Snead’s last victory ride
50 years ago, Sam Snead became the oldest PGA TOUR winner
August 18, 2015
By Helen Ross , PGATOUR.COM
GREENSBORO, N.C. – The basketball season was winding down in 1965, so sportswriter Irwin Smallwood of the Greensboro Daily News began shifting his attention to the other sport he covered – golf. He soon realized one thing.
Sam Snead’s appearance at the upcoming Greater Greensboro Open would be the 25th of his legendary career. Considering Snead had won the inaugural event in 1938, and had then won it six more times to earn legendary status in the area, Smallwood thought it would be a good idea to celebrate the silver anniversary.
It certainly seemed like the appropriate time to honor Snead. He was 52 years old and four years removed from his last PGA TOUR win. While Snead was hardly a ceremonial golfer – he’d finished third or better six times since that last win – there was no doubt he was past his prime.
Plus, most of golf’s headlines were now commanded by the Big Three: Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus. It would be nice, Smallwood thought, to give Slammin’ Sammy some attention in the twilight of his career. And no place was more appropriate than Greensboro, where Snead had experienced unprecedented success.
Smallwood mentioned this to John Rendleman, who was the tournament chairman, and Jim Betts, the banquet chairman, as the three were driving to Durham, N.C., to visit with Mike Souchak, a successful PGA TOUR pro who played collegiately at Duke.
"We should do something special for Sam," Smallwood said, and the other two men in the car agreed.
So the plan was set. On Tuesday night during the week of the tournament, the Sam Snead Testimonial Banquet would be held at Fred Koury's Plantation Supper Club, which was located a few miles from Sedgefield Country Club where the GGO would be contested.
Hard to imagine a more fitting venue, either.
"Snead was known to have played the trumpet there," Smallwood said. "It wasn't unusual for one or two of the players to come and sit in with the band during the tournament."
When told about the banquet, Snead appreciated that golf fans in Greensboro wanted to celebrate his success in the area. There was one thing, though.
The final chapter had yet to be written.
Once the Greensboro Jaycees, who sponsored the tournament, decided to honor Snead with the testimonial dinner, they had to find an emcee. At the time, Ed Sullivan was writing a "Toast of the Town" column for the New York Daily News, and Smallwood knew one of the sportswriters there.
"I said, 'Let me try to get Ed Sullivan,'" he recalled.
Smallwood was headed to the Big Apple to cover a basketball game. His friend referred him to someone who wrote for Sports Illustrated, who was more than happy to help.
"He turned around, dialed the phone and said, 'Ed, I've got someone here who wants to talk with you,'" Smallwood said.
Once Sullivan found out who was being honored at the dinner, he said he'd be delighted to come to North Carolina. He didn't ask for an appearance fee, just expenses, and he was a big draw at the pro-am when he played with Gary Player and a state representative named Mark Short.
"He said, call me at this number on Tuesday, and I fully expected to get a plumber from Amarillo," Smallwood said, chuckling. "But it was him."
Sullivan walked away with a great memory, too. He hit an 8-iron to 8 feet on the ninth hole, his last of the day, for a natural birdie.
"That's one I'll never forget," he told the Greensboro newspaper.
The banquet, attended by 800, was a rousing success.
"I'm not sure Greensboro's had a dinner like that -- before or since," Smallwood said.
Carson Bain, who would become mayor of Greensboro two years later, presented Snead with a certificate good for hamburgers for life from McDonald's. He and Dave Goforth, two good friends who often went hunting and fishing with Snead, gave the pro a rifle.
The tournament also gifted Snead with a $500 check for a Hot Springs, Virginia, hospital that was dear to the pro's heart.
And not surprisingly, Snead got the last word.
Just before the festivities ended, Sullivan looked out at the crowd. "Wouldn't it be nice if old Sam could win the GGO one more time?" he asked.
"Sam squinted into the lights at the Plantation Club, and he said, "Those young boys better watch out. I just might do it," Smallwood recalled.
Well, it wasn't exactly Babe Ruth pointing toward the center-field bleachers during Game 3 of the 1932 World Series just before he launched a home run in that direction -- but it was close.
