Sarazen, Gene

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(b. 27 February 1902 in Harrison, New York; d. 13 May 1999 in Naples, Florida), professional golfer who developed the sand wedge and was the first to win all four of the modern professional major golf championships.

It is surprising that Sarazen, born Eugenio Saraceni, became a professional golfer, not only because of his short stature of five feet, five inches, but also because his Italian immigrant parents knew nothing about the game and did not live near a golf course. His father, Federico Saraceni, was a carpenter from Italy who had immigrated to New York with his wife, Adela, a homemaker. Sarazen had one sibling. To help support the family, Sarazen began cad-dying at Larchmont Country Club at age eight when his mother found out that a neighbor's son made good money caddying there. At Larchmont and later at Apawamis Country Club he started practicing golf, and learned from the amateurs on the course.

Federico Saraceni went into debt in the spring of 1917 when the United States entered World War I, the price of lumber soared, and he could not meet a contract. Sarazen left school to work with his father six days a week as a carpenter. In the summer the family moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut, to work in the war plants. Sarazen became a carpenter's helper at the Remington Arms, fulfilling his father's wish that he take up a career in carpentry rather than golf. In January 1918 Sarazen contracted pneumonia. He was unconscious for three days and long in recovering because he developed empyema, or pus in the pleural cavities between the lungs and the chest wall. He was finally released from the hospital in May, under doctor's orders to get an outdoor job. He determined to become a professional golfer at that time.

Sarazen turned to Al Ciuci, the professional at the local nine-hole course, Beardsley Park. Ciuci encouraged him and helped him to a career in golf. Sarazen hit the ball long with a draw. After learning at age eleven of Francis Ouimet's victory in the 1913 U.S. Open, Sarazen had adopted an interlocking grip, which is what Ouimet had, and it suited Sarazen's small hands perfectly. Sarazen also changed his name at age sixteen when he saw his name in a local newspaper and thought "Saraceni" sounded more like the name of a violin player than a golfer.

Success came early for Sarazen. In 1922 he started out by winning the Southern Open in New Orleans by eight shots. Then he won the U.S. Open at Skokie Country Club in Glencoe, Illinois, by a stroke with a final round of 68. He said, "All men are created equal, but I am one stroke better than the rest." Sarazen went on to win the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) Championship that year at Oakmont Country Club in Oakmont, Pennsylvania. He was late for his first round match because he was in Ohio playing an exhibition and forgot about the PGA Championship starting the next day. Under today's rules he would have been disqualified. He also won important exhibition matches against Jim Barnes for $1,500—three times his winnings in the U.S. Open, and Walter Hagen—over 72 holes and billed as the "World Championship of Golf"—for $2,000. In the latter match Sarazen had stomach pains but shrugged them off. He consulted doctors after the match who told him he had "nervous indigestion." Saying, "I don't get nervous when I play a match like this," he fortunately consulted another doctor who had him rushed to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy.

Sarazen was now on top of the golfing world, and in addition to playing in exhibitions, cashed in on his new fame with articles, an instruction manual on golf, and endorsements. In 1923 he became a member of the Wilson Sporting Goods Company advisory staff. That year Sarazen once again won the PGA Championship, playing a tight final match over thirty-eight holes against Hagen with another fantastic finish.

For the rest of the decade, Sarazen was regarded by many as being in a slump, winning no major championships except the Metropolitan Open in 1925, although he finished second or third in several majors and won other tournaments from 1926 on. His personal life took a positive turn in 1923, however, when he met Mary Catherine Henry. They married on 10 June 1924; the couple had two children.

Sarazen earned more money from the stock market than his golf in the 1920s, but when the stock market crashed in 1929, he lost most of his money and felt the need for a new reliance on his golf game. In January 1930 he won the Agua Caliente Open in Tijuana, Mexico and its $10,000 first prize; one of the eight PGA tour events he won that year. Sarazen also turned his thoughts to the shots he was losing trying to come out of bunkers with a lofted iron, which either bladed the ball or dug into the sand. While taking a flying lesson, he noticed how the plane rode up in the air as the flaps went down. Sarazen applied the same principle to the sole of a niblick, a lofted iron, by putting solder on the bottom and filing the sole at an angle down from the leading edge. He refined the angle of the flange so that it rode smoothly through the sand. By the winter of 1931 Sarazen had created the modern sand wedge.

