HOUSTON – Many of us who are old enough can remember one of the most colorful golfers who ever strutted the fairways, and did he ever strut.
George Douglas “Doug” Sanders died on Easter Sunday, a day when we often celebrate colorful things such as rainbows, colored eggs and bright yellow chicks. Sanders, known as the "Peacock of the Fairways" for his colorful attire on the PGA Tour in the late 1950s to mid-1970s, could outshine them all. Sadly, for the latter part of his incredible 86 years of life, he was scorned and ridiculed by many. Some might even have had good reasons.
I never was a close friend of Doug’s, but he and I did have some business dealings 33 years ago. I recall visiting his home in the stylish Memorial area of Houston, where he took me for a tour – not of his trophy case, which included mementoes from his 20 PGA Tour victories, but of his closet. Sanders, who grew up barefoot and poor in northwest Georgia, proudly displayed his ultrabright wardrobe, featuring 300-plus pairs of patent-leather golf shoes of every hue known to mankind. Sanders proved to be as flamboyant as another Houston golf champion, the late Jimmy Demaret, and he
maintained a closet that would have put Demaret’s to shame.
It just so happened that I watched an episode of “Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf” over the weekend – a 1966 match played at The Country Club featuring Sanders and Billy Casper. Their match ended in a tie, and amazingly, Casper might have out-dressed Sanders that day. At the conclusion of the show, I decided to Google Sanders’ name to see whether there might be any recent news about him. I had heard that he still could be seen occasionally walking the grounds of Memorial Park Golf Course, site of this year’s Houston Open. I was stunned to learn via text message on Sunday of Sanders’ death. Despite his reputation as a playboy and self-promoter, Sanders left me feeling remorse for one of the most tragic figures I ever knew in golf.
Golf fans remember the 30-inch putt that Sanders missed on the final green at the Old Course at St. Andrews that would have won the 1970 British Open. It dropped him into a tie with Jack Nicklaus, who won an 18-hole playoff on the next day by holing a 6-footer to win by one stroke. But many might not remember the other close calls, including another one-stroke loss to Nicklaus four years earlier at Muirfield. In all, Sanders lost four major championships by one shot and three others by slim margins.
After his retirement from competitive golf, Sanders became a strong influence in the Houston Open’s return to credibility. His position as director of golf at The Woodlands Resort and Country Club helped attract celebrities nationwide to the Wednesday pro-am. Suddenly, we were seeing the likes of Bob Hope and other A-listers in the field. Galleries swelled from a few thousand at Quail Valley in 1974 to more than 30,000 at the Woodlands in 1975. Sanders had much to do with that success and the resurrection of a Tour event that was on the verge of life support.
Eventually, Sanders would help sponsor the Doug Sanders Celebrity Classic, a Champions Tour event that was played in 1988-94 at Deerwood Club in nearby Kingwood. Again, celebrities piled into Houston to support the event, which featured Arnold Palmer and dignitaries the likes of George H.W. Bush. While the tournament had a nice run here in Houston, it had its moment and then was gone.
Sanders created a foundation for junior golf, which featured tournaments on several continents. It gave him a chance to return to Scotland and other glamorous locations where he constantly promoted golf to anyone who would listen to him. Sadly, it was that enthusiasm that often got him in trouble with those who found irritation with his near-narcissistic behavior. Sanders was not a perfect man, by any means, but he was a shiny jewel in what otherwise would have been a world of navy and gray. Try as he might, he struggled to retain his celebrity and a sense of relevance that was evaporating like a December morning fog in Houston.
Sanders could be a controversial figure in Houston, but not on the national and international stages where he was most loved. People were enamored with his flair for the game and the bright lights of Hollywood that seemed to follow him everywhere. But like many of us, he was a flawed individual in need of redemption. There’s no way to paint him lily white. He would have hated the color, anyway.
I know one thing: The next time I see a rainbow, I’ll think of the “Peacock of the Fairways.”
May you rest in peace, Doug.
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