Sarazen, legend of fairways, dies at 97

Famed for 1935 shot

winner of 4 `Slams'

May 14, 1999|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

His name is attached to one of the most famous shots ever struck in golf, as well as to one of its most glittering legacies.

Gene Sarazen, called "The Squire" because of his jaunty personality and penchant for wearing plus-fours, died yesterday in a Florida hospital from complications of pneumonia. He was 97.

Just last month, Sarazen made his annual appearance as a ceremonial starter at the Masters, a tournament he helped legitimize with his victory in 1935.

"I am very sorry to hear that Gene Sarazen passed away today," Masters chairman Hootie Johnson said yesterday in a statement. "Gene was a pioneer participant in the Masters tournament and held a special relationship with Augusta National Golf Club. We will miss him very much on the first tee next year."

It was at Augusta that Sarazen made his legendary double-eagle 2 on the par-5 15th hole.

Trailing Craig Wood by three strokes during the final round, Sarazen holed out with a 4-wood from 235 yards. He went on to catch Wood and then beat him in a playoff.

"It was a spectacular shot, the one everyone talks about, but I take my greatest pride in having won the U.S. and British opens in the same year -- 1932," Sarazen once recalled.

Sarazen, the son of an Italian immigrant carpenter, grew up in Mamaroneck, N.Y., and changed his name from Eugenio Saraceni after he was mentioned in the local newspapers for making a hole-in-one. He said later he thought it sounded like the name of a violin player.

He was a dominant figure during what is widely called "the Golden Age of Sports," the 1920s. Sarazen burst on the scene as a relatively unknown 20-year-old by defeating Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen in the 1922 U.S. Open.

It was to be the first of seven Grand Slam tournament victories for Sarazen, who became only one of four players to win all four professional majors. He won the PGA Championship three times, the U.S. Open twice, as well as the Masters and British Open once.

"I missed at least five majors because I made stupid shots, mental errors," Sarazen once said. "Bob Jones was college-educated. When he stood over a ball, you could almost see the sparks going on inside his brain. He made very few judgment mistakes."

But Jones, the only player in history to win the Grand Slam in the same year, had a tremendous respect for Sarazen.

After Sarazen shot a final-round 66 to beat Jones in the 1932 British Open, Jones called it "the finest competitive round ever played."

If the double-eagle was the most famous shot Sarazen ever hit, a shot he hit during the 1931 Ryder Cup might have been the most unusual. After hooking a tee shot through the door of a refreshment stand, leaving himself with a refrigerator in his way, he was about to concede the hole to Fred Robson.

But he got his caddie and the refreshment stand operator to move the refrigerator, and Sarazen played the shot off a cement floor, through a window and onto the green of the par-3 hole. He made the putt for par, though Robson had hardly noticed.

"That was tough luck, Gene," Robson said.

"Fred, I made a 3," Sarazen shot back.

"You did?" exclaimed Robson, who would lose the match, 7 and 6.

Sarazen was often in the shadow of the legendary Jones, as evidenced by a trip Sarazen made to Fiji in 1934. Followed by a group of awestruck caddies who watched Sarazen hit some impressive shots, one of the caddies finally said, "Mister, no one of this island hits a ball like you." Sarazen asked: "Don't you know who I am? I'm Gene Sarazen."

The caddie shrugged. "We no hear of Mr. Sarazen, but we hear of Mr. Jones."

By the end of his career, which was capped off with a PGA Seniors title in 1954, everyone knew of Sarazen. At age 71, he made a hole-in-one during the first round of the 1973 British Open at Royal Troon. It was to be his last tournament.

According to his lawyer, James Cardillo, Sarazen had been hospitalized at Naples Community Hospital for several days. He had lived for many years in nearby Marco Island. His wife of 62 years, Mary Catherine, died in the mid-1980s.

"The game has lost one of its great heroes," said PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem. "Gene Sarazen dedicated his life to golf and became one of the game's legendary figures."

Byron Nelson, who, along with Sam Snead and Sarazen, has been a ceremonial starter at the Masters since 1981, said yesterday: "Certainly I am saddened by it. He goes back to the beginning of golf competition in this country."

"When you discuss or research the history of golf, the name Gene Sarazen is unavoidable," Jack Nicklaus said. "He was the cornerstone of the game we all enjoy today."

Sarazen's career highlights

* Won seven major championships: U.S. Open (1922, 1932); PGA Championship (1922, 1923, 1933); British Open (1932); Masters (1935).

* The first of only four players to win all four Grand Slam titles in a career (others are Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player).

* Winner of 38 PGA Tour titles.

* Member of six Ryder Cup teams (1927, 1929, 1931, 1933, 1935, 1937), with composite record of 7-2-3. Both of his losses came in 1929.

* Led the PGA Tour in earnings (1930, 1932).

* Elected to World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974 (charter member).

* Sarazen's 1935 Masters victory is best remembered for one of the greatest shots of all time -- his 4-wood from the fairway on the par-5 15th hole at Augusta National that dropped in for a double-eagle 2 and propelled him to victory.

* Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year in 1932.

* Credited with the invention of the sand wedge.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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