In a world inundated with sports legends, pro golfer Sam Snead (born 1912) is truly a standout. From his smooth rhythmic swing at the tee to his entertaining personality to his 81 PGA Tournament victories"Slammin' Sam" is a legend that will never go away.
Snead is probably the only pro golfer who claims that some of his athletic prowess is due to of all things— squirrel hunting. Growing up in the rural south Snead, like many of his boyhood friends, hunted both for sport and for the table. His accurate eye on the golf tee, professes Snead, is due in part to his learning to shoot accurately with a squirrel rifle. Stories like these are part of the Snead legend that makes him continually popular both on and off the course. Even though long retired from the professional circuit, Snead continues to draw accolades from admirers. Writing for Golf Digest Lee Trevino (no slouch on the golf course himself) described a shot Snead once made, "Now, I've seen a lot of great golf in the last 32 years, but I've never seen anything like that shot. And only Sam could hit it." At the time of the shot Snead was, it must be noted, a still young 66. "When God decided what He wanted a golf swing to look like, he sent Sam Snead down to show us," the Wall Street Journal opined. What can you say about a golfer beyond that?
"Slammin' Sam" was born Samuel Jackson Snead in Hot Springs, Virginia on May 27, 1912. He was raised on the family farm near the small town of Ashwood. Squirrel hunting was part of rural life for a Virginia farm boy. Snead was an all around athlete throughout his high school years playing football, basketball, baseball, and making the track team. He also is said to have practiced golf with a crooked stick and smooth stones he picked up in his wanderings. His real introduction to the game that was to so impact his life, however, was as a 15-year-old caddy (some say he was 11) for a Hot Springs golf course near his home. The course was The Homestead; the barefoot Snead and some of his friends would walk there in the hope of making some spending money. Snead remembers caddying for a golfer who filled his small hat with pennies and nickels after the game but to Snead's dismay, no dimes when he searched through the hat. Snead's mother was justifiably worried by her son's unannounced absence from the farm and was not mollified by his pleading, "But, Mom, I brought you all this money." Snead claims he got the tanning of his life but nonetheless he was forever hooked on the sport, especially after a back injury squelched any thought of playing pro football.
As a caddy Snead was allowed to golf at a nearby nine hole course. Between caddying and golfing with his makeshift collection of clubs Snead also ran errands, cleaned member's golf clubs, and performed various other tasks for the caddy master. Snead quickly mastered the nuances as well as the technical aspects of the game and developed his now famous "honey sweet" swing. Snead's country ways and mannerisms, however, were not always looked upon with favor. However, he continues to this day to carry his "hill upbringing" as a badge. "You see, the truth is, the days when I started swinging a club, golf was a rich man's sport," Snead writes in his autobiography, "kind of like polo almost. But you can bet at first they didn't like seeing a skinny hayseed like me, with funny clothes and my homemade clubs, coming out on the course and showing 'em how it's done." Snead's winning ways and mannerisms soon made him welcome most anywhere he went to play.
By 1935 Snead was the assistant golf pro at White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. The following year he became the teaching professional at Cascades Inn in Hot Springs. He turned professional in 1937 and, touring the country in a second hand car, placed seventh at the Los Angeles Open and first in the Oakland Open. For a newcomer to the sport Snead had a meteoric rise and quickly became somewhat of a golfing sensation. Before the year ended he won the Bing Crosby Invitational, the Miami Open, and the St. Paul and Nassau Opens. Most surprisingly, he was runner-up in the United States Open. By the end of 1937 Snead was the third highest money-winning golfer, with $10,243. A year later he was golf's number one money winner, garnering $19,334. His down home manner and outgoing personality made him one of the most popular players on the circuit and he soon began drawing crowds of spectators. He was still regarded by the press as somewhat of an upstart and "the hillbilly from backwoods Virginia" but this characterization was soon replaced by the moniker "Slammin' Sam," a tribute to his "swing of beauty" which was later described by another writer as "like watching ice cream melt." In 1938 Snead, although placing second in the United States Open and the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) Open, was awarded the Vardon Memorial Trophy as the best golfer of the year. World War II called Snead to service in the Navy from 1942 to 1944, but a postponed induction allowed him to enter and win the 1942 PGA.
Snead's professional career is an outstanding laundry list of wins and accomplishments: leading money winner in 1938, 1949 and 1950; 1946 victory in the British Open; Vardon Trophy for lowest strokes per round average in 1938, 1949, 1950, and 1955; in 1942, 1949, and 1951 he won the Professional Golfer's Association (PGA) tournament; he won the Masters tournament in 1949, 1952 and 1954; the British Open once; he was named the 1949 Player of the Year; he was inducted into the PGA Hall of Fame in 1953; he had a total of 84 PGA victories and six PGA Senior's titles. In addition Snead has accumulated a number of other notable achievements: in 1979 he became the first pro to shoot a score at or below his age when at the Quad Cities Open he shot a 67 and 66 at the age of 67. He was also a member of the Ryder Cup squad ten times between 1937 and 1969 including being team captain in 1959. He was also the PGA Tour's oldest when he won the Greater Greensboro Open in 1965 at the age of 52 years 10 months. When Snead won 11 events in 1950 he became the last pro to win ten or more events in one season. In 1978 Snead, while paired with Gardner Dickinson, won the first Legends of Golf tournament held in Austin, Texas. Snead played 42 years on the PGA tour, winning $620,126 and accumulating 81 titles. This was eleven more than his closest rival, Jack Nicklaus. Independent record keepers give Snead a total of 135 victories, although he claims 165 (which includes regional events).
