' pro Phil Mickelson said from the Memorial Tournament.

The late Gene Sarazen once said of the young Snead, ``I've just watched a kid who doesn't know anything about playing golf, and I don't want to be around when he learns how.''

Snead was ageless, the only player who won sanctioned tournaments in six decades, from the 1936 West Virginia Closed Pro to the 1982 Legends of Golf.

He was famous for his straw hat, cocky grin and homespun humor. A three-time Masters champion, Snead had been an honorary starter since 1983. He would jaunt to the first tee, show off his flowing, flawless swing and then tell stories outside the clubhouse.

But this year was different.

Snead's son said he was recovering from strokelike symptoms, and for the first time, he needed someone to tee up the ball at the Masters. The ceremonial shot flew into the gallery and struck a fan, breaking the man's glasses.

Snead wrote two books on golf. ``How to Play Golf'' came out in 1946 and ``The Education of a Golfer'' in 1962.

``Some of the things I didn't have to be taught as a rookie traveling pro were to keep close count of my nickels and dimes, stay away from whiskey and never concede a putt,'' he wrote.

For all his victories _ independent record keepers place his total at 160 _ Snead never won the U.S. Open, which haunted him the rest of his career.

He was a runner-up four times, but his most infamous U.S. Open occurred in 1939 at Philadelphia Country Club.

There were no scoreboards on the course, and Snead thought he needed a birdie on the final hole to win, when all he needed was a par. Playing aggressively, he hit his drive into the left rough and never recovered, making a triple bogey.

``That night, I was ready to go out with a gun and pay somebody to shoot me,'' Snead said later. ``It weighed on my mind so much that I dropped 10 pounds, lost more hair and began to choke even in practice rounds.''

The Masters was different.

Snead was the first man to dominate at Augusta National. He won the Masters for the first time in 1949, the year club members began awarding a green jacket. Snead won again three years later, and earned his final Masters victory in 1954 after beating Ben Hogan by one stroke in an 18-hole playoff.

He also was a three-time winner of the PGA Championship.

Snead claimed his only British Open at St. Andrews in 1946, during a time when few Americans traveled across the Atlantic Ocean because of the cost. Even a victory would not guarantee they could cover their expenses.

Born May 27, 1912 in Hot Springs, Snead needed no formal teachers to develop the sweet swing that lasted a lifetime.

``Watching Sam Snead practice hitting golf balls is like watching a fish practice swimming,'' said John Schlee, a U.S. Open runner-up in 1973.

Snead joined the PGA Tour in 1937, driving out to California with only $300. He won at least one tournament every year on tour except one for the next 23 years. His biggest season was in 1950, when he won 11 times. No one has won that much since then, although Tiger Woods came close in 2000 with nine victories.

Snead first met Woods during an exhibition in California when Woods was 6.

Woods couldn't clear a narrow stream in front of a par 3, then played out of the shallow water and made bogey. Snead beat him with a par, and was duly impressed, talking about Woods and his favorite subject _ the swing _ years later.

``You watch his backswing, and it comes right down on that same line,'' Snead said. ``A lot of fellows come over the ball or dip around. Hogan said, 'I got something I'll take to the grave,' but I knew what it was. It was the right arm that would point toward the flag. You're not going to get off track very far. And that's the same with Tiger.''

In perhaps his most impressive feat, Snead became the first player on the PGA Tour to shoot his age _ a 67 at age 67 _ in the second round of the Quad Cities Open in 1979.

Two days later, he shot a 66.