Every June, as another United States Open Golf Championship comes into view, two ancient enigmas are annually pondered by golfers throughout the world: Will Sam Snead win the Open this year? Will Sam ever win the Open? It hardly seems possible, but when Sam tees off at Oak Hill on the 14th of June, it will mark 20 full seasons since his first start in that most important of all golf competitions. Over those two decades, he has won one British Open (1946), three PGAs (1942, 1949, 1951), and three Masters (1949, 1952, 1954). He has garnered more points in the international Ryder Cup matches than any other golfer, British or American. He has four years won the Vardon Trophy for the lowest strokes-per-round average in PGA-endorsed competitions, and, though the arithmetic gets complicated, he may well possess the lowest career-length strokes-per-round average of any golfer. He has won more tournaments than any golfer who ever lived. He has won more prize money than any golfer who ever lived. However, as everyone knows only too well, Sam has never been able to win "the big one," the U.S. or National Open. Snead is 44 now, and, though his wonderfully supple frame and coordination have endowed him with a remarkable athletic longevity, Sam had better hurry up and win that Open or he may never do it. If he never does, it will be, historically, as tragic an injustice as if Rogers Hornsby had never captured a National League batting crown or Paavo Nurmi an Olympic title. If he ever does—and each June every contestant in the Open field hopes that if he himself doesn't win it, Sam will—it will be, without overstatement, one of the most popular triumphs ever recorded in the complete annals of sport.
The times Sam has come close to winning golf's most important championship constitute perhaps the game's epic tragedy. In his first attempt in 1937 at Oakland Hills, unharried then as he was to be later by any complex about the Open, Sam was second. He finished comparatively early in the afternoon with a 71 for a four-round total of 283, the low score up to that point. It stood up until late in the day when Ralph Guldahl, on the wings of a 70-yard chip that rolled into the cup for an eagle on the eighth, shuffled around in 69 strokes for a total of 281, incidentally a new record for the event. (If Sam had managed to win that first time out, many observers were to conclude years later when his problem had become patently acute, he would have probably gone on to take a slew of Opens.) Then there was 1939, the cruelest year of all. He stood on the tee of the 72nd hole of the Spring Mill course of the Philadelphia Country Club, needing only a 5 on a routine par-5 hole, 558 yards long, to lead the field. He proceeded to take that awful 8—one, in the rough to the left; two, a ducking wood into the side of a fairway trap; three, still in that trap; four, out but not well out; five, barely onto the green with a wobbly chip; and then, to cap the whole sad sequence, three putts. (He should have played safely for his 5 and would have, but he was not informed on what score was needed to win.) In 1940 at Canterbury, Sam was up front with 18 to go. A 72 would have seen him through a stroke. In a collapse that brought back shuddering memories of old Mac Smith foundering in the 1925 British Open at Prestwick, Sam took an 81.
And so it continued to go. In 1947—the first of the two climaxes is generally forgotten—the hard-luck man went briefly out of character when he holed a 15-footer on the 72nd green of the St. Louis Country Club to tie Lew Worsham for first. In the play-off, though, he tossed away a one-stroke advantage down the stretch and ultimately lost out when he failed to get down a 30½-inch putt on the last green. In 1948 he led at the halfway mark with 69-69-138, a new record for the first 36 of the championship. Then he began to miss those crucial four-footers and seven-footers, and Hogan pulled away to the first of his four great victories in the Open. 1949: another "almost but" year. With the 71st and 72nd to go, the first a reasonably staple par 3 and the second a stock par 4, Sam needed only two pars to tie for the top, and a par and a birdie would nave won for him. He got his par on the 72nd all right, but it was of no matter since he had previously taken three to get down from off the fringe on the 71st. (Broadcasting Snead's finish, Bill Stern, in one of his finest moments of misidentification, mistook Bobby Cruickshank, playing from the 71st tee in the group just ahead of Sam's, for Sam; before the appalling letdown set in, golf fans thought it was Sam and not Bobby who had placed his tee shot 10 feet from the pin and had that all-important birdie right in his hands.)