Great Swing but Poor Putting
Snead will always be remembered for his long rhythmic swing. "No one ever swung a golf club like Sam because no one could," according to ex-pro and long time Snead friend Johnny Bulla in a Wall Street Journal interview. "He has the longest tendons of anyone I ever saw, and they enable him to do things like bend his wrists so he could touch his arms with his fingers, front and back. That's how he kept that big swing of his under control." In spite of this great swing, Snead has long maintained a reputation for being a mediocre putter—a reputation that began early in his career. In the 1947 Open, for instance, Snead blew first place when he missed the last putt on the final hole. Other observers, counter by noting Snead's putting was superb when he won the 1946 British Open and that his putting is only mediocre when unfairly compared to the greatness of the rest of his game. In his book The Game I Love Snead claims he was a good putter, especially a good lag or fell putter. However, he admits that he was never a great putter, blaming his problems on becoming a wrist putter instead of an arm putter.
In spite of these victories, awards, and accomplishments Snead never managed to win golf's big one—the United States Open. Between 1937 and 1949 Snead was runner-up four times in the U.S. Open, leaving his outstanding golfing career slightly tarnished and leaving Snead slightly defensive. "Sure it bugs me that they make such a big deal of it because I never won the U.S. Open," Snead said, "but I must have been playing pretty good and sinking putts when I won those three Masters, three PGAs and the British Open." In Snead's autobiography he wrote about his travails with the U.S. Open although in a less defensive and more reflective manner. "I entered the Open year after year, and in the '50s I was usually picked as the sentimental favorite. But whether it was some kind of a jinx or whatever, it seemed that whenever the USGA flag went up at the Open, so did my score."
During Sneads's long golfing career he has been involved in a number of strange and potentially deadly mishaps. In 1938 when golfing with a number of others a bolt of lighting struck and killed two players standing next to Snead but only slightly injuring him. During a tournament in Argentina he was bitten on the hand by an ostrich (the club's mascot) causing Snead to nearly lose two fingers. Snead has also been involved in a number of dangerous airplane mishaps. Once a plane he was flying in nearly crashed over the Sahara Desert. In 1946 while flying to the British Open in a Constellation airplane an engine caught fire over the Atlantic forcing a return to New York. He was in a small plane in Iowa that crashed and burned on take-off, leaving Snead and the pilot fazed but unhurt. While Snead prefers automobiles to airplanes, a 1992 auto accident left him with a dislocated shoulder. On a lighter note, while golfing in Florida Snead was using a ball-getter to retrieve some golf balls from a pond. Astonishingly he found himself being chased out of the pond by an irritated and open-mouthed alligator.
Since retiring from the Tour in 1979, at the age of 67, Snead has devoted himself to hunting, fishing, counting his money, telling off-color jokes, and of course golf. He's the golf pro at the Greenbrier Resort in Sulphur Springs, West Virginia and still endorses golf clubs for the Wilson Sporting Goods Co. A Wall Street Journal article claims that, for a long time, more golfers used clubs bearing Snead's signature than any other brand. Snead managed to play golf every day until the trials of advancing age caused a curtailment of his golfing activities and the many side bets that have always been part of his non-professional game. Always known as a hustler on the course, Snead maintains that he has been hustled more times than he's managed to hustle. When he was 86, Snead was on his way to conduct a golf clinic which would earn him a quick $8,000 when a "pigeon" suggested a $100.00 match. Snead had to be quickly retrieved from the first tee by the Greenbrier's director of golf and hurried back to the clinic where the attendees were anxiously waiting. "He can't resist a game," the Greenbrier director told a reporter, "it's not the money. He was going to forget an $8,000 clinic to play for $100.00. He just loves a match." As Snead is fond of saying, "You don't have to hang from a tree to be a nut."
Great Athletes: Twentieth Century, Salem Press, 1992.
Lincoln Library of Sports Champions, Frontier Press, 1989.
Snead, Sam, The Game I Love: Wisdom, Insight, and Instruction From Golf's Greatest Player, Ballantine Books, 1997.
Snead, Sam, Slammin' Sam: An Autobiography, Donald I. Fine Inc., 1986.
Golf Digest January 1999, p. 42; April 1999, p. 134; May 2000, p. 104.
Wall Street Journal April 7, 2000, p. W13.
"Only old age could stop Snead," ESPN.com,http://espn.go.com/sportscentury/features/00016478.html (December 24, 2000).
"Sam Snead (1912-)," Golfeurope,http://www.golfeurope.com/almanac/players/snead.htm (December 24, 2000). □