The president of Wilson Sporting Goods told Smallwood he'd never seen his client so touched. But Snead never acknowledged his role in the festivities -- that is, until the switchboard operator at the Daily News rang his desk one day and told him a box was waiting downstairs.
"It was a set of Wilson Staff clubs," Smallwood said. "The return address just said: Snead."
Smallwood, who is now 89, still has those clubs in a golf bag sitting in his office.
Essential Sam Snead
The headline in the Daily News the day after the banquet was simple and to the point. "To Sam, With Love."
The accolades were done. Now it was time to get ready for the competition. Everyone of any consequence, as Smallwood would say, except the young Jack Nicklaus, had come to Greensboro to play that week.
Snead, who at one time held the record for the biggest bonefish ever caught in the Atlantic, prepared for this GGO by going fishing with Bain, Goforth and Jim Hamel at Lake Everett, which is about 90 minutes south of Greensboro, the weekend before the tournament began. According to Bodie McDowell's column in the Daily News, the four caught around 150 crappie, one of which weighed nearly 2 pounds.
After the pro-am, Snead, Goforth and Bain went fishing again.
"The luck wasn't so good this day," McDowell wrote. "But Sam and his buddies caught enough for Sam's supper. Dave and Carson didn't say whether they went hungry but Sam polished off a duck and several fish."
Well-fortified, Snead was ready to take on the youngsters who wondered why a man of his advanced age dared come to the GGO and try to compete. Temperatures were in the 40s during the first round, an occasional cool drizzle fell and Snead's long underwear came out, yet the 52-year-old managed a 68 that left him two strokes off the pace set by Tommy Aaron.
Smallwood's story in the Daily News called Snead's performance "astonishing." To this day, he says he didn't think Snead had a chance to win.
"I've got to be honest, no one else did either," Smallwood said. "Although I have to say, those of us who knew Sam knew that almost nothing was impossible. He was just a remarkable golfer. It would have been wonderful to see him play with the equipment of today."
Snead and Billy Casper shot 69 and 67, respectively, on Friday to move into a tie for the lead. Casper stole the headlines, though, as he detailed his 30-pound weight loss thanks to a food allergy diet that had his wife Shirley cooking a half an avocado and Cornish hens for breakfast that morning.
"Any time I three-putt only once in 36 holes, which I have done ... it's wonderful," Snead was quoted as saying in the Daily News. "I'm just hoping that my putting will hold up until I get the rest of my game smoothed out. It's a little jerky."
Smallwood noted that Snead had won the GGO for the first time "when Casper was laboring over first-grade arithmetic." But the age difference became even more apparent after the third round when Snead's 68 gave him a two-stroke lead over Labron Harris Jr.
Casper, meanwhile, fell four strokes off the pace after nearly quitting three times during the third round due a bad reaction to some oysters he'd eaten.
Just a month earlier, Snead led Harris' father, Labron Sr., entering the final round of the PGA Seniors Championship. Snead prevailed, his second of six titles in that event, and now Harris' 23-year-old son was in the same position at the GGO.
As Snead left the interview area, he told Harris, "Now, wait a minute. Let's don't try to win this thing. Leave us old fellows something."
Harris' reply? "I've got to start somewhere." After all, he’d just picked up his first professional check the previous week in Wilmington, N.C.
"You're right," Snead told him. "Good luck Sunday."
The final three holes of the GGO were televised nationally -- and in color -- for the first time with Jimmy Demaret, Bob Toski and John Derr calling the action. The crowds were so large that the Jaycees decided to increase the purse by $5,000 to $70,000.
"My plan was to play routine golf -- to play for pars, hope for an occasional birdie and make them catch me," Snead said after the round. The strategy worked to perfection, too.
Phil Rodgers did pull into a tie with Snead after the veteran three-putted the 10th and 11th holes. But Rodgers' drive at the 13th hole hit a gallery marshal's foot and veered OB. That double bogey, coupled with Snead's "real gobbler, a China-to-Japan" birdie putt on the same hole, gave the Virginian a lead he wouldn't relinquish.