Using the sand wedge and a refurbished grip, Sarazen won the British Open and the U.S. Open in 1932. At Prince's Golf Club in Sandwich, he also had the advantage of Hagen's old caddie, Skip Daniels. Daniels, who was then past sixty and in failing health, had promised Sarazen that they would win an Open together. Daniels carried Sarazen's clubs while using a cane and called his shots, and Sarazen led all four rounds for a record score of 283. At the U.S. Open at Fresh Meadow Country Club on Long Island, New York, Sarazen was 5 strokes behind after 36 holes. On the ninth hole of the third round he chipped in for a 2 and a 38 going out. Then he shot the back nine in 32 for a 70 and shot a 66 in the final round for a memorable streak of golf and a total of 286. Sarazen followed that win with another PGA Championship in 1933.

Sarazen's most famous shot—possibly the most famous shot in PGA history—was a double-eagle two at the par five fifteenth hole at the 1935 Augusta National Invitational Tournament (now the Masters). At the fifteenth hole, Sarazen needed to shoot three under par on the last four holes to tie Craig Wood. For his second shot Sarazen toed in a four-wood and hit a low shot that sent the ball 235 yards into the hole. The next day he defeated Wood in a thirty-six-hole playoff. Sarazen continued playing tournament golf long after that win. He won the PGA Seniors Championship in 1954 and 1958, and in 1963, at age sixty-one, he was the oldest player ever to make the cut in the Masters. In 1973, on the fiftieth anniversary of his first British Open, he scored a hole in one on the 126-yard eighth hole at Troon Golf Course. In 1967 Sarazen wrote an instructional book for seniors, Better Golf After Fifty. He won his last tournament, the New York State PGA Seniors Championship, in 1968.

In 1933 Sarazen bought a farm in Brookfield Center, Connecticut, and from that time on he became known as "the Squire." He sold the farm in 1944 and bought another in Germantown, New York, in 1945, where he stayed until 1969, when he moved to New London, New Hampshire. In 1961 Sarazen became the host of the television show Shell's Wonderful World of Golf, a series of golf matches played around the world that ran for nine seasons. Sarazen retired to Marco Island, Florida. He continued to be involved in golf and charities and was an honorary starter at the Masters from 1981 until the month before his death in 1999 from complications of pneumonia. He is buried in Marco Island Cemetery.

Sarazen played in all six Ryder Cup matches from 1927 to 1937 and holds the record for most PGA Championship matches won (fifty-one). The PGA Tour historical rankings from 1916 to 1988 rank Sarazen eleventh. He had thirty-seven official tour victories. As Bobby Jones wrote in his introduction to Sarazen's autobiography, "When he saw a chance at the bacon hanging over the last green, he could put as much fire and fury into a finishing round of golf as Jack Dempsey could into a fight."

Sarazen wrote his memoirs, Thirty Years of Championship Golf: The Life and Times of Gene Sarazen (1950), with Herbert Warren Wind. See also John M. Olman, The Squire: The Legendary Golfing Life of Gene Sarazen (1987). Al Barkow, Gettin' to the Dance Floor: The Early Days of American Pro-Golf (1986), includes an interview with Sarazen. An account of Sarazen's win at the Agua Caliente Open is in Peter F. Stevens, Links Lore: Dramatic Moments and Forgotten Milestones from Golf's History (1998). Sarazen wrote an article about his development of the sand wedge, "The Wedge and I," for Golf (May 1966). "A Conversation with Gene Sarazen," by Ira Berkow, appears in Golfer's Digest, 6th ed. (1974). See also Tim Rosaforte, "Sarazen's Last Interview," Golf Digest (Aug. 1999). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Boston Globe (both 14 May 1999).

Robert T. Brunsm