At first it was like packing up a golf museum and taking it on the road, in case a lot of folks out there thought Arnold Palmer had invented the game and then lost it to Jack Nicklaus at one of those places like Pensacola or Pinehurst. If so, the Legends of Golf tournament, which took place last week near Austin, Texas, would show them different. Ben Hogan's white cap and cigarette might be missing, but on display would be such treasured relics as Gene Sarazen's knickers, Sam Snead's straw hat. Tommy Bolt's chin, Jimmy Demaret's wit, Cary Middlecoff's dental drill and all sorts of memorabilia from the sport that gave us beltless slacks and three-toned shoes. As such, it was the best of ideas for a game with so much sameness on the professional tour—week after week of Gary Player's putter and wondering who Lon Hinkle is.
The only thing modern about the Legends was the prize money. In three rounds, 24 gentlemen over 50, many of them old enough to gamble with their social security checks, competed for $400,000, nearly the equivalent of the purse money in back-to-back Kemper Opens. It was nice to see nostalgia rewarded, which at one time happened only at the Masters. The best-ball format was such that even the last-place twosome could earn $20,000, or more cash than the leading money-winner made for a year's labors in the days when Hogan and Snead first started cashing in.
And speaking of Snead, the Legends provided a surprisingly thrilling finish once old Sam started sniffing all of that Nicklaus-type cash lying around lovely, tree-shaded Onion Creek Country Club, a golf course planted in the center of a community development about 12 miles south of Austin.
Snead and money have been close friends for years. Sam has won more golf tournaments than anyone who ever picked up a club, and not just because he has probably played in more of them, being so basically indestructible that at the age of 65 he can read the fine print on an endorsement contract without the aid of eyeglasses. Sam won tournaments because he has always had that classic swing and enough natural talent for half a dozen pros. His partner at Onion Creek, Gardner Dickinson, more or less went along for the ride when old Sam took us back to the days of yore—and pretty much took over the tournament late Sunday afternoon. He birdied each of the last three holes for a one-stroke victory over the Australian entry of Peter Thomson and Kel Nagle, who had seemed for most of the last round to be turning the Legends tournament into a tag team British Open.
May 7, 1978
And so Sam Snead has won another golf tournament. Why not? He was the most legendary legend in the field. He could only have been tied in that category if Ben Hogan had been physically well enough to compete, or perhaps more interested in the experiment. One has to remember that Snead's name still keeps popping up on leader boards in regular tour events, as if he were planning to remain a regular part of the American sporting scene forever. This is an immortal mortal who won a tournament over younger men as recently as 1965, when he took the Greensboro Open at the age of 52. Better still, this is a man who tied for third—third, for God's sake—in the 1974 National PGA, at the age of 62.
And now they were putting Snead up against people close to his own age. And giving him a chance to win $50,000 for three days' work. And letting him ride in a cart. Heck, it was almost like telling John Dillinger you knew a bank where the cashiers went home for lunch.
What it came down to, finally, was whether Sam could make one more birdie on the very last hole as he stood out there in the Texas sun, fondling his trusty pitching wedge. The last hole at Onion Creek is a 590-yard par 5. Snead had kept his first two shots between the trees and now he had a dainty little 73-yard pitch shot for a birdie attempt. He put yet one more of those instruction-book swings on it and the ball began inhaling the flagstick. The shot came down right over the pin and spun back with all of the accumulated magic of Snead's years, stopping about three feet from the cup. And of course Sam rolled it in with the non-yip, semi-croquet putting stroke that he adopted several years ago as the best remedy for the aging golfer's difficulties on the greens, where nerves are likely to have become a greater problem than reading the breaks.
Actually, Snead and Dickinson had been, as Sam put it later, "in the bag," meaning they had it lost with about five holes to play. Nagle, who has long been noted for his wizardry on the greens, had knocked in everything but Jimmy Demaret's latest cocktail. The Aussies had led after the first round with a six-under-par 64. After the second round, they trailed by three when Snead and Dickinson shot an eight-under 62. But Nagle birdied five of the first 13 holes on Sunday, thus giving his team a one-stroke lead. There was roughly one hour during the day when it appeared that the foreigners would surely get away with most of the money.
This was when Gardner reminded Sam that he was the No. 1 legend on the premises. "My little partner kept bumping it into the fairway and giving me a chance to swing at it," Snead said. "And he kept telling me I could make those putts."
Nothing gets a golfer pumped up like "killing a rattlesnake," in the words of Snead. It was at the 13th hole that he had to do it. He had to make a downhill 12-footer to save a par for the team, or they might have been as far from Nagle and Thomson as Austin is from Sydney.
"Downhill 12 feet and left-to-right break is four-putt distance for me," Snead said. "I been known to knock them kind to Virginia. But it just trickled in. And Gardner said if that could happen, there wasn't no tellin' what else might."
What else did was Sam's nine-foot birdie that rammed into the cup at the par-4 16th, and the eight-foot birdie that dropped for him at the par-3 17th, drawing Snead and Dickinson into a tie with Nagle and Thomson, leaving the four with one legendary hole to play. Snead's last birdie put the winners 17 under par with a score of 193.
Nothing better could have happened to the Legends than for Sam Snead to have won the inaugural. Perhaps more than any other, his name in the headlines will enhance the future of the event, and it deserves a giddy future. The two men most responsible for getting it started are Fred Raphael and Jimmy Demaret, old friends and coworkers from a TV series called Shell's Wonderful World of Golf. Raphael, a promoter, sold the idea to NBC, and Demaret sold it to such legends as Julius Boros, Bob Rosburg, Jay and Lionel Hebert, Chick Harbert, Roberto de Vincenzo, Jack Burke Jr., Ralph Guldahl, Paul Runyan and Lewis Worsham.
In the rest of the field, in addition to the legends present, there were also a few friends of Demaret. A few self-proclaimed legends, uninvited, were missing, such as Charlie Sifford, the legendary black golfer, and Art Wall, who perhaps had more impressive credentials than, let's say, the lone amateur team of Dale Morey and Ed Tutwiler, or Bob Toski, Pete Nakamura and even Mike Souchak, who never won a major tournament, while Wall took a Masters.
But the idea was to keep it small and exclusive in the beginning. The future calls for expanding the field and perhaps moving the tournament to other courses. Fred Raphael even dreams of taking it overseas one day to so romantic a venue as St. Andrews. No wonder he said the chances were less than 50-50 that it would return to Onion Creek in 1979, although the city of Austin warmed to the festival as it would have to a touchdown drive by the Texas Longhorns, and the club provided an overdose of hospitality to every visitor.
Demaret tried desperately to get Hogan to team up with him again, as they had so often in the old Inverness Four-Ball. No doubt Hogan would have doubled the gate and upped NBC's Nielsens. But Ben probably knew old Sam would birdie those last three holes, and he had seen enough of that in the past.
But, all in all, thanks to Sam, it was a legendary finish to the first Legends tournament. Golfers everywhere should be rooting for it to prosper as long as the cashmere and the alpaca.