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The Golfing Peacock Who Nearly Killed Dean Martin

by Owen Blackhurst
21 July 2013 2 Comments

He grew up dirt-poor, dressed in every colour of the rainbow, partied with Evel Knievel and The Rat Pack and had vodka delivered to him on course. But he'll always be remembered for missing that putt in 1970...

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It’s Sunday July 12 1970, and Doug Sanders is stood on the 18th green at St Andrews Old Course. After getting up and down from the Road Hole bunker on the famed 17th, he’s followed his straight, arcing drive with a chip over the perilous Valley of Sin that has come to rest 30ft from the cup. Two putts, he’s thinking. Two putts to wipe away three long years without a victory; two putts to claim his first major at the age of 36; two putts that will see him join Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, Bobby Locke and Peter Thomson as winners of an Open at St Andrews.

The first putt is good. On line and well struck, it comes agonisingly to rest 30 inches from the hole. As playing partner Lee Trevino rolls in his own birdie putt to claim third place, Sanders looks at the crowd, stares skywards and imagines the headlines. He’s had to qualify just to be here and this would be as sweet as it gets. Standing in the crowd is his wife Scotty and his friend Buddy Greco, the famed Las Vegas lounge singer. As Doug approaches his ball it’s too much for them. Buddy looks to the floor and Scotty hides her face.

With an audience of millions looking on, Doug breathes deeply and begins to take his putter backwards. Just before the pendulum stroke swings back towards the ball, he jerks and stops abruptly. A speck of dust has blown into his line, and as he steps away with his left foot to remove the obstacle, his stance changes slightly. Four-thousand miles away in Fort Worth, Texas, Ben Hogan leaps out of his chair. “Walk away Sanders!” he shouts at his TV screen, “walk away!”

Unfortunately for Doug, he couldn’t hear Hogan and, more importantly, he hadn’t noticed the change in his stance. With the gallery tittering nervously, he hunched over the ball for a second time, drew his putter back and rolled the ball past the right edge of the cup. The crowd gasped as Sanders crumpled in front of the world. In the ensuing playoff, Jack Nicklaus held off his late charge to win by a single stroke and then nearly brained Sanders when he launched his putter skywards. A barely visible speck of dust had kept Doug Sanders from his seat at the top table. A speck of dust had ended his career.

The young Sanders didn’t have a pair of shoes until he was eight-years-old

George Douglas Sanders was born on July 24 1933 in Cedartown, Georgia, in the middle of the Great Depression. His family were so poor that his father had to walk 10 miles a day to get to work, all for a measly 50 cents a day. Food was sparse, medical care non-existent, and he and his two brothers had to live with lice in their hair, working back-breaking hours in the cotton fields and wearing hand-me-down clothes. In an era of moonshine brewers, panhandlers and gamblers, the young Sanders didn’t have a pair of shoes until he was eight-years-old.

Once on his feet though, he began to walk the five miles to a nine-hole track in Cedartown to work as a caddy. Instantly enrapt by the game, he pestered the professional, Maurice Hudson, into letting him practice out of sight of the members. “He said as long as I was careful, I could hit balls by a hedge. I’d hit a ball, then place the next ball at the very edge of the divot I’d taken and do this over and over until I’d made one long, 20-yard divot. I’d fix them, then start a new strip.”

Even wearing hand-me downs Doug Sanders was a handsome kid and it was around this time, aged 11, that he lost his virginity in a ditch. He also began to chip and putt against grown men for nickels and dimes. “I never won, ‘c’mon sucker,’ they’d say. They’d clean me out and I’d make that long walk dark, depressed and discouraged. I never got tired of walking up that road, I just got tired of walking up it broke.”

After three months of practice and no gambling, Sanders returned to the course with $5 and took all of their money, “I walked home that night with $20 in my pocket, it was the most money I’d ever had.”

