PALO ALTO, CALIFORNIA | He’s 90, but he’s not the least bit frail. He stands to the full measure of his height and walks gracefully without any trace of giving away his age. In fact, given his energy level, you could easily mistake him for 20 years younger, if not a handful more.
Th thing that might come close to telling his years is that on this day, he can barely speak above a whisper, a condition for which he actually apologizes, if you can imagine that.
“I had this thing on my vocal cords,” says Sandy Tatum of the cancerous growth no longer in his throat. “They radiated it for six miserable weeks. But they got it. I am blessedly well.”
As he walks down the halls of the law firm of Cooley, Godward and Kronish in Palo Alto, just south of San Francisco, Tatum reaches his office where he still shows up every weekday. “I came to this law firm in 1950 when there were five partners and two associates,” he says. “I was one of the associates. And they still put up with me.”
And while cancer treatment kept him off the golf course and out of the office for a couple of months, he is back and ready to resume his three-times-a-week golf habit.
“Golf has not lost one bit of its interest or challenge for me,” says Tatum, who shot 73 at age 85 at San Francisco Golf Club. “And I concluded very effectively that there are two things that keep you going: hopes and illusions. As long as you have those, you will make it.”
Sandy Tatum is without any doubt one of golf’s most revered people. He has given much of his life in service to a game that no one loves more than he does. Nothing about golf has Tatum kept for himself. Except for memories that would last many lifetimes for most people, Tatum has freely given away everything that is good and whole about the game.
He attended Stanford from 1939-42 and was a member of the golf team for back-to-back NCAA team titles in 1941 and 1942. He was the NCAA individual champion in 1942, which he says “is my major championship.” He studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar before returning to Stanford to get his law degree.
He was USGA president from 1978-80 and served on the Executive Committee from 1972-80. He is famously quoted in response to player complaints about the severity of the U.S. Open setup at Winged Foot in 1974. “We are not trying to embarrass the best players in the world,” he said. “We are trying to identify them.”
Along the way, Tatum was instrumental in the design of Spanish Bay on the Monterey Peninsula and co-designed two other courses. And he played in 40 San Francisco City Championships. “The best I could do was the quarterfinals,” he said. “But I was proud of that.”
His legacy to San Francisco golf was his leading role in the formation of
The First Tee facility that now resides at Harding Park, which he led the charge to have redesigned. The clubhouse there is named in his honor.
But even at age 90, Tatum is still trying to expand his reach in San Francisco. He has begun a program in troubled schools to put golf into the physical education curriculum.
“I’ve got limited access to the kids I really need to reach,” Tatum said. “I wandered around in the war zone neighborhoods in San Francisco. There are three of them. I found a middle school with a huge playground next to a wonderful nine-hole golf course, Gleneagles. In the middle of them there was a cop with a gun. And this was recess.
“The principal told me, ‘You have no idea what you can do for these kids and how much it will matter to them. We will do anything in our power to make it work.’ He was national middle school principal of the year.”
The program is now in nine inner-city schools and Tatum is trying to raise money to expand the effort. “If we can reach thousands of these kids and get them on golf courses, what a salvation that would be for the game of golf in this country that’s stagnant and stuck,” he said.
A life lived in service for the thing you love is the highest calling. Tatum has always felt the need to give back in return for the gift that golf has given him.
“I do it because of what it’s done for me on a very profound level,” he said. “What I have derived personally from playing the game, especially during a time when I played on a fairly high competitive level, it is, besides my marriage, the most important thing that’s happened in my life.
“What happens to me when I play the game, it engages me intellectually and emotionally and aesthetically in ways that I couldn’t possibly find elsewhere. That has made a huge impact on my life.”
Tatum says that “genetics and luck” are his secrets to the fountain of youth. But the real answer is found in his statement, “The life I’ve lived has been so invigorating.” Tatum has a reason to get up in the morning and his energy spent trying to grow the game in his corner of the world is what really keeps him young.
It is what we all find attractive about our game. Age, just like our golf score, is just a number. And the game in every respect never, ever gets old.