Sam Snead returned to Hollywood one recent Monday morning to resume shooting on his Celebrity Golf television series and was due to meet Comedian Danny Thomas on the first tee at 8 a.m. Sam was there on the dot.
This would not seem to be at all remarkable. But, in view of the weekend that had preceded Sam's appearance at Hollywood's Lakeside Golf Club, it was just a little short of fantastic. Sam had flown from Hollywood to Boston the previous Friday; he had been involved in a frantic cocktail party (he detests cocktail parties); a man had invaded his motel suite at 3 o'clock in the morning and blown smoke in his face (he hates having smoke blown in his face); he had played National Open and Masters Champion Arnold Palmer in exhibitions at Providence, R.I. and Rockville, Md. He had traveled 2,700 miles on three airlines in a single day and had slept not at all on the planes and only two or three hours upon his arrival at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. On the jet airliner that took him from Chicago to Los Angeles, Sam had groaned and moaned, as is his custom when overtired, yearning for the day when he could take things easy. "There'll come a day," he had said, "when I'll quit all this runnin' around, when I'll take things so easy I won't even take a lick at a snake." In Sam's view, a man born and raised in the mountains of Virginia can get no lazier than that.
When I saw Sam off to bed a little before dawn this recent Monday, I didn't see how he could ever pull himself together in time for the filming of his match with Danny Thomas. But there he was at the first tee, looking bright-eyed, ready to go. The temperature was 99° and the smog was all but unbearable.
There was a sizable gallery on hand. Although Snead is matched against such big name performers as Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Jerry Lewis, Perry Como, Mickey Rooney, Ray Bolger and Dean Martin in the filmed series, Sam himself was the big attraction and the man in demand among the autograph seekers.
December 12, 1960
Sam's first drive was a screamer down the middle. He didn't bear down too much against Thomas and, allowing for the latter's club handicap of 10, Sam won, 1 up. Afterward, there was a comedy sketch to be done. To start it off, Announcer Harry Von Zell, reading from an idiot card, remarked that it must be tough for Danny to get out to play golf, what with one wife in his television series, Make Room for Daddy, and another in real life. "Imagine having to sneak out on two wives," laughed Von Zell. Sam Snead looked like he had heard many a funnier joke.
Then Von Zell went on to explain that the sponsors of the series were going to give Danny a chance to earn a lot of money for his favorite charity, so much for every par hole, so much for a birdie and $10,000 for a hole-in-one by either Thomas or Snead. At this point Thomas departed from the prepared lines and adlibbed: "I already made $500, Harry. A pal of mine bet me I wouldn't even show up for this match with Sam!"
This got a good laugh from the gallery and thus called for an on-the-spot revision of the script. "Keep that line in, Danny!" cried the director. "And Sam, you take Harry's line about Danny sneaking out on two wives! Got it, Sam?"
Sam, with two hours' sleep behind him, a blazing sun beating down on him and the smog burning his eyes, nodded. Danny Thomas addressed the gallery, "When I get to the new line, folks, laugh it up like you did before." The scene went off just fine, and Sam's reading was judged adequate the first time.
After a picnic lunch with the camera crew, Sam started all over again with Randolph Scott. At the start of his match with Scott, I had the vague impression that Sam was a mite off his game. But on the 4th hole he drove the green and sank a 20-foot putt for an eagle. Scott, a fine golfer himself, shook his head and said, "Sam plays as good as he has to."
That night Sam turned in right after dinner. Next morning I was sitting by the side of the swimming pool having coffee, and Sam came bouncing along. I looked up and said, "My, but you look refreshed, Sam!"
Sam all but broke into a dance. "I feel great! I got a day off and I'm goin' out to Lakeside and play 18, maybe 36, I don't know, with ol' Bob Hope!" Then he took a stance and said, "Here's Hope drivin'." He drew back his arms very slowly and then lashed down with an old washerwoman's swing that was not at all complimentary to his partner for the day. He went whistling off to keep his date.
(Maybe it was this incredible ability of Sam Snead to snap back that had something to do with the tribute Arnold Palmer paid him recently. "He's the greatest golfer who ever lived," said Palmer. "He's got to be. He's been on the circuit for 25 years. Just imagine that. He's playing better now than he ever did. He can do anything a man of 21 can do. He just keeps on learning more and more and he hasn't lost a thing. He could have been an all-star at any sport.")
Not many days later we were back at Sam's home course, the famous Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs. One evening we had dinner in the magnificent main dining room. Gary Nixon, Sam's assistant, and some Greenbrier guests were at the table. The Meyer Davis orchestra played softly in the background. Most people dress for dinner at the Greenbrier, but Sam wore a light gray suit and a black knit tie. People kept turning around to look at him.
