The Golden Double Eagle

Gene Sarazen has had an illustrious career, but he's still best known for one rare shot struck 50 years ago
April 08, 1985

On a Sunday afternoon 50 years ago this month, Gene Sarazen strode off the tee of the par-5 15th hole at Augusta National, heading for the spot, 250 yards away, where his drive had come to rest. Walking at Sarazen's side was Walter Hagen, the idol of his youth and the rival of his prime. The Masters tournament was in its second year, the Depression in its sixth. Sarazen, though he was 33 years old and had won the U.S. and British opens three years before, was viewed as a survivor from an older generation of golfers, a star of the '20s and a contemporary of Hagen's, but in fact Hagen was 10 years his senior. Craig Wood, who led that Masters by one stroke after 54 holes, had maintained his lead through the final round and was now playing the 72nd hole.

As Sarazen and Hagen neared their drives, a roar rose from the 18th green at the top of the hill, 600 yards away. Wood, the apparent winner, had closed out with a birdie that gave him a 73 for the day, 282 for the tournament and a three-stroke lead over Sarazen.

As Hagen's was the shorter of the two drives, he hit first, an iron shot that stopped safely short of the pond that fronts the 15th green. Sarazen, approaching his ball, asked his caddie, a tall black man known as Stovepipe, what was needed to beat Wood.

"Four threes, Mr. Gene," said Stovepipe. "Three, three, three, three." That meant eagle, par, birdie, birdie—an unlikely finish on any golf course, much less Bobby Jones's four-year-old Georgia masterpiece.

Sarazen's ball was resting on the right side of the fairway in a disheartening lie, nestled down in the grass rather than sitting up nicely on top of it. The distance to the pin—it had to be the pin—called for a spoon, but the close lie dictated the greater loft of a four-wood. Sarazen conferred with Stovepipe for a moment, then, taking his four-wood, stepped up to the ball. He glanced once toward the green, hooded the face of the club slightly to keep the ball low and swung with all the might that his sturdy 5'5" frame could muster.

As it happened, Jones, who had finished his own round, was watching Sarazen's shot from a mound 50 yards away. Jones later wrote, "His swing into the ball was so perfect and so free, one knew immediately that it was a gorgeous shot. I saw the ball strike the tongue of the green, bound slightly to the left, directly towards the hole, and then the whole gallery began dancing and shouting."

Sarazen had played a par-5 hole in two strokes for the rarest score in golf, a double eagle, the only one that has ever led to victory in a major tournament. Having made up the necessary three strokes with one shot, Sarazen parred his way in for a tie with poor Wood, and the next day, in a 36-hole playoff, shot 71-73 to beat Wood by five strokes.

The 1935 Masters was Sarazen's last win in a tournament of importance. Perhaps because of that, the double eagle took on greater significance than it would have otherwise. While Sarazen is too thoroughgoing a pragmatist to sneeze at a shot that served to extend his fame for decades, the double eagle did become something of an albatross. "Frankly, I'm tired of discussing it," he said in 1969. "You'd think I had never done anything else but hit that shot.... To me, the most interesting thing about the shot is that both Jones and Hagen saw it."

"How many people actually saw the double eagle, Gene?" asks Bob Taylor, a Chevrolet dealer who is Sarazen's partner in a local tournament at the Marco Island Country Club in Florida, where Sarazen has chaired the golf committee since 1965. The occasion is Sarazen's 83rd birthday, and the tournament is a benefit for one of his pet charities.

"Twenty-two," answers Sarazen, deadpan. Taylor is a friend, and the routine is a familiar one, staged for the entertainment of a gallery of well-wishers.

"How many people say they saw it, Gene?" asks Taylor.

"Twenty-two thousand." And Sarazen's face breaks into a wide smile, the same smile that began warming the hearts of galleries in 1922, when he was 20 years old and the winner of the U.S. Open. On that June day in Skokie, Ill. a group of shirt-sleeved fans, wearing straw boaters and ties in spite of the heat, hoisted the new champion onto their shoulders. With the USGA's silver loving cup clutched in the crook of his left arm, Sarazen smiled down into the Speed Graphics of the encircling newspaper photographers.

