A hole in the head

Sport provides many moments that live in the memory. But few, even the greatest, will outlive the disaster that overtook Doug Sanders at St Andrews 25 years ago. Tomorrow afternoon, as some champion-presumptive paces that last green and lines up the putt that should win him the Open... that's where Sanders's story began. Dudley Doust reports
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The Independent Culture
If commemorative plaques were bolted into golf greens, one surely would be fixed into the 18th at St Andrews, just a little to the left of centre and down towards the front of the green. It would read: "Here lies the death of a dream," for it was from here, a quarter of a century ago, that the American, Doug Sanders, launched and missed a short putt that denied him victory in the 1970 Open championship.

Losers in golf are soon forgotten - tell me quickly, who's come runner- up in any Open championship? - and, what's more, the flamboyant Sanders's failure was hardly heroic. It was unheroic, a deed so simple and painful that millions of fellow golfers shared his grief round the world. "There," whispered the television commentator Henry Longhurst, "but for the grace of God..."

Sanders's miss not only has become a thread in the rich tapestry of St Andrews, where the game has been played for half a millenium, it is the most famous mis-hit in the history of golf. "I've left my mark on the game," the likeable American recently told the magazine Golf Monthly, "and I would have settled for that at the start of my career."

That moment of catastrophe now dominates his otherwise distinguished, if luckless, career. He was a genuine golfing force in the Fifties and Sixties. He tied for second in the 1959 US PGA, tied for second in the 1961 US Open, tied for second in the 1966 Open which, by the way, Jack Nicklaus won at Muirfield. He played in the United States' winning Ryder Cup team in 1967 and was among the most colourful players, personally and sartorially, of his day. He dressed in yellow and cherry-red and some sort of chartreuse and, not surprisingly, his autobiography was called Come Swing with Me.

Swing with Doug Sanders? No way. He had the ugliest golf swing in Christendom, a quick coup-de-grace chop, a "snake-killer", as they'd say in his native state of Georgia, a swing that, fore and aft, never seemed to rise above the level of his peacock-coloured shoulders. That swing, he'd explain in his homespun drawl, came from his need to keep track of the ball during rounds of golf in his dirt-poor childhood.

Still, Sanders was a creative shot-maker, especially deft at the "bump- and-run", a low, cunningly crafted shot that stayed under the wind and galloped up close to the flag. It was a shot suitable to hard, blowy Scottish links and, when he arrived that summer at St Andrews, it was with high hopes of capturing his first, and perhaps his last, major golf title at the age of 37.

For three mostly wind-blown days, Sanders lurked among the leaders - notably the great Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and Britain's Tony Jacklin, who indeed was great in those days - and in the final round he was paired with Trevino. The gusting 65 mph wind suited him a treat and coming down the last hole he needed a par 4 to win. His drive, well placed, left him with, we all thought, only a safe, signature "bump-and-run" shot into the green.

Instead, Sanders attempted to loft a conventional, high pitch to the pin. He paid dearly: his ball ran into the back of the green and from there he putted some 30 inches short of the cup. A minute later, as he stepped up to his ball, a theatrical silence, deepened by the wind off the North Sea, fell over the huge gallery. He settled his alligator-skin shoes over the putt. This one, he thought, for the Open. "I never for a moment thought I'd miss," Sanders told me years later. "In fact, as I stood over the ball, I wondered which side of the crowd I'd bow to first."

Suddenly, he glimpsed a tiny impediment lying in the path from his ball to the hole. It was so tiny, so infinitesimal, that Sanders couldn't distinguish exactly what it was. A pebble? A bit of sand? Whatever it was, the damned thing took command of his mind. "Without changing the position of my feet," he later related, "I bent down to pick it up. It was a blade of dead grass." He tossed it away.

As Sanders's shoes remained rooted to the ground, the fabled Ben Hogan watched the drama unfold on television in Texas. He felt a stab of misgiving. "Back off, Sanders," he implored his fellow Southerner. "Walk away from that putt. Relax. Resettle yourself." Sanders, ignorant of the advice being advanced from half a world away, sought again to pick out the line of the putt. The muscles of Sanders's forearms grew tense. He drew back the blade of his putter and, following a brief pause, stabbed it into the ball. "Mis-hit it," he realised. Then, in a gesture recognised by all golfers, he reached out his putter as if to rake back the ball for a second try. There was no second try: the ball curled slowly, agonisingly, and came to rest wide of the hole. The gallery's silence was followed by a soft, collective gasp.

Sanders's twitch, resulting in a bogie five, dropped him into a tie with Nicklaus, and on the following day he was beaten by Nicklaus in an 18- hole playoff, 72 strokes to 73.

Oh, yes, in the playoff Sanders missed a couple of short ones and wasted a shot in a bunker, plenty of margin for victory, but these blunders have long been forgotten. It's that putt, mis-hit the previous day, that lingers in legend. "I don't think about it very much," Sanders would tell me - and everyone else - in years to come. "Only about every five minutes of my life."