Sanders returns to exorcise ghost of public indignity

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The Independent Online

It might have been 35 years ago, but the man dubbed "the best player never to win a major" can still recall with clarity the moment that altered his career, if not his life. Just 28 inches separated the genial American from lifting the famous Claret Jug. The 1970 Open was set to reward richly someone who was at the peak of his game. Somehow, the golfing gods intervened on their own Elysian Fields and snatched Sanders from his moment of triumph.

He recalls a distraction from the crowd. There was also an ill-timed Fife wind that tugged at his trouser legs as he set himself up for the final stroke that would seal four fine rounds on the Old Course. Either way, the spell was broken. The short putt became the longest sentence for Sanders.

His heart lurched as the ball slipped wide of the cup on the 18th green. "My word," gasped the BBC's unflappable commentator Henry Longhurst. St Andrews was in a state of suspended animation. Sanders tapped in the errant ball to complete his costly three-putt on the 72nd hole and retired to mark his card in a moment that saw him numb with shock. The trophy stayed in the Royal and Ancient clubhouse. There was no presentation. Instead, Sanders and Jack Nicklaus went back out 24 hours later on the Sunday - in those days, The Open finished on a Saturday - for an 18-hole play-off. Sanders lost, of course.

Sanders never came that close again to winning a major. Nicklaus went on to become the greatest player the game has known. Both men will be back at St Andrews this week. They are inextricably linked with the place. Nicklaus enjoyed two of his three Open triumphs on the Old Course, which is why he is making his swan- song appearance there at the age of 65.

Sanders, who will be 72 this week, has been invited back by the R&A to take his own bow. Sport never remembers losers, we are told. Who, though, could really forget Sanders? Had it occurred now, we - and Sanders - would have been given every conceivable camera angle, dissecting his moment of torment. Golf coverage, however, was in its infancy back in 1970. There was not even colour television to showcase the vivid lilac-and-purple outfits worn by the man branded "The Peacock of the Fairways" by Esquire magazine. Occasionally, that putt is shown on screen, but it can never do justice to the directors' cut running in Sanders' mind.

"Do I ever think about the putt?" Sanders asked himself rhetorically last week. "Only once every four or five minutes," he responded. Rarely have irony and accuracy ever been so much in tune. "They have brought Jack back because he's a winner at St Andrews, but I'm there because I missed a putt." Sanders won 20 tournaments on the US PGA circuit - one of only six golfers ever to do so - but it is the one he lost that defines him.

"It would have changed my life immensely," he said from his home outside Houston, Texas. "Even if I had gone on to make a tenth of what Jack did, I would have been a multi-millionaire. I would have been able to design golf courses and name them after me. That's what winning The Open does for people. However, that's life and you have to move on, and I have enjoyed a good one."

Sanders may have missed the chance to seize his everlasting moment of glory, but if it dominated a life shaped by a fight against alcohol - he was a party animal in the Swinging Sixties - money is not at the root of his wistful self-examination. This is a man who came from a dirt-poor background in Georgia - he picked cotton as a boy - and rose to become a top golfer in the 1960s, just as Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Nicklaus were proving a magnetic attraction for television. Sanders made over $1 million (£580m) in US tour earnings, but he gave it away to charities as diverse as the Betty Ford Clinic and the United Negro College Fund.

He also set up a golf academy in Aberdeen - something he is keen to revive - which gave scholarships to six poor kids around the world, one from each continent. "I want to leave something behind rather than just be remembered as the guy who missed a short putt," explained the man who is working on his memoirs and a collection of golf memorabilia.

"I have lots of pictures of me with US presidents and kings, as well as celebrities and even men who walked on the moon," Sanders said. "I did not do badly for a boy who came from such humble surroundings." Sanders has never tried to shake off those dusty origins back in Cedartown, where he earnt the occasional dime as a child caddieing at the town's nine-hole golf club. He and a few friends used to sneak on to the course when the professional went for lunch, using the five clubs they owned between them. "I did not have any shoes until I was eight, and even then it was an old pair of tennis shoes," he recalled. "That day, I was the happiest kid in the world. Some day, I hoped to own my own shoes. Maybe I went a bit far once I did. I had hundreds or pairs in every colour. I liked to bring a little bit of colour to the game."

Sanders earned a golf scholarship as a teenager to attend the University of Florida and won the Canadian Open in 1957 as an amateur, before making a huge impact on the professional scene in the early Sixties. He was runner-up in the US Open in 1962 and finished third on two occasions in the US PGA. His short swing may not have been classical, but it was effective. "My swing was like a weekend golfer's, which is why I think a lot of the public identified with me."

By the time he got to St Andrews in 1970, Sanders, in his own words, was "ready to win" a big one. "I had lost the Masters one year by having a disastrous score at the 16th in the final round and missed out on the US Open by a stroke, as well as coming close in The Open at Muirfield a few years earlier. I had a good record."

That consistency was also evident in 21 second-place finishes. Sadly, the Old Course contributed to that statistic in the most damning way possible. Sanders appeared to be home and dry in the final round when he made a remarkable recovery from a greenside bunker at the notorious 17th, the Road Hole. However, the adrenalin pumping through his veins forced Sanders to overshoot his pitch shot to the 18th. His approach putt pulled up less than three feet short, a distance Sanders will never erase from his mind.

"When I looked down at the ball, there was a little thing between it and the hole," he recalls. "It was like a pebble, or maybe sand. Without changing the position of my feet, I bent down to pick it up - it was a bit of brown grass. I never walked away or got reorganised.

"Some people in the gallery around the green had a laugh. I think they thought it was a bit of an act. It was not. Ben Hogan, though, used to say you should always back away when your concentration is disturbed on the green. Of course, I did not."

Sanders insists that he walked away from the Old Course that night determined to return the next day and claim the prize that was his. However, there was little doubt that his mind must have been a million miles away from the play-off duel with Nicklaus. "I was renting a house outside St Andrews and I went out that night to look at the cows in the fields," he says. "I just lay there looking up at the clouds. It was a very depressing time."

In the play-off, he clung doggedly to Nicklaus. They approached the 18th with Sanders trailing the Golden Bear by a shot. He fired a pitch shot to within four feet and, ironically, holed the putt, but it was not enough to capture the prize.

"Very few people are able to reach that level in golf, or any sport," says Sanders, philosophically. "I got a letter from my friend Jack Lemmon [the actor] soon after. He wrote, 'I think you should be proud - in my estimation, you won The Open'. I always felt I should take the positive from it and I had no one to blame but myself."

Worse things happen in life. Sanders knew that then, as much as now. He spent 10 days in a coma 12 years ago after neck surgery. In 1966, Sanders made the decision that preserved his life, refusing to join his great friend Tony Lema in flying home from a tournament in the latter's private plane because Sanders wanted to celebrate his birthday. Lema died in the subsequent crash - he is also part of St Andrews history, having won The Open there in 1964.

"I have not had a drink in 12 years," Sanders proclaimed proudly. "I still run most days and do 300 push-ups every morning. I have energy. I need to. I still do corporate golf clinics, play a few rounds in nice places and tell stories about the game. It is a great life. I'm glad to be coming back to the Old Course. The Scottish public were great to me. They liked that I had a laugh with them."

Maybe, 35 years on, St Andrews can put a smile back on the face of the man who suffered the cruellest joke of all.