SBJ/June 3 - 9, 2002/Opinion

Poor-boy Snead leaves a rich legacy

Sam Snead died the week before last, four days short of his 90th birthday, and the sports world is poorer for his absence. No one ever played a game well for as long as he did. Chances are that no one ever will.

Snead's accomplishments were such that even a publication devoted to the economic side of sports should mark his passing. The jaunty man in the straw hat from Hot Springs, Va., won golf tournaments over six decades and on every continent except Antarctica. He won 81 times on the PGA Tour, which is a record. He helped start the Senior PGA Tour and shared his last win there in 1982, at age 70.

Snead enjoyed talking about golf almost as much as playing it, thus spreading his and his listeners' pleasure. That was saying a lot, because except for occasional hunting or fishing trips, he was on a golf course just about every day until his health prevented it.

Self-taught, he was blessed with what many thought was the smoothest swing of any player. Those meeting him for the first time expected to see a larger man than one who stood about 5-foot-10 and weighed about 190 pounds, but a closer look revealed the thick fingers that anchored his stroke, and the deep chest and haunches that powered it.

Tee to green, no one was better, but putting woes drove him to experiment with bizarre clubs and techniques late in life. Asked if he was concerned that his putting contortions made him look awkward, he replied famously, "No one cares how, just how many."

He rarely stuck a tee in the ground without some money riding on the outcome of the match. Off the tours, he took on all comers, and he was fond of saying he was more hustled than hustler because everyone knew he was a scratch player while he had to take opponents at their words about their handicaps. In truth, though, for most of his life he was several strokes better than scratch. Many of his opponents were aware of that but considered the honor of playing him to be worth whatever it cost.

Snead was a link to the era before top athletes — and top golfers in particular — doubled as off-field tycoons. Averse to risk, and close with the dollar because of his poor-boy roots ("Sam knew the price of his breakfast before he ate it," his agent Fred Corcoran used to say), he signed on as an endorser with Wilson Sporting Goods Co. shortly after he turned pro in 1937 and stayed with the relationship throughout his career. For a long time, more golf clubs bore his signature than that of any other player, and that still could be true.

Years ago, I spent several days with Snead around his home in Highland Beach, Fla., reporting a feature story on him. He was 62 but could pick a ball out of a cup without bending his knees. After hitting on the practice range, he'd get into his motorized golf cart and swoop around the greensward, steering with his right hand and leaning out to scoop up balls with his left and flip them into a container in the rear. A much-younger man who tried that (me) nearly wrenched his back in the effort.

Snead loved telling raunchy jokes and tall golf tales in which he was the hero. His best, I thought, was about the time he was on safari in Africa and was challenged to a match by a local who had his own, two-hole course. The catch was that they'd use rolled elephant dung for balls.

"You had to be careful, because if you hit them too hard, they'd break, and you'd have to go play the biggest piece," he said. "I eased up a bit and beat him. I just made sure to hit those things on their driest side."

Frederick C. Klein (fklein@mindspring.com) is a columnist for SportsBusiness Journal.

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