As a competitor and innovator, Gene Sarazen spanned golf history like no other great American player. From pugnacious whiz kid to equipment innovator to mature champion to senior statesman, Sarazen, who died May 13, 1999, remained a presence well into his 90s. When he was not hitting the opening drive at the Masters each year, his ageless wit was a living bridge to the memories of Vardon, Hagen and Jones.
He was born Eugenio Saraceni, the son of an Italian carpenter from Rome, Feb. 27, 1902, in Harrison, N.Y. He dropped out of school in sixth grade and turned pro at 19. It was then that he changed his name to Sarazen because, he once said, “It sounded like a golfer.”
At 5-5 and 145 pounds, Sarazen was the shortest of golf’s great champions. But he was solidly built and possessed a tremendous competitive heart. In 1922, at the age of 20, he arrived at Skokie C.C. for his first U.S. Open and won, birdieing the final hole and becoming, with a closing 68, the first player to shoot under 70 in the final round to win.
"The more I practice, the luckier I get."
Later in the year, he won the PGA Championship at Oakmont. He then challenged Walter Hagen to a 72-hole mano a mano for the “world championship” and beat history’s greatest match player. In 1932, he won both the British Open at Sandwich and the U.S. Open at Fresh Meadow, where he played the last 28 holes in 100 strokes, posting a closing round of 66 that would be a record for a winner until 1960.
“When Sarazen saw a chance at the bacon hanging over the last green,” wrote his friend, Bob Jones, “he could put as much fire and fury into a finishing round as Jack Dempsey could put into a fight.”
In 1935, Sarazen became the first player to win the modern Grand Slam by capturing the Masters. In the final round of that tournament, he hit the most famous shot ever in major championship golf, holing a 4-wood from 235 yards away for a double-eagle 2 on the 15th hole that tied him with Craig Wood, whom he defeated the next day in a playoff. The “shot heard round the world” helped put the Masters on the map.
Gene Sarazen first developed the idea of a sand wedge.
Altogether, Sarazen won seven major championships among his more than 40 victories around the world and as late as 1940 nearly won his third U.S. Open, losing to Lawson Little in a playoff. He was known for his compact but ferocious swing, the grim delight he seemed to take from competition and his fast play. In 1947, he and George Fazio played a round at Augusta National in one hour and 57 minutes.
But as great as Sarazen’s playing record, he did as much for the game with his innovative nature. Taking a tip from Ty Cobb, he developed a weighted practice club in 1929. In 1931, while being taught by Howard Hughes how to fly a plane, Sarazen noticed the tail adjusting downward during takeoff and came upon the idea for the modern sand wedge, which he spent months perfecting. He later called it his biggest contribution to golf. Later, he lobbied unsuccessfully to have the hole enlarged from 4 inches in diameter to eight.
Sarazen was perhaps the greatest early ambassador of golf among American pros, playing exhibitions all over the world. He earned his nickname, “The Squire,” after he bought a farm for his family in upstate New York. In the early ’60s, he came back into the public eye as the host of Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf.
In 1973, on the 50th anniversary of his first appearance in the British Open, the 71-year-old Sarazen made a hole-in-one with a punched 5-iron at the short par-3 eighth hole, known as the Postage Stamp, at Troon. In 1992, he was presented the Bob Jones Award from the United States Golf Association.