With a further six years of practice behind him, Doug entered and won the National Junior Chamber of Commerce Tournament and was accepted on a golf scholarship by the University of Florida. Away from the backwoods of Georgia, he put the Depression behind him and, in 1956, became the first amateur to win the Canadian Open.

Colourfully dressed and exciting to watch, he was given the moniker ‘The Peacock of the Fairways’ by the press

1957, his first season as a professional ended winless, but he won in both 1958 and 1959, finished second by a stroke in the USPGA in the latter and, with a bit of money in his pocket, began making up for all those days spent in tattered rags by developing a love for clothes and the high-life. He had a car phone in 1959, he flew by jet, and he was divorced twice between 1957 and 1960. Colourfully dressed and exciting to watch, he was given the moniker ‘The Peacock of the Fairways’ by the press. “Clothes make the man,” he said. “I went to great lengths to blend the colours of my clothes. I’d go to the pharmacy and look at all the colourful capsules, choose the ones I liked and send the top half of an empty yellow capsule with the bottom half of a blue one to the factory where my shirts were made. Oh my clothes were beautiful.”

Out of the 20 years that he spent on the PGA Tour, 1961 was his banner season. He won five times that year, tied for 11th at The Masters, third at the USPGA and again finished second by a single stroke to Gene Littler at the US Open. America was a good place to be at the beginning of the ‘60s, especially for a small town boy made good with a taste for liquor and lavender. The Rat Pack were in full wing and Doug was quickly assimilated into the gang. He spent a lot of time talking to Sinatra, both in person and on the phone. He would regularly pop round to Bob Hope’s house to shoot the shit and he almost killed Dean Martin with his homemade moonshine.

“The moonshine we made was not clear like normal alcohol, it was the colour of gasoline,” he remembers, “it’s about as powerful as gasoline too, about 190 proof. I always kept a gallon or two for guests to try. ‘Take tiny sips’, I said to Dean, but he was sceptical and took a huge mouthful, swallowed half and was about to swallow the other half when I went to light a cigarette. Dean’s eyes got big, and he spat it out, ‘don’t light that smoke,’ he cried, ‘you’ll blow my head off.’ My moonshine is not to be trifled with.”

He remained serious about his golf though, and with that short, quick swing – a product of hitting shots while whichever member he was caddying for was out of sight – he continued to pick up wins, paychecks and plaudits. He beat both Hogan and Palmer in playoffs, featured in Time magazine with the strapline ‘Doug Sanders wins at golf, girls and living’, and was named as one of Esquire’s ‘top-ten jocks’. Life was good.

He readily admits that he had beautiful women stationed around the course bringing him vodka and tonics

But there was always an itch that he couldn’t scratch and, as itches go, winning a major championship is as big as it gets. As well as his two single stroke losses in 59’ and 61’, he’d been constantly in and around the top 20 for the first half of the ‘60s, yet if there was one year other than 1970 when he could have kicked the monkey into touch, then it was 1966. In all that year he won three times on the PGA Tour, he finished two shots off top-spot at the Masters, tied for eighth at The US Open, tied for sixth at the USPGA and, amazingly, finished second – by a stroke yet again – to Jack Nicklaus at The Open at Muirfield.

1966 was also the year when, on July 24 – Doug’s 33rd birthday – ‘Champagne’ Tony Lema died when his plane ran out of fuel and crashed. Sanders was meant to be on the plane but changed his mind at the last minute.

For someone who loved to party it’s surprising that he went on the wagon each season until he won a tournament. What’s less surprising is that he came out of the blocks and did, “most of his winning early.” “It was Doug who taught me how,” says reformed alcoholic Brian Barnes. “I remember the first time I played with Sanders, his golf towel was soaked in vodka.” He readily admits that he had beautiful women stationed around the course bringing him vodka and tonics.

These anecdotes make great reading, but being pissed out of your face rarely has a positive effect on your game. And though he won once in 1967, the disappointment of 1966, coupled with his drinking, had an adverse effect on Doug and he entered the wilderness. Sure, he was still out there, still colourful and still a favourite, but his game went to shit and he had three winless years before his heartbreaking loss in the 1970 Open. He did manage to win the 1972 Kemper Open – his 20th PGA Tour victory – but that loss to Nicklaus undeniably finished him as a top-tier golfer.