Sarazen is a living, breathing link to the days when American golf was young and galleries rooted hard for "homebreds" to show the English and the Scots that golf across the pond had come of age. The first to do it was Francis Ouimet, a young amateur and a former caddie from Brookline, Mass. In 1913, Ouimet, a gangling young man, beat Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, the British giants of the pre-World War I game, in a playoff for the U.S. Open title at The Country Club in Brookline. Ouimet's triumph electrified American golf fans everywhere, including one Eugenio Saraceni, an 11-year-old caddie in Harrison, N.Y. Saraceni was No. 99 in the caddie shed at the Apawamis Golf Club. Ed Sullivan, who was to become the variety show host of 1950s and '60s television, was caddie No. 98.

"The caddie master would holler for you by your number, and the locker room attendant would bring the bags up," says Sarazen, leaning back in the swivel chair behind his desk at Marco Island. "One day they called Eddy and me, and when we got to the clubhouse, up came two bags. One was a big new one with shiny new clubs. The other was a little Sunday bag with a bunch of old rusty clubs. A new bag meant a big tip, or so we thought, so Sullivan grabbed that one. And then the players came out. Eddy's man had a big fat belly and a cigar. The other one was a young fellow. I'll never forget. He was wearing white flannels and a gold watch chain. I fell in love with him right then. I didn't care whether I got a tip or not."

The fashionably dressed young man was Grantland Rice, the celebrated sportswriter, and he would become Sarazen's lifelong friend. The tip he gave his bedazzled young caddie was generous.

As the son of Italian immigrants, Sarazen understood poverty and hard work. His father was an embittered man, a carpenter by day, hampered by his difficulties with the English language, and a solitary reader of Italian classics by night. At the age of four, Sarazen followed his father around at work, picking up nails. When he was six he sold The Saturday Evening Post to commuters at the Harrison train station. At eight he found his first work as a caddie.

The caddie Saraceni became the golfer Sarazen when he made his first hole in one, at Beardsley Park, a nine-hole public course in Bridgeport, Conn. A local paper noted the event, and Sarazen tacked the clipping to his bedroom wall. "I'd never seen my name in print before," he says, squinting at the mementos on a wall in a Florida resort but seeing a small item from a 1918 newspaper.

"I'd look at it and look at it. Eugenio Saraceni. It looked to me like a violin player, not a golfer. So I changed it to Gene Sarazen, because there was no such name in the whole world, not even in Afghanistan."

As determined to be a golfer as his father was that he be a carpenter, Sarazen found a job "for $3 a day and a bowl of soup" assisting the professional at the public course in Bridgeport. From there he moved to Bridgeport's Brooklawn Country Club, then to his first job as a head professional, at a club in Titusville, Pa. All the while he played tournaments when he could and kept his eyes on the main chance. When it came, in the shape of his victory in the 1922 U.S. Open, Sarazen made the most of it.

Being young, an ex-caddie, like Ouimet, and a homebred, Sarazen was not merely a popular winner, he was a sensation. He was invited to the White House to meet Warren G. Harding, he signed a contract with the Wilson Sporting Goods Company, he played exhibition matches with the biggest stars of the day and he even beat Hagen, the legendary match player, head to head over 72 holes.

In 1922 and 1923 he won the PGA Championship. In 1924 he married Mary Henry, a pretty, blue-eyed blonde. He wintered in Florida and summered as resident pro at some of the better clubs in the Northeast. For a carpenter's son with a sixth-grade education, he was doing fine, but as a golfer who had won the U.S. Open he was stymied. He came close several times but did not win another major title for nine years.

As the '20s came to an end, two things happened that altered Sarazen's future. The stock market crashed, taking some of his financial security with it, and Bobby Jones, golfs last great amateur, won the Grand Slam and retired. Galleries dwindled, purses shrank, and Sarazen faced the prospect of having to win to survive.

