Snead on course at St. Andrews

British Open: Whether recalling his first visit to the Old Course or helping Nick Faldo to improve his swing, Sam Snead, 88, keeps his hand in the game and returns to the site of his 1946 championship.

British Open

July 18, 2000|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland - His eyesight is failing, the result of a degenerative condition that prevents him from seeing any shot farther than 50 yards. His legs are wobbly, the result of taking medication more than a year ago that caused them to swell to more than twice their normal size.

Sam Snead turned 88 on May 27 , yet remains one of golf's most irascible and irreplaceable figures. He still has nearly the same ability to swing, and zing.

The man many consider the most naturally gifted player in history, the man whose 81 victories spread over six decades are PGA Tour records, has returned to the Old Course. He is expected to participate tomorrow in a four-hole exhibition of British Open champions including fellow legends such as Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.

The story of Snead's first impression of the course in 1946 is nearly as famous as the man himself.

"I have told that a number of times," Snead said in retelling it yesterday. "I came over on the train. We came beside the golf course and I looked at it and it did not look like it was in very good shape. I looked at the fairway; it did not look to me like it had ever had a machine on it. I heard they used to use sheep to cut it.

"I finally said to the guy sitting next to me, `What abandoned course is that?' Oh boy, he jumped about four feet in the air."

When told that it was St. Andrews, Snead said in his Southern Virginia twang: "You mean they're having a tournament here?"

"Aye," the man replied, "the [Open] championship."

"But once I got on the golf course, I respected it more each time I played it," Snead said yesterday.

He wound up winning the tournament that year, at age 34, but didn't come back to defend his title.

"It cost me $2000 to come over in '46, and I got $600 [for winning]," recalled Snead. "They said, `You coming back to defend next year?' I said, `You're kidding.' I came over here after I was a senior and won the Senior Championship. Guess what I made that time - $460. I said to a guy, `Is this my tipping money?' I said, `Don't call me. I'll call you.' "

These days, Snead plays only a little down near his home in Hot Springs, Va. But he spends a lot of time hitting balls on the practice tee at The Greenbrier in nearby White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., giving advice to everyone from elderly hackers to former British Open and Masters champion Nick Faldo.

"I was watching an old man at home, he was taking it back real slow and his head hardly moved or anything and the ball might go 75 yards," said Snead. "I said to him, `Would you like to hit it 50 yards farther?' I said, `Can you swing that club?' And he swung it and it looked pretty good. I said, `Hey, you've got a new horse here.' "

That's sort of the way Faldo is feeling these days.

After watching his Hall of Fame career begin to disintegrate shortly after winning the Nissan Open three years ago, Faldo finally sought out Snead earlier this year. The result was a rejuvenated Faldo in last month's U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where he finished seventh.

It was Faldo's best performance in a major since coming in fourth at the 1996 British Open, the same year he won the Masters for the third time.

"I have Sam at 88 with the [best] swing of the last hundred years, and I thought it would be great to pick his brain and get some of the real key thoughts of how he played," said Faldo, whose second of three British Open championships came here in 1990. "I asked him, `What were your thoughts when you played badly?' He said, `I never played badly.' "

Snead was much more receptive to Faldo's inquiry than the legendary Ben Hogan had been years ago, when Hogan told the rising British star that the key to success in golf was getting the ball in the cup in fewer shots than your opponent. Snead went as far as to look at tape of Faldo when he was the No. 1 player in the world.

"All of a sudden he hit a couple of drives and it sort of tailed off to the right," said Snead. "Usually I can go right to the spot there, and that is the left hand. I told him two things and just like that, he started drawing the ball a little bit. And he had his feet wide apart. I said, `You can't use your body on the swing if your feet are so wide.' He drew it up, about six inches. He started hitting the ball."

Snead has given help to a number of world-class players, including Tiger Woods. Of course, Woods was 6 at the time.

"I was in California and Tiger and his dad said, `Do you mind if Tiger would play a couple of holes?' " recalled Snead. "He had that fast swing he has today. Everybody says his body won't stand it, he's been doing it since he was 6. I don't think it is going to hurt him another 20."

Snead went on to call Woods "the best ever" to play the game.

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