Fifteen years ago, a friend and I were walking near the Road Hole at the Old Course at St. Andrews during the Open Championship when my friend noticed a man wearing orange pants as part of an ensemble that practically glowed.
“Look,” my friend joked, “it’s Doug Sanders.”
Turns out, it was Sanders, still wearing the peacock-pretty colors that branded him the same way a missed 3-footer to win the Open Championship on the Old Course’s 18th green had marked him 35 years earlier.
Sanders died Sunday in Houston, Texas, after 86 colorful years and here’s hoping he is buried in a sartorially appropriate way, maybe something in lavender or turquoise or pink with shoes that match because when Sanders got dressed, he wore it top to bottom like few ever have.
If Sanders wasn’t quite a great player – he won 20 PGA Tour events but is remembered more for the majors he didn’t win while finishing runner-up four times – he remains among the game’s great characters and that is a badge of honor he wore like a canary yellow sweater.
He was an admitted womanizer and was proud of it. He owned a space suit given to him by friends at NASA and he claimed to have dated Ellie Mae Clampett of The Beverly Hillbillies (actress Donna Douglas) and lamented to a friend she was one who got away.
In a Golf Digest interview, he compared himself to Rat Pack pal Frank Sinatra, saying that he, like Sinatra, did it his way.
Sanders won the 1956 Canadian Open as an amateur and he played golf not by the book but by feel with a swing as flat as it was short. He could chip and putt and Sanders loved the spotlight the way kids love candy. Sanders had a touch of Hagen, a dollop of Demaret and a splash of Crayola.
“He was a helluva player,” Lanny Wadkins said.
They don’t make them like Sanders any more or, if they do, they’re almost impossible to find. John Daly is the closest thing the game has had to Sanders in the last couple of decades but even Sanders would not have worn some of the garish logos Big John sports. More than Sanders ever was, Daly is beloved for being who he is because he’s not like anyone else, but he still manages to connect on an everyman level.
The game could use more characters, but sponsorship dollars and hands-on managers have bleached some of the color from the professional game. At times it feels like professional golf is played in sepia tones rather than in living color.
There’s too much at stake, especially in this social media era, for players to revel in their rambunctiousness, if they have that in them. Some of it is the way the game has changed, transforming from caddies who became pros to golf students from elementary school to post-college careers.
Late in life, Doug Sanders still showed up at tournaments from time to time … He still wore the same bright clothes which drew eyes his way. Not everyone knew who he was, but golf fans from a certain generation could recognize him from two fairways over.
“Guys in our era grew up differently,” said Wadkins, who played with some of the game’s legendary characters. “I made 8 bucks caddying doubles if I got a tip. My brother and I never had a range to practice on. If we hit balls, we had to go pick them up.
“A lot of players today are like wind-up Tinker Toys. They haven’t figured out as many things on their own. They have teams. I never had a ‘we.’ The only ‘we’ I had was me and (a) partner playing someone.”
Through the years, the game has been colored by characters. Walter Hagen cut the path, his style and personality as big as his game which won 11 major championships. Hagen introduced branding to professional golf, and he sold himself as a star with his clothing, his play and his panache, supposedly showing up more than once on the first tee still wearing his clothes from the night before.
If Ben Hogan was flinty, Byron Nelson gentlemanly and Sam Snead country, Jimmy Demaret was the stylish star of his time. Lee Trevino came along later with tales of his Texas money games and Chi-Chi Rodríguez was the consummate showman.
Simon Hobday wasn’t a huge star, but he was a great character. The year he won the U.S. Senior Open at Pinehurst, Hobday told a story on himself, admitting that he’d gone fishing on a nearby lake that week and had fallen out of his boat while relieving himself.
These days, Bubba Watson is a true character, as quirky as they come and with a game that’s as colorful as a rainbow. Ian Poulter has put his spin on Sanders’ sartorial style and made himself a fire-engine red part of golf’s tapestry.
Kiradech Aphibarnrat is a character, but almost no one knows that. Bryson DeChambeau is a curiosity, not really a character. Tommy Fleetwood isn’t quite a character though his hair may be.
Late in life, Doug Sanders still showed up at tournaments from time to time, like that day in 2005 at St. Andrews. He still wore the same bright clothes which drew eyes his way. Not everyone knew who he was, but golf fans from a certain generation could recognize him from two fairways over.
Sanders lived with the memory of missing a short putt to beat Jack Nicklaus and win the Claret Jug. But he sure looked sharp in a rose-colored outfit that fateful day.
Top photo: Caryn Levy, PGA Tour via Getty Images
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