At Oakmont in 1953 Sam lay one stroke off Hogan's pace after 54 holes, still one stroke behind after 63. On the long 66th, where he had his best chance to catch the true-tempered Texan, Sam mis-hit his second and finally three-putted for a 6—not that a birdie would have, in the final analysis, made much difference, the way Ben finished that round. In 1955 at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, off with a miserable 79, practically out of the tournament before it began, Sam buckled down hard to business and midway in the final round was miraculously in a position to win. He couldn't hole—he couldn't even come close to holing—five or six eminently holeable birdie putts and at length faded out of contention on the 70th. All in all, in this long chronicle of frustration, Sam has had to be discontent with four red ribbons and the blues.
The tremendous hold Samuel Jackson Snead has on the affections of the sports public rests on many other things besides the indubitable fact that he is the greatest golfer who has never won the Open. To begin with, he is abrim with natural color both as a person and a player, more so perhaps than any golfer since Walter Hagen. His appeal extends to every, type of golf fan. Wherever he plays, he is followed not only by the most sedate pillars of the host club but also by "da poolroom crowd" who adopt him as their guy and root as pugnaciously for him as if they were spurring on a hard-pressed Marciano. As a result, the salvos of applause that arise from Snead's gallery carry, as you hear them erupting in other sectors of the course, a barrelhouse belligerence that is different from the sound sent up by any other worshipful gallery. In the Greensboro Open Sam is almost unbeatable because he invariably plays excellent golf there, but he is so sympathique—to use that old North Carolina expression—to the loco gentry that they have had to be restrained from improving his lies and lousing up his closest competitors.
What does Sam's fabulous appeal consist of? A large part of it, naturally, is that his whole personality projects like a ton of bricks. There he is, wherever he is, the likable, handsome, impressionable mountain boy from the Appalachian town of Hot Springs. Over the years Sam has acquired a formidable poise (which, among other things, has transformed the erstwhile inarticulate young man into one of the country's most engaging and accomplished after-dinner speakers), but a spectator can still feel what Sam is going through every minute of a tournament, his emotions and his thoughts are that readable. At the heart of the man, there is an instinctive graciousness and a kindness of spirit and an innate sportsmanship surpassing that of many athletes celebrated for their sportsmanship—and all these qualities somehow come through. Besides this, of course, it is just plain exciting to watch Sam Snead hit a golf ball. The first driver in the game's long history who was both very long and very straight, Sam possesses a swing of such beauty that a person who knows nothing about golf can recognize at once that he is watching something as functionally and artistically "right" as the motions of an Astaire or a Toscanini. Like no other, Snead's renowned swing integrates strength and ease—"flowing power," as Bill Campbell once termed it. Whereas Hogan's magnificent swing conjures up the image of a dynamic machine approaching metallic perfection, Snead ripples into his shots with a lazy, controlled, lyrical grace that explodes into a tremendous burst of boff as his body uncoils and his hands unleash their pent-up power when he enters the hitting area. (The terrific unleash Sam gets has been explained as deriving from his being double-jointed; he is, only to the extent that he can bend his wrists back a bit farther than most people can.)
Some knowledgeable old golf hands contend that there never was and never will be a "natural golf swing." their argument being that the movements involved come naturally to no one and must be mastered. Be that as it may, if anyone was born to hit a golf ball, it was Sam. Propelling a ball with a stick is hardly less native to his talents than walking. In 1945, playing with one hand—his left—he toured the Homestead course at Hot Springs in consecutive rounds of 83, 82, 81. (This included holing a three-iron for a hole-in-one.) Last year, for the curiosity of it, he played the Old White course at White Sulphur left-handed. He had an 86 which, with practice, he felt he could have improved on considerably. Sam can apparently play any which way and with any equipment.
Two years ago, in mind of his boyhood when he had banged at rocks with sticks of hickory and dogwood he had cut from the woods, he decided to see if he had lost that skill or enhanced it over the years. He found, growing near a creek, a piece of swamp maple which had a knobby bulge, shaped something like the head of a golf club, curving out of the "shaft." He trimmed down the shaft (which was about 48 inches long), got the head balanced, added a leather grip, and was ready to go. Using only this club and a wedge, he got around Old White in 76 shots. Other golfers couldn't get the ball off the ground with the homemade wood, but Sam could smack it great distances and once carried on his second shot into the trap before the green on the 17th, a fairly long par 5.
