- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 25, 2002

Sam Snead removes his signature straw hat and studies you with a subtle smile.

It's early August 2000. Tiger Woods has just spanked the collective golf world at a major for the second time in as many months at St. Andrews. Woods' season is shaping up as one of the all-time greatest. Being a 28-year-old golf writer with more temerity than experience, you have traveled to the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., to get some perspective on the relative greatness of Tiger's year from one of the few men in the world truly qualified to expound on the subject.

"Here's the deal, son," says Snead, picking up a Bacardi and Coke and winking at the young woman behind the bar. "When I finish this drink, and that could take 30 minutes or 15, she's going to ask me if I'd like another. I'm going to accept. When that cocktail's gone, it's time for you to stop talking and for me to take a nap. OK, let's get started."

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Only now, as you listen to that interview the day after his death at 89, do you fully appreciate the 90-minute education Snead gave you after that playfully dictatorial introduction.

Slammin' Sammy was far more than a self-taught golfer who managed to find the sweetest swing the game has ever seen. And the trite tale of the barefooted hillbilly bursting onto the PGA Tour scene is drastically oversimplified.

"I got my big break in 1934," Snead said two years ago. "I was working at the Homestead, putting wooden shafts on iron heads. One day, this woman came in and said, 'I'd like to have a golf lesson.' I was in there with Paul Keyes, who was the shop manager at the Old Course but not a pro. The pro was out on the golf course, so she looked at me and said, 'Well, could you teach?' I looked at Keyes, and he said, 'Go ahead. I won't tell anyone.'

"I was getting $20 a month for working seven days a week from 8 a.m. until 9 o'clock at night. People have always accused me of being tight. Well, I can tell you that making 70 cents a day will make you frugal forever. Anyway, here was this woman giving me the chance to make $3 in an hour. I took her up where we used to teach. There were no practice ranges back then, you see. She was a mess, so I had her doing one thing at time, taking small steps. And she starting getting better and better and better. Afterward, she said, 'Young man, that was the best lesson I've ever had. I know I'm twice as good as when I came in today.'

"Well, she goes up to the hotel that night and runs into the head of the family that owns almost the whole place and says, 'I had the most wonderful lesson today. I can tell you this Snead fellow is going places.' Well, I was going places all right."

The head pro, whom Snead referred to as "this [deleted] named Fred," was so angry that a shop boy had scooped his lesson that Snead was "exiled" to the Cascades, then a far less prestigious course. He was allowed to call himself the head pro and practice and teach as much as he liked, but he was compensated with just "a glass of milk and a sandwich" per day.

"That was fine with me, because I got to practice, really practice, for the first time," said Snead. "By the time the Cascades Open came through the next year, I was ready."

Snead finished fifth that week in his first PGA Tour start. His play impressed Tour vets Billy Burke and Johnny Farrell so much that they told him to call whenever he decided he wanted a Tour card. His success at the Cascades Open also earned him the head job at the nearby Greenbrier. After one frustrating year in the shop, Snead let Tour regular Johnny Bulla convince him to go to California for the start of the 1937 season.

"I had $300 when Boo-boo [Bulla] and I went to California," said Snead. "We shared gas money, motel rooms, even a bed usually. Nothing funny, we just didn't have any money. I won five times that first year, turned that $300 into about $10,000. That was second on the money list, and I was off to the races."

Snead eventually won a record 81 events on the PGA Tour, his last victory coming at the 1965 Greater Greensboro open at the age of 52, also a Tour record. But Snead never let anyone get away with capping his victory tally at 81.

"I had 93 wins, and they just kept taking them away from me," he said. "They didn't want me to get that far away from Nicklaus. [Former PGA Tour commissioner] Deane Beman calls me sometime in the mid-'80s and says, 'If you'll send me some of those medallions you got for winning, I'll see that you get credited with all your wins.'