Aside from Sam's prowess as a golfer, he was worth a second look. He cuts a handsome figure and probably is as well off as a fair share of Greenbrier regulars. His enterprises include a string of Sam Snead Motor Lodges, already in operation or being franchised; Sam Snead Golf Centers with double-decker driving ranges; and a highly profitable golf-cart-rental business. A television company is in the organization stage. Sam is Director of Golf for Country Club Developers, Inc. and is the operator of the pro shops at all seven of the new courses that have been constructed by that new outfit.
Sam obviously doesn't hurt for money. Fred Corcoran, his business manager, has him endorsing everything from hats to headache powders. Sam is working with a collaborator on a new book of instructions. He has a solid, longstanding tie-up with Wilson golf equipment. Sam can pick up $1,500 to $2,500 and more any day he wants to play an exhibition with a big name pro—especially if the big name happens to be Arnold Palmer. Sam makes $2,000 a day for every day's shooting of the Celebrity Golf series on NBC, a venture underwritten by his old friend, Bob Hope. Sam has a piece of the show. He is a partner with his pal (and favorite fishing companion) Ted Williams in a fishing-tackle business. He has an interest in an aquarium in Miami. He can earn up to $30,000 a year as pro at the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs and $15,000 as pro at the Boca Raton Club in Florida. People in a position to make a good guess hazard the opinion that Sam's annual income runs from $150,000 to $200,000—including tournament prize money and the sure-fire side bets he wins from well-heeled businessmen all around the country. Sam refers to such golfing partners as "pigeons," and he is always on the alert for such game when he is not otherwise occupied. One day in the men's grill at the Greenbrier a prosperous pigeon kept repeating: "Took me for plenty, the old son of a gun, but it was worth it. Wait'll I tell 'em back home I played with Slammin' Sam!"
Naturally, Sam enjoys certain creature comforts. He loves clothes, and in his wardrobe are 400 shirts, 200 pairs of slacks, 50 hats, 100 sports jackets, 75 pairs of shoes and dozens of business suits and dinner jackets. He owns 25 sets of golf clubs and is always on the lookout for new putters and wedges. He has five automobiles. He owns two Eldorado Cadillacs outright, and General Motors keeps him supplied with three of their other cars. GM asks no testimonials in return; they are content just to have Sam seen driving their cars and thus create the impression among prospective buyers of motor cars that what is good for Sam Snead is good for the country.
At the dinner table Sam was the last to order from the elaborate menu. As the waiter stood patiently by, Sam said, "Last night I had some real good eatin'. I went out in the woods back of my house there in Hot Springs and shot me a couple of nice fat squirrels. Took 'em home and skinned 'em and then parboiled 'em. Fried 'em up with some apple slices, and I tell you there's no better eatin' in this world."
I felt the waiter grasp the back of my chair as if to steady himself. Sam looked at him.
"Bring me," he said, "some blue points, filet mignon, and put Roquefort dressing on the salad."
"Thank you, Mr. Snead," said the waiter, hurrying away.
"Daniel Boone," I said, making small talk, "used to bark off a squirrel, in other words shoot the seat out from under him, killing the squirrel by the concussion, leaving the carcass intact."
"Possibly so," said Sam, "but you couldn't do that with a .22 rifle. I generally aim for the eye." He turned and smiled pleasantly at one of the lady guests who swallowed with difficulty and remarked that she had never eaten fried squirrel. Her tone indicated that she had no intention of ever doing so.
"The toughest shooting there is," I said, drawing on the scantiest possible knowledge of the subject, "is shooting crows. Crows are the smartest birds alive."
Sam shook his head. "Not for me. I got me a record of crow calls and a player machine. I'll go out in the fields and git crows any time."
"I've seen that done," I said. "What about wild turkeys? What kind of call do you use for them?"
"Mostly no call," said Sam. "I can imitate a turkey with my voice."
"Oh, yes," I said, "I remember at the pro-am over at Hot Springs yesterday. You started to chirp and cluck and gobble like a turkey at one of the tees, I forget which, and then you went way back in the woods and came out chirping and clucking, and then you told the gallery that there was a bird in there but he wouldn't answer your call."
Sam flushed a little but didn't say anything.
Gary Nixon leaned over and whispered in my ear: "I believe Sam was looking for the powder room."
"Sam," the lady guest suddenly exclaimed, "could you get me a wild turkey for a dinner party I'm giving?"
"I could," said Sam, "dependin' on when is the party?"
"Day after tomorrow," said the lady.
"Well, I don't know," said Sam, rubbing his chin. "If I can git out there, I'll git one. The question is, will I have time to git out."
"You've got a pretty full schedule, Sam," said Gary Nixon.
Sam thought hard. Then his face lit up. "Why, shucks," he said to the lady guest, "I got a couple wild turkeys in the freezer. Be glad to send you one for the party."