For years he had been trying this and that, as golfers do when things are not going right, and his natural caddie's game had become muddled. In 1930 he even tried changing his grip, a golfer's last resort. Now, with the wolf at the door, he set to work in earnest, and out of his work emerged his old game and a new weapon—the sand wedge.

Sand irons were not new. Jones had used a scoop-shaped iron that was effective enough, but it was banned by the USGA in 1931. In the winter of 1932 Sarazen was living in New Port Richey on the west coast of Florida and taking flying lessons in a small Stinson plane. One day while taking off, he watched the tail of the plane drop as the plane rose and wondered whether a club might not have a similar effect on a ball in sand. "It gave me a funny sensation," he says. "I called the Wilson Company and asked them to send me 12 niblicks, and I went to the hardware store and bought solder and rasps and files and spent four or five hours each day filing away till I got it just right."

That winter Sarazen made his first money with his new weapon, betting gullible golfers like Howard Hughes $5 he could "get up and down in two from traps. By the time the British Open began in June 1932, he was ready. Fearful that the Royal and Ancient, the game's governing body in Britain, would ban the club, Sarazen told his caddie to replace it in the bag blade down, and at night he smuggled it into his hotel room under his polo coat. "We waltzed around," says Sarazen, chuckling at the memory. "I was seven or eight strokes in the lead at one time and I won by five."

The British Open had been Sarazen's bête noire, and winning it, after five tries, launched him on the best year of his golfing life. Two weeks later he also won the U.S. Open at the Fresh Meadow Country Club on Long Island.

Until 1965 the Open was played in three days, with the final two rounds on Saturday, one in the morning, the other after lunch. Sarazen had started the third round at Fresh Meadow five strokes off the lead. His tee shot to the 9th green was well hit, but it overshot the mark and ended up on the fringe at the rear of the green. Jones, who was watching from the veranda as Sarazen trudged toward the green, thought he looked tired and beaten. Then Sarazen hit a perfect chip, and his ball rolled down the green into the cup. "As the ball disappeared," Jones wrote, "I could see Gene dart forward as though he had been hit by a galvanic charge. His whole appearance altered in that one second."

Sarazen played the back nine in 32, ate lunch, and shot a 66 for the final round to win by three strokes. In 1950, Jones wrote of that 66, "I have never seen a round of golf as relentlessly spectacular." After 1933 Sarazen became a country squire with a passion for farming. He and Mary raised their children, Mary Ann and Gene Jr., on farms, first in Connecticut, then upstate New York, and Gene financed his farming ventures with tours and exhibitions and a few tournaments each year. His knickers and his knee socks, his short, stumpy body, his hair, neatly parted and slicked back, remain a familiar sight at the Masters, where every year he still plays a ceremonial nine holes on the first day of the tournament. "You know," he says, at once both wistful and proud, "I'm the only one who has played with everybody from Harry Vardon to Jack Nicklaus. Except Gary Player. I don't know why I missed him."

After a pause Sarazen is reminded of another story. He pares them to their bare essentials these days, conserving energy, maybe, or time, or both.

"I was playing with Hagen and the Prince of Wales at Royal St. George's in 1928, the year Hagen won there. When we got to the 9th hole the prince said, 'We should stop and have a libation.' We said, 'Why not?' So we went into the dining room and the headwaiter, in tails, whispered something to the prince. I couldn't hear him, but I knew what he was saying—'These men are professionals, and they aren't allowed in the clubhouse.' And the prince said, 'You either stop this nonsense or I'll take the Royal out of Royal St. George's.' "

Sarazen leans back in his chair and laughs and laughs.

PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISIN PHOTOLEONARD McCOMBE/LIFEMasters tournament directors Jones (center) and Clifford Roberts (right) honored Sarazen with this bridge at the 15th hole. PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINGene and Mary, on the balcony of their Marco Island condo above, were wed in 1924. PHOTO[See caption above.] PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINKnickers have been a Sarazen fashion for more than 50 years.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)