"Officially, I had 87 at the time, and he knew it was really up over 90. Anyway, I sent him 54 of those medals. Most of the time, you just got the check and that was it, you see. Anyway, two weeks later, I see that I've been docked four wins. Then a couple weeks after that, it was 81.

"They said, 'You can't call this a win or that a win, because it wasn't for enough money.' Well, no kidding. If it had been any more money, it wouldn't have been any. The year I won the British Open in '46, I won $600 and it cost me $2,000 to get over there. How's that for a thanks for coming?"

That victory at St. Andrews was Snead's lone triumph at the British Open, but he added three Masters titles and three PGA Championships to his major cache over the years.

Of those victories, he considered his finest the 1954 Masters, where he beat Ben Hogan 70-71 in an 18-hole playoff.

"Anytime you asked [Bobby] Jones what was the best Masters, he would tell you the Hogan-Snead playoff in '54," Snead said. "I did not miss a shot, and we both scored under par. The turning point came at No.13, the par-5. Hogan had me by a stroke, but he hit this ugly old slice way up near the 14th green, while I smacked one around the corner.

"Well, Ben walked all the way up to my ball, it must have been 75 yards ahead of his, just to see what kind of lie I had. It was pretty bad, actually, real steep sidehill. But as he walked back past me to go to his shot, I said, 'I'm going for it, Ben.' I didn't give a damn what kind of lie I had after he pulled that stunt. I took a 2-iron, and I cut me a Hail Mary up high, just as pretty as you please. I didn't have but 30 feet for an eagle.

"Hogan bogeyed, and I hit my eagle putt just like I wanted. When I hit it, my caddie, a boy named O'Brien, starts running alongside the ball shouting, 'Get in, get in, get in,' and waving at it with his hand. He wasn't missing that ball by three inches. I was afraid to yell at him with all those people around. But after I tapped in for a birdie and a one-stroke lead I never gave back, I turned to O'Brien and said, 'If you had touched that ball, I would have buried your black rear in Raes Creek.'"

Long before Fuzzy Zoeller stunned the golf world with his now-infamous collard greens quip at the 1997 Masters, Snead was legend for a raw, provincial wit that some felt bordered on racism. But perhaps it was Snead's reverence for the talents of Tiger Woods that ultimately dispelled the racist rumors and endeared him to this writer.

Snead was one of the few men who witnessed firsthand the complete growth of the game in America from Jones to Woods.

He was an 18-year-old club repairman in 1930, when Jones won the latter-day Grand Slam.

He was in his prime in 1953, when Hogan won five times in six starts, becoming the first and only player to take the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open in the same year.

Snead still was torturing the seniors in the '70s when Nicklaus was winning many of his record 18 major championships. And despite the macular degeneration that afflicted him over the last three years of his life, Snead watched every major championship round Woods played.

And that August afternoon in 2000, Snead didn't hesitate over his pick for the greatest player of all time.

"I'll take Tiger," responded Snead instantly. "The rest of us wouldn't even have a chance. He's got length for one thing. Maybe Jones and Nicklaus could hit out there near him, but me, and especially Hogan, wouldn't be close. All the par-5s in the world are par-4s for Tiger that's where he gets me and Hogan.

"He gets Jones because Jones was a very bad long iron player; he hit this big old hook, you see, and that got him into trouble. And he gets Nicklaus because Nicklaus never had Tiger's short game.

"Tiger doesn't have any weaknesses. He kills it long and straight with his driver. He has great touch around the greens. The only thing that was hurting him were his irons from 130 to 145 yards, and he's straightened that out. He's also got that level temperament. He's the best we've seen all right."

Anyone who watched him in his prime will tell you Snead wasn't far behind. And perhaps more importantly, he was an unbridled individual, a sometimes outlandish character who reminded of us of what the Tour was like before the colorless automatons arrived. Snead's passing leaves the world a less interesting place.

Here's to hoping his heaven is clear vision, an open range and an infinite supply of Bacardi.


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