"I whacked that thing and when it went in, I just said, 'Holy cow,'" Snead reported.
That birdie, estimated at 60 feet, was the first of three straight for Snead, who all but took the drama of tournament before the TV cameras switched on, much to the delight of the 11,000 partisans estimated to be lining the fairways. Thanks to the purse increase, Snead pocketed $11,000, which sportswriters later speculated may have been the seven-time major champion's largest payday ever.
Snead was 52 years, 10 months and eight days old that Sunday -- and he remains the oldest player to ever win a PGA TOUR event. The 27-year span between his first and last victory in Greensboro is another record that stands to this day.
As luck would have it, the 1965 GGO was also Snead's final PGA TOUR win. His 82nd official title, to be exact, although some close to him feel Snead should have been credited with more than 100. Regardless, it's the number Woods chases -- he's currently three shy.
"This is terrific, just great," Casper, who tied for second with Rodgers and Jack McGowan, told Snead before the trophy presentation. "I think it is wonderful to win it at a time like this."
Snead, clad in dark blue pants, white shirt, light-blue sweater and of course, that trademark hat, told reporters how much the entire week had meant to him.
"Everybody has been so wonderful to me and to the golf tournament in Greensboro," he said. "I just had to give it a little bit more go."
Davis Love III, who got to know Snead when he was a teenager tagging along with his dad, the noted teacher, Davis Love Jr., at the Golf Digest schools, understands more than most the magnitude of the Virginian’s accomplishment. Love is a two-time winner of the Wyndham Championship and a five-time champ at the RBC Heritage.
“Unbelievable,” Love said. “To win a tournament twice or three times is unreal. People make a big deal of five for me at the Heritage. But eight?
“I mean, how many TOUR players have won eight tournaments, much less in the same spot? Except Tiger winning the same tournament over and over again.”
Snead had picked up his eighth, though, less than two months shy of his 53rd birthday. Smallwood, for his part, was hard-pressed to put the stunning win in perspective but he more than managed with these words.
"Many hoped but few believed that he could turn the memorable occasion into an eighth GGO victory. The field was too tough, too stocked with strong, proven, eager campaigners for a man almost 53 to have a chance to win.
"Yet, that is what this remarkable man did, firing a closing 68 for a five-stroke triumph that left his thousands of adoring fans in a state of breathless joy for the player who more than any other has helped make the GGO one of the nation's great golf tournaments."
The 1965 win was his last on TOUR, but it wasn’t Snead’s last appearance in Greensboro. In fact, he was still in the field in 1977, hoping to tame yet another area course, Forest Oaks, which was hosting the tournament for the first time.
He shot a 75 in the opening round.
He didn't realize he'd just played his last 18 holes in competition in Greensboro.
Neither did the fans who had grown to love the country boy from the Virginia mountains so much they'd sometimes nudge his errant shots back into the fairway. At least, that's what some of his fellow pros thought, their complaints on occasion providing fodder for the local newspaper.
But when Snead came back the next morning to prepare for the second round, a proud man determined to improve on that 75, his body simply wouldn't cooperate.
"I came out early and tried but I just can't swing," Snead told Tom Place, the press officer working for the PGA TOUR. "My back is giving me hell."
Snead was a little over a month shy of his 65th birthday. His opening 75 was better than the likes of Johnny Miller, Tom Kite, Chi Chi Rodriguez, Bob Charles and Gene Littler, all of whom would join Snead in the World Golf Hall of Fame. He still had a chance to make the cut.
According to the Greensboro Daily News, Snead didn't withdraw until 11 minutes before his tee time. He wanted to play. He really did.
Turns out, though, it was a singularly solitary exit for the man whose name was all but synonymous with the tournament and is on the trophy presented each year to the winner of what is now known as the Wyndham Championship. No long good-byes. No Swilcan Bridge to stop on and doff his hat and wave to the fans.
And no banquet dinners with Ed Sullivan as host.
Slammin' Sammy Snead simply packed his car and headed home.