Snead, Sam(uel) Jackson

views updated

SNEAD, Sam(uel) Jackson

(b. 27 May 1912 in Ashwood, Virginia), considered the greatest natural player in the history of golf, who won eighty-one Professional Golfers' Association (PGA) tour titles and fifty-four other professional victories, including three PGA championships, three Masters, and one British Open, and who was known for his failure to win the U.S. Open.

Snead grew up on a farm in Ashwood, the youngest of five boys. He also had one sister. His father was a hotel maintenance engineer, and his mother ran the household. As a boy he learned to hit a golf ball by imitating his brother Homer's swing. "I'd cut a swamp maple limb with a knot on the end, carve a rough club-face with a penknife, leaving some bark for a grip, and swing by the hour." Beginning in 1919, at age seven, Snead and his friends would walk the two and one-half miles to Hot Springs, where they earned money by caddying at the Homestead Hotel golf club. Since shoes were only worn for school or church, he quit the long barefoot walk when the weather grew colder, but not before his toes were frostbitten.

As a teenager, the five-foot, eleven-inch, 175-pound Snead was considered a natural athlete. He played high-school football, baseball, basketball, and track, and appeared in three amateur golf tournaments. He avoided college, viewing it as time wasted from golf practice. Agile and double-jointed, Snead could kick to the top of an eight-foot-high doorjamb. At age seventy-six he could still stand on a curb and touch the road with his hands.

Snead played in his first professional event in 1936 in Hershey, Pennsylvania, with only eight clubs. When he missed a shot, the golfer George Fazio spoke encouragingly, "Hit another, son." In response, Snead shot 345 yards, arriving twenty feet from the pin. He learned to "expect good ones to follow bad ones." He carried his first putter in 1937 in the Ryder Cup tournament, playing on the team for nine years. Snead placed second in his first U.S. Open in 1937 at Oakland Hills Country Club in Detroit. With a complete set of clubs, he scored 284, one stroke over the record. Ralph Guldahl scored two shots better than Snead, and set a new U.S. Open record.

At the 1939 U.S. Open, Snead experienced the worst disappointment of his career. On the seventeenth hole of the final round at the Spring Mill Course in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he needed a par five to win, shot an eight, and lost to Byron Nelson and Craig Wood. Snead stumbled off the green, and Bobby Jones commented that he looked "like a fellow who has just been hit by Joe Louis." The next year Snead married his high-school girlfriend, Audrey. They traveled together until their first son was born in 1944. Snead admitted that he saw other women during lonely tournament nights, and that his wife tolerated his unfaithfulness. They also had a second son.

During World War II, Snead served for twenty-six months in the U.S. Navy as a physical-education specialist, before receiving a medical discharge for a back injury in September 1944. In November 1944 Snead won the Portland Open in Oregon with a one-over-par 289, taking home $2,675 in war bonds. Snead's military duty had meant missing income from tournament victories. Pleased with his Portland win, Snead said, "It's great to be back."

Snead played eight Masters tournaments in Augusta, Georgia, before winning in 1949, the first year that any Masters champion received the famous green jacket. Sports critics considered this the turning point in Snead's professional career, and he was named the 1949 Professional Golfers' Association (PGA) Player of the Year. In the 1952 Masters, Snead scored 286, four strokes ahead of Jack Burke, Jr. In the 1954 Masters he tied Ben Hogan, beating him seventy to seventy-one in the play-off. He was the top money winner in 1938, 1949, and 1950, his best year. In 1979 he remained a money winner on the regular professional tour. Fred Corcoran, the PGA organizer, said, "Walter Hagan is the first man to make a million dollars in golf and spend it. Snead is the first to make a million and save two."

In 1959 Snead was the first to break sixty at a tournament, with a fifty-nine at the Greenbrier in West Virginia, his home course. In 1965, at fifty-two years and ten months, he was the oldest winner of a U.S. tournament, once again at the Greenbrier. In 1963 Snead was admitted into the Hall of Fame. In 1965 he won his last tour event at the Greensboro Open in North Carolina. Nine years later, at age sixty-two, he tied third in the 1974 U.S. PGA championship. At the Quad Cities Open in 1979, he was the first man to beat his age on the U.S. tour, shooting sixty-six at age sixty-seven. Snead, who had putting difficulties, coined the golfing word "yips" for failures.

Snead's all-time eighty-one PGA wins included three PGA championships (1942, 1949, 1951), one British Open (1946), and three Masters (1949, 1952, 1954). "Slammin' Sam" Snead, along with Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan, dominated postwar golf. Snead credited his success to his sister. "She always told me I could do anything I put my mind to and, by golly, I tried to prove she was right." His tour victories spanned twenty-nine years (1936–1965). Snead's unparalleled record included more than one hundred victories.

Snead coauthored twelve books, including the 1975 bestseller Sam Snead Teaches You His Simple "Key" Approach to Golf. He established Sam Snead Enterprises, an equipment company, and Samuel Snead's Taverns. In retirement, he maintained a winter home in Boynton Beach, Florida, and a summer residence in Hot Springs. Always a bridesmaid at the U.S. Open, Snead's failure to win the fourth major golf title plagued him. Between 1937 and 1997 Snead appeared in thirty-seven U.S. Opens, finishing second four times, third once, and in the top ten seven other times. Following his 1939 loss, Snead reported, "I'll tell you this much, it hurt like hell. If I hadn't just let it go, it would have destroyed me." In 1997 Snead concluded, "I don't feel my career has not been fulfilled because I didn't win the U.S. Open."

Snead authored twelve books during his career. Snead with Don Wade, The Lessons I've Learned: Better Golf the Sam Snead Way (1989), includes memorable anecdotes and golfing tips, and Snead with Fran Pirozzolo, The Game I Love (1997), offers his words of wisdom on the game. Al Barkow, Gettin' to the Dance Floor (1986), provides an oral commentary by Snead about his golfing origins. Robert Sommers, The U.S. Open: Golf's Ultimate Challenge (1987), offers an in-depth study of the U.S. Open championship and Snead's frustration with the event. Dawson Taylor, The Masters: Golf's Most Prestigious Tradition (1986), gives an intimate review of Snead's tournament play. See also Robert Scharff, ed., Golf Magazine Encyclopedia of Golf (1973). Some of the best magazine articles on Snead are "Snead's Back," Newsweek (11 Dec. 1944); "Slammin' Sam," Golf (Dec. 1992); and "The Old Man and the Open," Golf (June 1994).

Sandra Redmond Peters