The lady guest gushed: "Oh, you're a darling, Sam!"
"Yes'm," said Sam, waving to a man passing by. "President of the Columbia Broadcasting System," he explained. "Or one of'em."
With such chitchat, the dinner hour flew by. Afterward, Gary Nixon and I paid a visit to Freddie Martin, the retired Greenbrier professional and golf club manager, who lives with his wife in a little bungalow that he built to replace a larger house that was getting to be too much for Mrs. Martin. Freddie told of seeing, for the first time, the young Sam Snead hit a golf ball back in the early '30s at Hot Springs. He knew instantly that he was looking at the greatest natural talent he had ever seen. He offered Sam a job, and Sam, of course, grabbed at the chance to move in as assistant at Greenbrier.
Sam (Freddie said) almost got fired the first week or so. He was playing Greenbrier's Old White Course behind Alva Bradley, onetime owner of the Cleveland Indians baseball club and director of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway (which owns Greenbrier). Observing that Mr. Bradley was holing out on the 5th green ahead, Sam teed up and put his full power into a drive with that same old wood he's using today. The ball took off low and then rose and straightened out like an arching missile, landed just short of the green and bounded up and plopped squarely on the wealthy derriere of Mr. Alva Bradley. The ball had traveled 335 yards to this distinguished terminus, and Mr. Bradley, stung on the bottom, reacted by blowing his top. His bellow of rage could be heard all the way back at the clubhouse, and soon it was actually bouncing off the walls there as Mr. Bradley confronted L. R. Johnston, the managing director of the Greenbrier, and spoke violently to the subject of bad-mannered young professionals who hit their second shots while a preceding foursome is still on the green. Mr. Johnston frantically pushed buttons and rang bells until Freddie Martin and his entire staff were on the carpet. When, after painful attempts to get a word in edgewise, Mr. Martin at last established that the ball that had bounded into Mr. Bradley was not a second shot but a first shot, a drive, Mr. Bradley absolutely refused to believe that anybody could hit a ball that far from the tee. More witnesses were summoned, and when it was at last established beyond doubt that young Sam Snead, the new assistant pro, had indeed driven the green, Mr. Bradley was aghast. He turned his back on the assembly and personally sought out Sam to extend his apologies and his congratulations.
Freddie Martin grows a little misty-eyed when he talks about Sam, as a father might in speaking of his son. "Sam," said Freddie, patting the blind old cocker spaniel at his feet, "was the man who brought competitive golf down into the 60s. Sam did it, not Jones, not Hagen, but Sam." Freddie chuckled as he digressed for a moment. "There was nobody like Hagen, of course. I remember seeing him driving up to the first tee in an important tournament. Gene Sarazen was waiting to tee off with him. Hagen got out of a taxicab wearing a tuxedo, said, 'Be with you in a minute, Gene,' and hustled on down to the locker room to change. Played one hell of a game that day, I recall, and hadn't had a wink of sleep all night."
Freddie Martin has precious few mementos to show for his long years at Greenbrier. He just never thought to keep an autograph book; it would have had the names of Presidents and kings in it. But he did have one prized souvenir and, before he went to fetch it, he said, "I was the first one to predict that Sam Snead would break 60 in competition." Then he got up painfully and hobbled out of the living room and came back and held out a golf ball. It had the numeral 59 scribbled on it with a lipstick that Sam had borrowed out of the gallery the day he shot that fantastic 11-under-par in the Sam Snead Festival tournament at Greenbrier on May 16, 1959 (SI, June 1, 1959). He had brought the ball straight to his first patron, Freddie Martin, and had given him the card for the round as well.
Gary Nixon spoke up: "Sam does a lot of nice things nobody ever hears about. He never lets it be known, but he's a soft touch for many an old pro who's played out and broke."
I couldn't help saying, "I was in the gallery over at Hot Springs and got to talking to one of the natives. I'll admit this fellow had been drinking some of that mountain liquor but he said Sam Snead was the tightest man in the state of Virginia. He said even today he'd fight a man over a 3¢ overcharge at the grocery store."
"Why, that doesn't prove a thing," declared Freddie Martin. "Who wants to be gypped even if it is a matter of a few cents?"
Gary Nixon laughed: "Oh, heck, Sam does that kind of thing just for the fun of it. It's like Jack Benny playing up the idea that he's a tightwad. Why, actually, Sam is always doing little charities—of the nondeductible variety, too. For instance, he'll slip an old caddie a $100 bill and tell him to go buy groceries for the poor folks in his neighborhood. He gave a fine electric organ to the family church in Hot Springs."
"Why, yes," exclaimed Freddie Martin, "and when I retired, do you know what Sam Snead did? Made me a present of an automobile. It's a Valiant, and you can take a look at it in the driveway on your way out."