As this last feat of timing suggests, Sam has an extraordinary sensitivity for the "feel" of a shaft as it relates to the head of a club. As is generally known, he still uses the same driver he had back in 1937 when he shot into the spotlight. "You can put that driver," he claims, "into a room with 20 or 30 other drivers and then blindfold me and Ah'll go in and tell you which one it is." He has broken the club three times but has always gone back to it, for none of the duplicates made to replace it has struck him as having exactly the same nice balance or quite the same look as the head sits to the ball. The original shaft of that beautifully battered relic is still patched to the original head. For 15 years now the head has been cracked and the crack kept packed with wood filler. The seasons have worn all the markings off the sole plate and the plate is as thin as a razor blade. The lead weight insert in the head, jockeyed about by impact, is all beat up. The insert in the face has been replaced three times. The complete antique has been refinished five times. Sam carries no brassie, going with the driver whenever he gets that rare blessing, a perfect brassie lie, and he plays his one-iron instead the rest of the time.
Over the years his swing has remained remarkably constant. "Ah've tried to keep it as simple as possible," he explains, "but Ah git those periods when man backswing gits out o' whack. When that happens, Ah'll come too much over the ball and have to block the shot out with mah left hand. To correct things, Ah try not to change mah swing one eeny bit. Ah've changed mah turn a li'l bit sometimes or reset the feet a trifle, but mostly Ah work to git mah timing back where Ah want it." Sam is almost unique among his colleagues in the deep pleasure he receives from picking up a club, when he is hanging around a course on a non-tournament day, and swinging it back and forth lazily and sensing that his rhythm is right. "When Ah play mah best," he once stated, "Ah feel Ah'm playin' with mah legs and mah feet."
Behind the natural golfer lies the natural athlete. During his boyhood in Hot Springs—his father worked as an engineer at the town power plant—Sam played all the sports in season. A halfback on the high school football team, he handled all the kicking and had a punting average of over 40 yards. He was one of a neighborhood bunch of five boys who began playing basketball together in the sixth grade and who went on to form the high school's starting five from their freshman through their senior years. Not a really tall man—he is only 5 foot 11 although he gives the impression of being much larger—Sam's coordination made him, as you would expect, an unusually good rebounder. In the spring he pitched for the school team and also for the town team, the redoubtable Independents. He sandwiched in some track since he could run the hundred in 10 flat. (Sam can still run like a youngster.) Since Hot Springs was a resort town, he also came into contact with tennis although most of his traffic with that sport was confined to beating a spoiled young star and receiving 50¢ every time he did so from the prima donna's appreciative father. "Ah had a good chop and not much else, that kind o' game," Sam has said of his tennis. He gravitated to golf quite by accident. In his senior year of high school, he broke his left hand playing football and took to swinging a club since he had the idea it would help the hand to knit flexibly and well. (Like Walter Hagen, who was also a gifted all-round athlete, Sam had, even as a boy, a great love of clothes. He spent many of his odd hours at his mother's sewing machine taking in or letting out the seats of trousers, making French cuffs, turning collars, lengthening jackets and generally bringing his inexpensive clothes more in line with those worn by the fashionable vacationers at the Springs. His mother thought he would probably become a tailor.)
Above all, Sam was at home in the woods and the mountains: behind the natural athlete lies the natural backwoodsman, the "ridge-runner" of the Appalachians. He began hunting when he was nine. As a fisherman, he became adept enough to catch trout with his bare hands. "When you know the spots in the pools where they gather," he once described this recondite art, "why, you jes' reach in with your hand and rub them along the belly, workin' up towards the hid. You work up softly-like and then, pingo!—you pinch that trout right back o' the gills." In wintertime he trapped—fox, coon, possum, rabbit, wildcat and weasel, also skunk and mountain hawk since you got $1 for a skunk's hide and a 50¢ bounty for every hawk. In Sam's neck of the woods the man who could bring in a wildcat alive was highly esteemed. Sam brought in three. "Man, Ah really knew those hills," he was recalling recently. "Ah knew the name of everythin' that moved and every li'l bush and shrub."