“If I could jump in a time machine and go back to the ‘60s, I’d do it in a second,” he said, “Golden years, my ass.”

That savage swing of his was also taking its toll, and in between regular cortisone injections, he would play as much as possible, though it was clear he wouldn’t be adding to his 20 tournament victories.

In July 1983 he turned 50 and entered the Seniors Tour, and despite finishing second, fourth, six and first in the opening four events, that was that. For a decade he continued to turn up, but slipped gradually down the money list with each passing year. That speck of dust had turned into an immovable mountain.

In 1988, with an impressive list of charity work behind him, he set up the Doug Sanders Celebrity Golf Classic on the Seniors Tour. The event was a success, with innumerable charities benefiting from the proceeds. Then, in 1993, he suffered a double blow. A Houston TV station insinuated that the principal benefactor of the Celebrity Classic was, in fact, Sanders himself, and though this was unproven, his $20,000 a month management fee did seem a little high. But if losing his tournament dealt a hammer blow to his cherished public profile, then it paled in comparison to his next challenge. Turning 60, he began to twitch uncontrollably. His head would jerk right and his hands would jump left and he had to bite his shirt to keep his eyes over his ball, and his head now sat at a funny angle. The doctors diagnosed Torticollis and he was told that surgery was his only option.

“I hurt too damn bad to hug the pretty women,” he said, “I wanted to die.” He will of course always be remembered for that missed putt, but it’s worth noting that there have only been six golfers who have turned professional since 1957 and won more than 20 PGA tournaments. He’s won more times than Tom Kite, Ben Crenshaw, Fred Couples, Payne Stewart and Corey Pavin. Yet they won majors.

Never one to feel sorry for himself, Sanders is enshrined as a true ‘60s icon, an American original who shook off a tough upbringing to enjoy every second of every day with more personality in his little finger than most of today’s pros. But when you burn the candle at both ends for so long, there’s not going to be much left in the middle.

“I didn’t lead a normal life. I was busy drinking, partying, chasing women, hitting balls and running with Evel Kneivel and The Rat Pack”

He and Scotty divorced after 27 years in the mid-90s, and though he makes sporadic public appearances, he spends most of his time at his house in Houston. Littered with memorabilia from his playing days, he can spend hours reciting where and when each signed glove, picture and magazine came from.

He may have regrets, but he says he wouldn’t change a thing. He’s proud of his record as a golfer, glad that he made up for a difficult childhood by living the life of a film star and honest enough to speak openly about his faults. “I wasn’t a very good husband,” he said, “I was a decent father but domestic life was not my strong suit.

I didn’t lead a normal life. I was busy drinking, partying, chasing women, hitting balls and running with Evel Kneivel and The Rat Pack. I assumed there would be a few regrets and I was right. But I also led the life I chose so I’m fine with being Doug Sanders.”

Doug Sanders was a pioneer. Yes, there are less talented golfers with majors in their lockers, but there are also far more talented players with a stack of trophies and no memories. He was a product of his upbringing and made the most of everything. Golf could do with a few Doug Sanders to illuminate the current era, yet he knows where he’d prefer to be.

“If I could jump in a time machine and go back to the ‘60s, I’d do it in a second,” he said, “Golden years, my ass.”

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dino martin peters 3:19 pm, 23-Jul-2012

Mr. Blackhurst, likes what a simply stunnin' review of the life and times of Mr. Doug Sanders. And, the bit of remembrance 'bout our Dino is likes totally totally fabulous. Know that the Dino tale is being shared this day with all the pallies gathered 'round ilovedinomartin.

charles brown 5:42 pm, 31-Dec-2013

Wattabout Wie and Gulbis? They deserve majors too... the bastids... the bastids!

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