Freddie had been rummaging through some papers in his lap, and now he held out a letter. It was from Duke Ridgeley, the Huntington, West Va. sportswriter who was the first to call Snead "Slam-min' Sam." Duke is in a veterans' hospital now.
"I'll tell Sam about this," said Gary Nixon, scanning the letter. "He'll want to go over and pay a visit to old Duke." (Sam did just that the next day.)
"Freddie," I said, "you were the first man to predict that Sam would break 60 in competition. What about the Open? Do you still think he's got a chance to win it at his age?"
Freddie thought carefully. He is not—and never was—a man to speak carelessly. After a moment he said slowly, "Yes, I'll predict it. Make a note of it there, put down the date and the occasion here and say that Freddie Martin predicts Sam will win the Open before he's through. He's hitting as long a ball as ever, and his putting has been terrific. Write it down. Freddie Martin says Sam will win the Open before he's through."
"I'd like to say this," said Gary Nixon. "Not winning the Open has given Sam an incentive that's kept him going so well all these years. Maybe if he'd won everything as a youngster he would have faded out of the picture as some other pros have done."
"Yes," Freddie Martin said, "I agree with that. But Sam would have made a great success of any sport. If he had gone into baseball he would have been another Ted Williams. He's got everything a great athlete has to have."
"Right now, today," said Gary Nixon, "Sam could probably run a 100-yard dash in darn near 10 seconds. He can bend down and pick a ball out of the cup without bending his knees. Does it all the time."
"He's an outdoorsman all the way," said Freddie Martin. "Hunting, fishing, golf—any sport. He loves baseball. He never misses a fight on television."
"Say," I said, getting a sudden thought, "there's one story I wanted to check with you men. The one about Sam playing with President Eisenhower and Jim Hagerty. Sam watches the President drive and then says, 'Mind if I offer you a little tip, Mr. President?' 'Why, no, I'd be grateful for any advice you'd give me, Sam,' says the President. Then Sam says, 'Well, stick out your fanny a little more, Mr. President.' "
Freddy Martin and Gary Nixon nodded solemnly. "True as gospel," said Freddie.
"Absolutely," nodded Gary Nixon, "except for one little detail."
"What's that?" I said.
"Why," said Gary, "I've never heard Sam use the word fanny."
The next night I was sitting on a bar stool at The Pines, a little nightclub near the Greenbrier. I had just attended a jam session in which Sam Snead had played his trumpet with the Four Populates, entertainers from the Greenbrier's Old White Club. Sitting there, I thought back over my month with Sam and then, suddenly, there he was, sliding onto the stool next to me. He had his hat on now and his horn was packed in its case and he was ready to go home. It was 3 o'clock in the morning.
"What will you do now, Sam?" I asked. "Hang around home a while, do a little turkey shooting, get yourself a deer when the season opens, play a few rounds with some of those well-heeled pigeons over at the Greenbrier?"
"Yeah," said Sam, "but I got a few other engagements here and there. Next week I got to go to Huntington to play in the West Virginia Open." (Sam beat out Arnold Palmer and Art Wall to win that one. He shot a 29 in a nine-hole practice round, then did it again during the tournament itself. Afterward, he stood on the patio outside the clubhouse and, out of sheer exuberance, kicked an awning rod at least seven feet high. He invited Arnold Palmer to match the feat, but Arnold politely declined.)
"Then what, Sam?"
"Well," said Sam, "I got to go down to Atlanta to open up one of my new golf centers there. Then I fly out to Hollywood to make some more of the Celebrity Golf TV shows. I go to Canada for a couple of exhibitions. Then back to Greenbrier and then to the Boca Raton Club in Florida for our big golf week. Maybe old Ted Williams will be around and we'll get in a little fishing."
"That's a lot of running around, Sam."
"January the fifth," Sam went on, "I take off for Israel. This English lord, Lord Rothschild, wants me to play the first round on Israel's first golf course. On the way back Fred Corcoran, my business manager, he says there's some Italian prince wants me to play an exhibition in Rome."
"Oh, my," I said, "that schedule should be very tiring. Won't it be nice, Sam, when you can slow down, let up a little, take things easy and not even take a lick at a snake—should one cross your path?"
Sam Snead's eyes widened. "Why," he said, "I don't expect that day ever to come. No ol' snake better try to get by me. What gave you that notion?"
Jerry Lewis mugs as Snead tees up (left) to start match in filmed television series.
Sam relaxes off camera with Randolph Scott, one of Hollywood's top golfers.
Sam has a tip for Milton Berle (left) and (below) Song and Dance Man Ray Bolger.
A pretty girl is cast as scorer (right), and Mickey Rooney plays the scene for yoks.