Two decades in the somewhat more civilized frontier belt of professional golf have dulled the instincts of the natural ridge-runner hardly at all. For example, if the whole parade of touring pros were to walk behind a fence which covered them from view from the knees up, Sam could identify each of them simply from the way he walked. He still gives full play, as the woodsman does, to all his instincts and senses. "You know, you can be in the woods," he has said, "and you know there's somethin' close to you though you cain't see it or smell it or hear it. Some extra sense-tells you it's there, and if you wait, you learn it always is. Ah always make it a point to heed that intuition." This brings up an interesting theory about Sam. Many veteran golf observers are of the opinion that this sensitivity to everything that may be stirring, wondrous as it is for the hunter, can be quite injurious to the tournament golfer. To say it straighter, they think that one of Sam's major handicaps has been that he heeds too much on the golf course. On the other hand, they point out, there is Ben Hogan, the complete opposite extreme, who has trained himself to notice only what is beneficial to his golf and who, walled off in his isolation booth of concentration, has no memory after a tough round of exchanging a hello with an old friend, who cannot even remember having seen the friend on the course. In any event, Sam is inveterately less relaxed in a strokes-play tourney when he has the always phantom field to worry about than he is in match play when he knows he has to heed only what he sees happening.
While the vagaries of temperament may account to a fair degree for Sam's inability to work all the wonders of which he is capable, there are, naturally, other more terrestrial contributing factors. To begin with, there are days and weeks, as there must be, in which, superlative shotmaker that he is, other great contemporary stars simply play better golf than he does. Then, too, there are times when the wisdom of his over-all strategy or his immediate tactics is questionable. When Snead is in a bellwether mood, he sometimes will drill for every pin. On a tricky, punitive course, this can be costly. (Gene Sarazen, one of Sam's strongest admirers, has long thought that if Sam had spent more time caddying, he would have breathed in right through the pores a shrewder sense of when to gamble, when not to.) On other occasions, when he has made up his mind to take the conservative, steady route and walk hand in hand with par, Sam, that extremely human being, tends to inhibit his flair for scoring. On those days a gifted observer, such as Al Laney of the New York Herald Tribune, can tell after watching Sam play only a hole or two that he is not in a "winning mood" or likely to be.
Apart from all of this, to be sure, there is Sam's putting. For many summers it has been so infuriating a cliché to point out that erratic putting has been Sam's Achilles' heel that, for an almost equally long time, it has been hardly less bromidical to assert that this is not precisely so, that Sam has a nice rhythmic stroke, is one of the best approach putters in the business and is a darn good holer from around 12 to 15 feet. While this is substantially supportable, nevertheless it is incontestable that Sam's work on the greens can be so profligate it breaks your heart.
Many mornings of anguish come to mind. For example—it is still as clear as if it happened yesterday and not in the 1952 Masters—there is Sam, on his third round, I think, playing the 5th. The green on that hole is a treacherous, terraced affair. A severe dip separates the upper level at the back from the lower front level which, roughly, divides itself into a depression at the left and a similar depression to the right. Sam's approach that morning finished on the lower level to the left, 15 feet or so before the crest of the dip; the pin was set some 20 feet farther up the slanting upper terrace, over to the right. In such cases it is a temptation to rap the ball an ounce harder than you know is required in order to be sure and be up. This is undoubtedly a wiser error than to underhit the ball and wind up many yards short. Well, there we were, all of us wondering if Sam would show us a new and more assured Snead on the greens, for he had been putting splendidly up to that point. What he did was strike that approach putt so feebly that it had exhausted what little juice it had by the time it had breasted the dip. The ball began to slip off to the right as it died, and gathering just enough speed to keep trickling, rolled back down the dip and into the depression at the right. Now he was five feet farther away from the cup than he had been before his first putt! And then what did he do? He stepped up and holed that impossible 40-footer. After that, we walked to the tee of the short 6th murmuring sagely, we thought, that only a "new Sam" could have held his poise like that. Watch him go now. Sure enough, he wafted a lovely six-iron nine feet past the pin. His try for the birdie slid two feet beyond the cup. He missed the two-footer. Same old Sam. He couldn't have felt much worse about it than we did.
