On a moonlit night, Sam Snead said, you could turn your
headlights off and drive those old Southern roads for half an
hour without meeting another car. Barns and darkened farmhouses
flew by in the milky light. Telephone poles provided a visual
rhythm. "Cows would be sleeping in the middle of the road," he
once told an interviewer, "and you had to be careful because
they were black and black-and-tan and blended into the road."
Moving at speed in the night was intoxicating for a young man
like Snead, born before the Great War in the Back Creek
Mountains hamlet of Ashwood, Va. Another Southerner, the
novelist Thomas Wolfe, wrote about trains hurtling through "the
huge and secret night, the lonely everlasting earth...." Snead,
with his golf clubs and clothes piled in the back of his Model A
Ford, must have felt like a moonshiner hauling white lightning.
He was never a deep thinker, Snead, but he knew that his life was
extraordinary. When he died last Thursday at age 89 at his home
in Hot Springs, Va., flags at the nearby mountain golf resorts
were lowered to half mast and tributes poured in from around the
world. No golfer between Bobby Jones and Tiger Woods--not even
Arnold Palmer, whose swing was too much a wild swipe to inspire
imitation--was as iconic as Snead. With his coconut-straw hat and
long, syrupy swing, Snead was the only golfer that casual fans
could identify at a distance or in silhouette. His follow-through
spoke like poetry; the club face finished parallel to his
shoulders, and his balance was so exquisite that he could hold
the pose indefinitely. "I try to get 'oily,'" he explained in his
1986 autobiography, Slammin' Sam. "Oily means a smooth motion.
It's the feeling that all your bones and muscles are so in sync,
any movement you make is going to be smooth and graceful."
Legend has it that Snead developed his swing on the family farm
in Virginia, hitting stones with clubs he fashioned from
branches. Later, when he wasn't hunting squirrels, doing chores
or playing banjo in the family band, Snead caddied at the
Cascades and The Homestead golf resorts, just up the road. After
high school he took a job repairing clubs at the Cascades for $20
a month plus playing privileges. He didn't own a set of real
clubs until he was 22, but he entered the Cascades Open in 1936
when he was 24 and finished third, earning a whopping $358.66 and
landing a professional's job at the fancy Greenbriar resort, just
across the West Virginia border. A year later he won a PGA Tour
event on just his second try, shooting four rounds in the 60s at
the Oakland Open. (When Tour promoter Fred Corcoran showed him
his photo in The New York Times, Snead innocently asked, "How'd
they ever get my picture in New York? I ain't never been there.")
Before he was finished, Snead would win a record 81 PGA events,
the last at the 1965 Greater Greensboro Open, at the age of 52
years and 10 months--also a record. "Quit competing," he said,
"and you dry up like a peach seed."
Snead's reputation rested on conventional measures of
greatness--he won the Masters and the PGA Championship three
times each, the British Open once, was the Tour's leading money
winner three times and played on seven U.S. Ryder Cup teams--but
his appeal transcended the records. He had an alliterative name,
like Mickey Mantle, and a marketable swagger, like his friend
Ted Williams. "Any guy who would pass up a chance to see Snead
on a golf course," Jim Murray wrote, "would pull the shades
driving past the Taj Mahal." In his prime Snead promoted
headache powders, tires, deodorants and cars. His Wilson clubs
were used by more golfers than any other brand. There was even a
chain of Sam Snead Motor Lodges.
Above all, he was voluble. Snead would kill an hour swapping blue
jokes or debating the best way to skin a deer. He'd even jaw at
his golf ball. ("Now stay put, you little fooler, this ain't
gonna hurt none at all.") He claimed that he swung in
three-quarter time, and with a bit of urging he would leave his
table and join a nightclub combo, playing trumpet on tunes like
Honeysuckle Rose and The Sheik of Araby.
Snead's travels gave him plenty to talk about. He'd tell you how
he was bitten by an ostrich in Argentina and how, on his first
visit to St. Andrews, in 1946, he mistook the Old Course for a
vacant lot. How in '38 he escaped injury from a lightning bolt
that killed two golfers standing beside him and how he played two
holes barefoot during a practice round at the '42 Masters. How he
survived a small-plane crash in Iowa, and how he turned down an
offer to be flown in a twin-engine plane by Palmer, a licensed
pilot, saying, "Thank you, Arnold, I don't fly with learners."
Snead was four days shy of his 90th birthday when he finally came
to the end of the road. Hours after his death a gibbous moon
floated over the Back Creek Mountains. It was almost bright
enough to drive by.
TWO B/W PHOTOS: HY PESKIN A SPORTING LIFE Snead circa 1950 (above), with Williams in '56 (above right) and at St. Andrews in 2000.
COLOR PHOTO: CHRISTINE NESBITT/AP (ST. ANDREWS)