Throughout the remainder of the holiday season, we will provide a look back at some of the best content from our writers at Global Golf Post Plus. This article originally published on July 18. Enjoy.
He wouldn’t have lasted a minute in today’s Twitter culture, an enlightened and far-too- long-in-coming time when “cad” could become criminal and being “randy” can get you roasted on the righteous spit of It’s About Time. But Doug Sanders, the “Peacock of the Fairways” who won his first tour event (the 1956 Canadian Open) as an amateur, came of age in the Mad Men era – a time when cocktail parties were a popular pastime and calling a stranger “baby” as she walked past you in an airport earned you little more than downcast eyes and a slow shake of the head. Doug being Doug. Guy’s guy. Boys will be boys.
Sanders was a rake, his exploits bordering between comical and bewildering to those who found themselves around him.
Once, late in his competitive days – a decade removed from his last regular tour win and before the Champions Tour gave him another 15 minutes to preen in the sun – Sanders played in something called the West Georgia Open in the tiny town of Villa Rica, just down the road from his boyhood home in Cedartown. Sporting sideburns and gold chains that would have made Burt Reynolds blush, Sanders had his own golf cart for the event, a perk befitting a 20-time tour winner and local legend. But the extra seat was also necessary since he spent 54 holes canoodling with a blonde woman two decades his junior.
When Sanders three-putted, Henry Longhurst said, “There but for the grace of God.” Then he said, “I knew it when he hit that second so far past.”
Even so, the man could play, seeing and shaping shots that made you wonder how he didn’t win multiple majors, all with a compact, homemade swing that left you wondering how he ever won at all. In that West Georgia Open, Sanders watched at one par-3 with an L-shaped green as his fellow competitors tried to hit towering long irons to a tucked pin. He then said to his companion, “I think this is a knock-down, punch-hook 4-wood. Don’t you, baby?”
The woman never looked up from her fingernails as she said, “Sounds good.”
Fifteen seconds and a few fidgets later, Sanders hit a head-high bullet that started right of the green and turned left from the get-go. The ball landed 100 feet away from the hole and followed the contours of the ground, up and around, finally nestling some 6 feet from the hole. That’s when the rest of the group knew they were overmatched.
Years later, I chaperoned Sanders a few times – Champions Tour events where he lingered in the hotel lounge a little too long, and the Masters where he camped under the oak tree dressed like an extra in a Dean Martin film, the guy screenwriters dub “man in groovy pastels.” He was slightly more than an acquaintance and a broad jump shy of a friend, a fellow Georgian who grew up about an hour’s drive down Highway 27 from my hometown. At six years older than my father, Sanders shared many of the idiosyncrasies found in all Southern men of that generation – acerbic wit and earnest geniality sprinkled with a healthy dose of impending doom.
At a golf merchandise show in Cleveland one year, I was with him as he signed autographs and offered his hotel-room key to more than one young woman. He was pushing 70 at the time. I finally said, “Doug, you’re like a dog chasing cars. What would you do if you caught one?”
He said, “Some things are just in your blood,” followed moments later by “Hey, baby,” as another woman walked by.
That night, as I drove him back to his hotel, he said, “You know I almost married Donna Douglas,” referring to the actress who played Elly May Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies television series. “She was the one that got away. Her and the Claret Jug that Jack took. … Dang! See there? I’d gone almost an hour without thinking about it.”
The “it” he couldn’t shake from his mind for more than 60 minutes was the 1970 Open Championship at the Old Course, the one most golf fans remember for the 3-footer Sanders missed wide right to lose. He could never forget that putt and every thought in his mind as he prepared to hit it. He believed he saw something on his line, and he reached down to remove what he perceived as a pebble but was instead a mere trick of the mind, a glimmer of setting Saturday sunlight on the grass. Then he stood over the ball a long time, one fidget following the next before punching a putt that never stood a chance.
What most people have long forgotten or never knew was that Nicklaus and Sanders were not the only players in that final group. Lee Trevino started the final round with a two-shot lead, which he squandered early. Tony Jacklin was also tied with Sanders and Nicklaus at the start of the final round (the Open ended on Saturday in those days, barring a playoff, which, in this case, was played on Sunday). Trevino’s collapse and Jacklin’s mishaps have been flushed down the memory hole. They don’t even make the highlight reel.
Nor does the best shot Sanders hit all week, the shot that would have defined the championship had he holed the 3-footer on the final green. One hole earlier, leading Nicklaus by a shot, he found the famous Road Hole bunker. Sanders had a poor lie near the back edge – downhill, needing to get the ball up quickly and stop it on the shallow shelf of the green. He hit the perfect shot, his quick hands cutting through the sand at just the right angle. The ball took one big hop and stopped a foot from the hole.
That could have, and perhaps should have, been the shot everyone remembers. Instead, after a perfect tee shot on the 18th hole, Sanders let the moment wash over him. But it was more than that. As he stood over his 70-yard pitch, as easy a final approach as exists in major championship golf, he let the carefree façade that masked an obvious insecurity slip and fall, allowing the world to see the fatalism that runs deep through Depression-era men born on clay burned red with the blood of rebels.
It wasn’t the putt that cost him. That was the shot remembered and the one that would have ended it. It was the pitch, a shot that should have been right in Sanders’ comfort zone – one on which his slashing game relied – that proved his undoing. The wedge shot sailed long, leaving more than 40 feet for birdie.
When Sanders three-putted, Henry Longhurst said, “There but for the grace of God.” Then he said, “I knew it when he hit that second so far past. I knew that was what was happening. Everybody who plays here does.”
The Sunday playoff seemed a foregone conclusion – though it ultimately came down to a single stroke. Nicklaus holed a slightly longer downhiller on 18 to win, a putt on a similar line to the one Sanders missed the day before. In his jubilance, Jack threw his putter into the air and it came within inches of conking Sanders on the head.
That would have been a fitting ending. The one that got away, indeed.
Top: A missed 3-foot putt cost Doug Sanders the 1970 Open Championship. Photo: A. Jones, Express via Getty Images
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