Sam Snead was the greatest athlete among golf’s great champions. The swing he employed to win tournaments over six decades remains the archetype of power and grace, his longevity the benchmark of an incredible talent.
In more than 50 years as an active competitor, Snead won a record 82 official PGA TOUR events, and he can safely claim more than 140 worldwide. Nicknamed “The Slammer” for the strength of his shots, he won seven major championships.
At a long-limbed 5-10 and 185 pounds, Snead was classically configured and preternaturally gifted. In high school, he could run the 100-yard dash in 10 seconds flat. Into his 70’s he could, from a dead standstill, kick the top of a seven-foot doorway. His movements were almost musical, and it was no surprise to anyone that Snead had taught himself to play the banjo and the trumpet by ear. As a boy, who preferred to go barefoot, he learned golf in much the same way, and on those rare occasions when his rhythm was off, he could regain it by removing his shoes and socks, as he did for nine holes at the 1942 Masters.
Once during a discussion of his swing keys, Snead said simply, “I try to feel oily.” On another occasion he said, “When I swing at a golf ball right, my mind is blank and my body is loose as a goose.”
“The mark of a great player is in his ability to come back. The great champions have all come back from defeat.”
Samuel Jackson Snead was born May 27, 1912, in Ashwood, VA, the youngest of six children, five of them brothers. At the time, his mother, Laura, was 47. Golf first captivated him while catching his older brother, Homer, belt balls across the family’s cow and chicken farm, and soon he was fashioning his own clubs out of swamp maple limbs and using balls he had found caddying at the nearby Homestead Hotel Golf Course in Hot Springs. He got his first assistant pro job at 19 at The Homestead, moved to the Greenbrier in 1935 as the playing professional, and in 1936, joined the PGA TOUR.
Immensely long off the tee and a creative shotmaker, Snead took the TOUR by storm. He won four times in 1937, and eight times in 1938. Under the guidance of promoter Fred Corcoran, who marketed Snead as a hillbilly force of nature out of the Back Creek Mountains of Virginia, he quickly became golf’s prime attraction.
“Sam Snead,” said Gene Sarazen, “is the only person who came into the game possessing every physical attribute — a sound swing, power, a sturdy physique, and no bad habits.”
The next year, he was even hotter, but suffered a major setback at the U.S. Open at Spring Mill in Philadelphia. Thinking he needed a birdie on the 72nd hole to win, but in reality needing only a par 5, Snead made an eight to finish tied for fifth. He would go on to finish second in the U.S. Open four times, once when he missed a 30-inch putt on the final green of a playoff with Lew Worsham in 1947.
Sam Snead was so athletic he could kick the top of a door frame even into his 70s.
Still, Snead won three Masters, three PGA’s and the British Open in 1946 at St. Andrews. He led the money list three times, won the Vardon Trophy four times, and played on seven Ryder Cup teams. His final major championship victory was perhaps his most memorable. At the 1954 Masters, Snead, tied after 72 holes with Ben Hogan, defeated him in an 18 hole playoff, 70 to 71.
Short putting eventually stopped Snead from winning at his normal pace. Still, his achievements in his later years were remarkable. In 1965, Snead, at 52 years and 10 months, became the oldest winner of a PGA TOUR event when he won the Greater Greensboro Open for the eighth time. He was fourth in the PGA Championship at age 60 in 1972, and third in 1974 at age 62. “Desire is the most important thing in sport,” he once said. “I have it. Jeez, no one has more than I’ve got.”