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The Old Masters: Gene Sarazen Reinvents His Clubs and Self

When 10-year-old Eugenio Saraceni was diagnosed with emphysema, his doctor recommended he spend plenty of time in the open air. The boy decided his best chance for recovering his health, and earning his keep, was to caddy at the local golf course. In time, he picked up the game and, by age 20, he had won the U.S. Open and the PGA championships. Later, he became one of the few golfers to win the Open, PGA, British Open, and the Masters.

A large part of his success came from his willingness to reinvent his game and himself. For instance, he overcame country-club prejudice against immigrants by redesigning his name, changing it to the less-Italian-sounding Gene Sarazen. (For a while, he even tried passing himself off as a Scottish MacSarazen.)

Another innovation came in the late ’20s, with his invention of the sand wedge—a club found in any respectable golf bag today.

For years I had been afflicted with that dread malady of the links which, for lack of a better term, I call “trap phobia.” It’s a virulent plague that strikes at the hearts of men and turns them to stone… Nearly every championship is decided in and out of traps, with the result that you either master your niblick before a title event or you might as well start back home and save the caddie fees.

A “niblick,” for the great majority of us who don’t know, was a club with a slightly angled face resembling a modern nine iron.

Personally, I wasn’t able to save anything—neither fees nor strokes nor reputation. I lived through some pretty desperate years that way, and then, suddenly, the answer came at a time and place when I wasn’t thinking about golf at all.

The scene is Roosevelt Field, Long Island, the year 1928; I was idly watching the planes land and take off, without the faintest thought of golf… I had noticed that as the pilot started to take off he lowered the rudder to get the plane in flying position. And within a few moments I was murmuring absently to myself: “How about a rudder on the back of my niblick?”

The result was a special niblick with the rear edge one-quarter of an inch lower than the front edge of the blade… it is designed with a rudder like an airplane, and its effect was amazing. I don’t fear the traps now.

Sarazen also designed a four wood that enabled him to make one of the most famous shots in golf history. It was during the 1935 Masters tournament, and he was approaching the fifteenth hole three strokes behind the leader, Craig Wood, who had completed play. Sarazen still thought he had a chance to catch up over the next three holes. In fact, he completely passed Wood with his next shot.

I found myself with a downhill lie, one of the toughest of fairway shots, but I still had a hunch up my sleeve or, rather, in the bag, to cover the situation. That was my club especially designed to offset the effects of this awkward shot. Selecting this club, I stood slightly ahead of the ball and toed the club head in at address. Then, as I came down into the shot, I drew the face of the club slightly across the ball in order to get it high enough to carry the water.

The ball sailed over 230 yards, clearing the water hazard, onto the green, and into the cup.

It was called the greatest shot ever made in a pinch; also some other things not quite so complimentary, there doubtless being an element of luck in holing a 230-yard shot from the fairway… What was I thinking of? Somebody asked me that after the round, and the answer was simple enough. “I was thinking of getting 230 yards,” said I grimly. “And I got it exactly to the last inch. Lucky? Oh, yes; quite lucky. But it was a good shot, hit exactly the way I wanted to hit it.”

More impressive than his mastering of the game, though, was Sarazen’s mastering of himself.

Gene Sarazen on the Fairway

Straight as an arrow. Watching the ball fly down the fairway for a birdie.

At that time my temper was inflammable and quite beyond control. A bad shot was something to drive me into a tantrum, with the result that my reputation for club-throwing somewhat exceeded my prestige as a golfer. I recall, for instance, that I used a member’s putter during one round of the course in which I missed all putts from three to thirty feet.

The first thing I did was to head for the pro’s shop. The next was to put the putter in a vise and saw it into sections. This sounds crazy as I tell it now, but it actually happened. The third thing was to leave the sawed-off sections in the member’s locker. I later paid him for the club, but I hardly think he appreciated the spirit of the thing. It didn’t seem to occur to me at the time that he might have cherished the club.

Anyhow, I was so boisterous around a golf course that everybody got a laugh when I was paired with Bobby Jones for the first two rounds of the national open championship at the Columbia Country Club, Washington, D. C., in 1921. They thought we would wind up in each other’s beards, Bobby being quite a man for temperamental outbursts in those days. The result was that we made a private bet, whereby each was to forfeit five dollars to the other every time he threw a club, and the funny thing was that not a dollar changed hands for the two days. I don’t know what this did for Jones, but it convinced me of one thing: If it was going to cost me money, I wasn’t the man to lose my temper.

That was the beginning. The finish of Sarazen-the-fanatic came through my wife, Mary, and Walter Hagen, an arch-opponent. My wife shamed me into a degree of decent behavior on a golf course by telling me how the gallery murmured inaudibly and then walked away in tacit disapproval after one of my periodic outbursts. “Every time you get riled and show it,” she said quietly, “you lose some friends. I know you’re only mad at yourself. They don’t. They think you’re a bad sport.”

I’m not insensible to the importance of the men and women who pay for the show and thus make my living possible. It occurred to me, in fact, that I had as much privilege to step out of my part and rant at destiny as would an actor onstage in suddenly abandoning his character and haranguing the audience.

Hagen did the rest—by precept. I have played many a round with him and don’t mind conceding several points, including the fact that there is no great devotion between us. But in one respect I have to move well back and let him stand alone. As a golfer who can take the good with the bad, he’s a positive standout. I’ve seen him get the worst breaks a man ever had and never for a moment betray the fact that he had noticed anything out of the ordinary. To one of Hagen’s sublime self-faith, the alibi is simply not to be thought of.

This may be regarded as a surprising tribute, coming as it does from a man who openly stated before the 1933 championship at Chicago that Hagen belonged in an armchair and who, in turn, had to accept the ignominy of a rather grim jest by Hagen before the end of the tournament.

He waited, in fact, for the final round and the certainty that I was to get nowhere on those abominations known as the creeping-bent greens. Then he called a clubhouse attendant, gave him five dollars and an armchair and told him to take the latter out to me on the fifteenth tee.

Read “I Play Hunches,” by Gene Sarazen, August 31, 1935 [PDF].

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  • Frank James Davis

    Sarazen turned smart, able and dedicated into another great American success story.