THE WIND AND THEM WHINS
In Sam's greatest victory to date, his conquest of the 1946 British Open, the foreknowledge that no man was going to putt his way to victory on St. Andrews' huge greens was of incalculable help to him. "Ah knew Ah could win if Ah could outplay the other fellers from tee to green," he has said. "Besides, Ah was rested. Ah knew Ah wouldn't git that salt-water taste you git in your mouth when you're over-golfed." After 54 holes, Sam was tied for the lead with Dai Rees, Bobby Locke and Johnny Bulla. He was the last of the contenders to go out in the violent wind that was rampaging over the course. After the first four holes, he was three over par, two three-putt greens playing their share in this. "Now that fifth, that's a long hole, over 500 yards," he has recounted. "Mah drive was way over to the left, way over in Hell Bunker on the next fairway. Ah hit a three-iron out and Ah really tagged it, but that wind jes' flipped it around like it was a kite. That ball sailed right acrost two fairways and lands up in the rough in that prickly pear sort o' bush them Scotchmen call whins. Ah'm lucky, though. Mah ball is lyin' in them whins jes' where there's a li'l ole rabbit path, jes' wide enough for me to swing mah club through. Ah really whooshed that ball out but Ah'm in more trouble. Ah'm in that deep bunker to the left o' the green. Ah've got to git up close. Ah'm three over par. Ah'm hurtin' alriddy. So Ah give that bunker shot that li'l extra whip and Ah catch it real good but it gets snuffed out in the grass at the top o' that bunker and barely skids onto that green. Ah still got a long, long putt but Ah stroke it up close and Ah hole that pesky li'l short one. Ah'm tellin' you, that was the greatest 6 Ah ever made in mah life."
A MATTER OF MOOD
Sam went to the turn in 40. He learned then that none of the other frontrunners had been able to do any better. He ripped home in 35 and won, going away, by four shots.
When Sam is as tenaciously disposed as he was at St. Andrews, the magnetic, volatile picture-player can win any tournament, even the National Open. The right attitude, arriving with it and maintaining it—that, of course, is the big trick. It necessarily becomes a bigger trick every year, for his multiple disappointments have inexorably bred overdetermination and over-mulling not to mention overadvice from friends who have counseled him to do everything from "get sore and serious sooner" to "make believe you're just loafing through a practice round in the West Virginia Open." If Sam wins the 1956 Open it will be an enormous victory of spirit as well as of skill. The rejoicing will be something to remember. And if he doesn't—why, we will all patiently wait till next year and resume hoping just as hard. It is the least you can do when a fellow has played the game so beautifully and so well for so long.
THE SITE OF THE 56TH U.S. OPEN
One of the country's most spirited homes of golf, the Oak Hill Country Club was host to the 1949 U.S. Amateur Championship. Finding the week of tournament play a thoroughly pleasant experience, the club invited the U.S. Golf Association to stage the Open there and was selected as the site for the 1956 championship, which will be held June 14 16. The course, among the most beautiful of our inland layouts, is built on gently rolling ground strategically populated with oaks, maples, willows and other splendid trees set out by one of the club's most vigorous members, Dr. John R. Williams, a retired physician. After some minor remodeling by Golf Architect Robert Trent Jones, the course will play some one hundred yards longer for the Open than it did for the Amateur. As the drawings below of four characteristic holes bring out, the individual holes, though not spectacular in design, call for solid, skillful shotmaking. It should produce a very worthy champion.
The first, 445 yards, is an excellent starting hole. It is typical of the stalwart tree-lined, long par 4s that make up the backbone of the Oak Hill course.
The 3rd, 208 yards, is the longest of Oak Hill's par 3s. The rough fringing this and the other greens will be less difficult than it was for the 1955 Open.
The 11th, 192 yards, will demand very accurate iron play. At Oak Hill most of the greens are of only moderate size and are exceedingly well trapped.
The 18th, 449 yards, a formidable finishing hole, is a mild dogleg to the right which requires a lengthy, well-placed drive and a controlled approach.
LIKE NO OTHER, Sam Snead's classic swing combines the grace of Bobby Jones with the power of Jimmy Thomson. Here he is pictured at that critical juncture, at the top of his backswing, just before unleashing the decisive downswing.
¬†FAMEDFOR HIS FRUGALITY and mountaineer's distrust of banks, Snead's front lawn (asthis mole's-eye view illustrates) is celebrated in legend as his private FortKnox.