In Sarazen, golf loses a giant and a gentleman

May 16, 1999|By John Steadman

Handsome, well-dressed, polite, easily approachable, and the only regret is that he couldn't have been kept for the ages. Gene Sarazen talked as straight as the golf shots he hit.

A bit of a character, true, outspoken but always his own man, who never dodged a question, enjoyed conversation even with people he didn't know and was gifted with one of the most incredible of memories. An icon, maybe the last, from the "Roaring Twenties."

On an occasion in Marco Island, Fla., where Gene spent the back nine of his extraordinary 97-year-old life, a sportswriter had the chance to join him in a casual match that also included Frank Mackle and Sen. George Smathers -- arranged by a friend, Billy Vessels.

We watched Sarazen close-up for all 18 holes, especially intent on seeing how he gripped the club, but could never accurately define the exact position where he placed his hands. It was because Gene no sooner got over the ball and it was gone. No pause or contemplation. He walked fast and saw no reason to linger before making a shot. Such was his style.

He despised slow play and once seriously advocated the size of the hole be enlarged so putting would be easier, alleviating time spent on the green. Speaking facetiously, he said courses were crowded with too many women. He blamed them, in a jocular way that he didn't intend to be insulting, for prolonging a round of golf.

"Westinghouse is responsible for that," he said. "If they wouldn't have invented all those appliances, women would have to be home taking care of chores and not out here, in free time, tying up a golf course."

On the day we hacked 18 holes with Sarazen, a fortunate 5-iron snuggled close to the pin on a par-3 hole. "Better check that handicap," he kidded. Yes, but Mr. Sarazen, all it took was to put a Wilson club against a Wilson ball. He laughed and replied, "As long as Wilson was involved, then it's OK," alluding to the fact he had spent 65 years as a representative of the sporting goods company.

Later, reclining in the clubhouse, he mentioned he would pass up a drink because the bar didn't have his favorite brand. What's that? "It's Old Rarity Scotch, the only kind I like." So the manager, realizing he wouldn't accept a substitute, dispatched a courier to Gene's condominium to get a bottle from his personal stock as an accommodation.

Years passed. It took us to an occasion at Augusta National Golf Club, the time of another Masters. Are you still drinking Old Rarity, we wanted to know. And, with a quick retort, Sarazen, the man who was called "The Squire," explained, "No. Definitely not. I found out they were bottling it in Brooklyn."

His double eagle from 220 yards away with a toed-in 4-wood at the Masters in 1935, on the par-five l5th hole, became one of the most celebrated shots in golf history. He liked to joke that "when they heard about it in the clubhouse, someone was saying, `That eye-talian [which was his exaggerated pronunciation] must have thrown it in out of the water.' "

Sarazen said when he visited Hong Kong, a resident there called him the "Double Eagle Man." Another time, he said the Wilson Co. sent him to Japan to see if he could sell potential buyers on an overstock it had of clubs with aluminum shafts.

Going back, a year later, he said one Japanese club pro told him, "You say aluminum shafts sure to stay. You right. Nobody buy. Aluminum shafts sure to stay -- in pro shop." Then Gene, describing the scene, enjoyed a laugh via retelling the incident.

It was Sarazen who invented the sand wedge and used it as a secret weapon in the 1932 British Open. He said he told his caddie, even remembering his name as Skip Daniels, to turn the club upside down in his bag so it wouldn't be visible until he called on in it when trapped in a bunker. The club was to become a standard piece of equipment to the point of revolutionizing the game.

Sarazen came up the hard way, leaving school after the sixth grade to assist his family financially but, into his teen-age years, found he had exceptional golfing skills. He was always proud to say he was a graduate of the caddie school. Only 5 feet 4, he had a strong swing and, after turning pro, went on to win 41 championships.

He was the first, followed only by Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus, to win the U.S. Open, British Open, PGA and Masters. He dates back to Bobby Jones, Henry Cotton, Ted Ray, Johnny Farrell, Tommy Armour, Jim Barnes, Francis Ouimet, Henry Picard, Leo Diegel, Henry Vardon and Walter Hagen, and had seen every prominent player from then until the present.

"Jack Nicklaus was the greatest player of all time," he insisted and went on to admit that upon seeing Arnold Palmer for the first time he was convinced he'd never make it. "I was wrong, but I didn't like his swing."

Sarazen was strong-willed, smart, an engaging conversationalist, immaculate in appearance, and when he talked about himself it didn't come off as braggadocio, merely a recitation of the facts.

Indeed, a gentleman of the highest quality. A momentous credit to what golf is supposed to represent.

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