Snead joins Hogan, Nelson at 80, making 1912 birth of golfing era

May 27, 1992|By Ron Green | Ron Green,Charlotte Observer

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Sam Snead turns 80 today. Byron Nelson was 80 on Feb. 4. Ben Hogan reaches 80 on Aug. 13.

That God chose to put them all on Earth must mean he loves golf.

That he put them all here in the same year must mean he likes to see the sparks fly when greatness is rubbed against greatness.

At a time when the professional game was trying to get its legs under it, in a period when the Jones-Sarazen-Hagen triumvirate had played out all its good shots, along came Snead, Nelson and Hogan, and golf took off on the wings of their glory.

When their clubs finally cooled and the smoke cleared, they had won 196 PGA Tour events, including 20 major championships, among them, most of them from 1937 to 1955. And they had done things so wonderful that today they sound like myth.

Snead, Nelson and Hogan are bound by their feats -- all three were inducted into two major golf halls of fame the same years.

But they were not, and are not, alike.

Snead, blessed with a big, flowing swing right out of "Swan Lake," was a hillbilly and still has a lot of that in him, a little roughness around the edges. He's outgoing and energetic and loves to tell dirty jokes -- a piece of work.

Nelson was a more consistent golfer with a swing so precise the USGA named its mechanical swing-tester "Iron Byron" after him.

He was, and is, a bundle of nerves, which explains why he quit tournament golf at age 34. Nelson is a stylish, sweet and gentle man who has a moment for everyone.

Hogan was turned much more inward, a chilly man with clenched teeth who was noted for his powers of concentration. Although he has been a bit more accessible in recent years, he remains a man about whom we've learned little. When he quit tournament golf, he rarely ever came back to let us see and hear him.

All three men remained married to the same women for more than 50 years. Nelson's Louise and Snead's Audrey died in recent years. Ben and Valerie Hogan have been married for 57 years.

Snead still plays golf regularly and well, and he occasionally appears in a Seniors tournament, although he has eye problems. He never lost his lust for action, and, having been blessed with ageless legs, he was winning PGA Tour events as late as 1965, when he was two months short of 53. Hogan last won in 1959, Nelson in 1946. In the 1979 Quad Cities Open, Snead became the first man to shoot his age in a PGA Tour event. He was 67.

Nelson gave up tournament golf in 1946, one year after he had stunned the world by winning 11 tournaments in a row and 18 overall. ("I got sick and tired of competing.") He had to quit playing his regular games with friends (and shooting his age regularly) last year when he had hip replacement surgery.

Hogan played his last tournament in 1971. It's been more than 10 years since he last played 18, and now he can't practice anymore. Even after he quit playing, he would hit balls every day, but a knee problem has stopped that.

Curiously, perhaps, these three are not close. Even though Nelson and Hogan were born in Fort Worth and caddied together at Glen Garden Country Club there (isn't that a remarkable accident of fate?) and for many years had the same family doctor, they don't socialize with each other. Hogan has been in Nelson's house once; Nelson has never been in Hogan's. When Hogan heard that Snead was having eye problems, he phoned.

But there is none of the camaraderie of, say, old fighter pilots or old football teammates.

Snead and Nelson go back to Augusta for The Masters each spring. Not Hogan. Now, though, he says one day he may, one day, just to see the other old champions who gather there. "It would be like the second coming of Jesus Christ," Snead says.

He should do that. He and Sam and Byron could stand under the trees and let the world see them again in person as they are in history -- together.

, Happy 80th, Sam, Byron, Ben.

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