Obituary: Gene Sarazen

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The Independent Culture
GENE SARAZEN's place in the hall of fame was assured by his achievement in becoming the first player to win the four major professional championships in golf, the Masters, the US Open, the Open and the US PGA. In a most exclusive club, he was subsequently joined by only three others: Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus.

In all, Sarazen won seven majors, the PGA title three times (1922, 1923 and 1933), the US Open twice (1922, 1932), the Open once in 1932, and the Masters once in 1935. It was the style with which victory was achieved in the latter that overshadowed all his other major exploits and helped give the Masters a huge shot of adrenaline.

The tournament had started as little more than Bobby Jones's private garden party at a former Fruitlands Nursery at Augusta, Georgia. Sarazen missed the first Masters in 1934 but made up for it the following year with a shot that was "heard around the world". He was long and straight and he had confidence in his putting. He also had confidence in his caddy, a tall black man who went by the nickname of Stovepipe because he wore a tall silk hat.

Sarazen scored 68, 71, 73 and trailed Craig Wood by three shots. On the eve of the final round a friend gave Sarazen a "lucky ring". Although Sarazen was paired with Walter Hagen, they were followed by a small crowd. At the 15th hole Sarazen hit a long drive. As he walked to his ball he heard a roar from the 18th green. Wood had holed for a birdie three at the last and finished with an aggregate of 282, six under par. As far as the press was concerned Wood, three strokes clear, was the winner.

Sarazen asked Stovepipe what was needed to win. Stovepipe replied: "Three, three, three, three." That amounted to an eagle, par, birdie, birdie. Sarazen finally settled on a four-wood. "I knew the only way I could reach the green would be to toe the club in to decrease the loft and so give me extra yardage."

In his book, 30 Years of Championship Golf (1950), Sarazens said that as he was standing over his ball, he was reminded of the lucky ring. He took it from his pocket and rubbed it over Stovepipe's head:

I took my stance and rode into the shot with every ounce of strength and timing I could muster. The split second I hit the ball I knew it would carry the pond. It tore for the flag on a very low projectory, no more than 30 feet in the air. Running forward to watch its flight, I saw the ball land on the green and then, while I was straining to see how close it had finished, the small gallery let out a terrific shout and began to jump wildly. I knew then the ball had gone into the hole.

He had holed out from 235 yards at the par five, 485 yards 15th for an albatross two, or what the Americans call a double eagle. Having made three under par on one hole, Sarazen parred the last three to force a tie. The next day, he beat Wood by five strokes over 36 holes. For his four practice rounds, the four rounds of the tournament and two in the play-off, he never had more than a five on his card.

Bobby Jones asked Sarazen if Augusta National could have the ball and the four-wood for display in the club house. Sarazen hoped they would put a plaque on the spot from where he hit his shot. Twenty years later they built Sarazen's bridge at the 15th. Sarazen never won the Masters again but returned annually to drive off the first tee as an honorary starter. He did so at last month's Masters with Sam Snead and Byron Nelson.

Sarazen's breakthrough had come in the US Open at Skokie near Chicago in 1922 when, aged 20, he shot a brilliant 68 in the final round to deny Jones and Hagen. Sarazen recognised that the victory stirred the American public. "You cannot overemphasise how much a win by a homebred meant in the early Twenties when Americans still knelt uneasily before the British as our masters in golf. The fact that I was the first American of Italian descent made my victory exciting and popular with thousands of Americans who had never before bothered with a game they assumed to be the domain of the high-born and the Anglo-Saxon."

Sarazen had three Majors before he was 22 but his finest year was 1932 when he won the Open at Prince's, Sandwich - 12 months earlier he had invented the Sand Wedge - with a then record 283, and the US Open with an inspired 66 in the last round. He was made an honorary member of the Royal and Ancient of St Andrews where, in 1933, he suffered a "most torturing experience". Finding trouble in a bunker at the 11th in the second round, Sarazen recorded a triple bogey sixth, but an official claimed that his score had been a seven.

Sarazen signed for a six in a round of 73 but was summoned to explain the incident to the championship committee. No action was taken but Sarazen described it as the "cruellest kind of psychological burden". In the final round he had an eight at the Hell Bunker on the 14th and the defending champion lost the Open by a stroke.

Sarazen was born Eugene Saraceni in Harrison, New York, the son of an impoverished carpenter to whom golf was an alien concept. Sarazen was introduced to the sport as a caddie, earning 45 cents a day. Self-taught, he was also as hard as nails, "capable", as Jones observed, "of putting as much fire and fury into a final round of golf as Jack Dempsey into a fight".

In 1973, at the age of 71, Sarazen had a hole in one, in the Open at Royal Troon, on the famous Postage Stamp. It was his last tournament. He spanned the sport from Harry Vardon, who developed the most common grip in golf at the turn of the century, to Nicklaus who has won 18 Majors. "Nobody will ever come close to that," Sarazen had said. "It's the safest record in sport."

It didn't stop him from criticising Nicklaus for slow play. He also disliked the introduction of golf carts at the expense of caddies. "It denies poorer kids access to the game."

In his latter years he oversaw the inauguration in Atlanta of the Sarazen World Open. "Today a good, young golfer - he doesn't have to be a champion - gets the $150,000 for wearing a logo on his cap," Sarazen said. When Gene Sarazen won his first US Open 77 years ago, he received $700, but then to a 20-year-old who had to work for every dime, it seemed a fortune.

Tim Glover

Eugene Saraceni (Gene Sarazen), golf player: born Harrison, New York 27 February 1902; married (one son, one daughter); died Naples, Florida 13 May 1999.