Most touring pros toil in obscurity. Some are known only for a particular moment, maybe a moment that produced an incredible shot that is burned in memory. Think Larry Mize at Augusta in 1987.
The game's greats often transcend the sport because they have the ability to build memorable moments, one on the other, over the course of their careers. The great ones have a knack for pulling off the right shot at just the right event.
Jack and Arnie are on every short list. So is Tiger, to be sure, and there are others, with names like Hogan, Snead, Nelson, Player, Trevino and Seve, and in recent years, Mickleson.
One gentleman who made a couple of pretty famous shots that served as bookends to his golfing life was Gene Sarazen. "The Squire," as he was known, was famous for more than just his ability to get the ball in the hole. Part of his legacy is for something other than his talent as a shotmaker.
You need only look in your own golf bag to see the influence Sarazen has had on the game. If you're playing the game properly, there should be a direct result of Sarazen's contribution right there among your 14 clubs.
Sarazen, who died 12 years ago this month at the age of 97, was an innovator in addition to being a great player. We ought to pay tribute to his inventive mind every time we save par from the bunker, or better yet, knock one in from a sandy grave. Same goes for every time we play a long par-5 by the book and set up a birdie with a crafty short-game shot. Think of all those times you've holed out from in close; Sarazen deserves a doff of the old golf cap from all of us.
Sarazen gets credit for the invention of the modern sand wedge. The story goes that he had gone up in an airplane with Howard Hughes, and when Hughes instructed, "Gene, pull back on that stick," an idea struck. Sarazen later said that "it flashed into my mind that some weight on the back of a niblick could make a club and a ball bounce out of the sand the same way that plane bounced into the air." Versatility may not have been foremost on his mind, but what a handy invention the sand wedge is. You can play it from the bunker, of course, but that ain't all: Play it from the collar, from the fairway, from the rough. Play it forward. Play it back, or stick it in the middle of your stance. Hit it full, or ¾ or ½. Chip with it. Pitch with it. Hit it high or low; add spin or take the spin off with a lob.
You can pure it for a full shot or belly it from the frog hair. You can back it up with spin, sometimes too much. Don't think you can? Try it on a tightly mowed surface. (Caution: It won't work on longer-cut fairways.)
Or, try one of the greatest shots ever invented: the low, hard running pitch.
Years ago, as a caddie, I switched from the LPGA to the PGA Tour. In two weeks with the men, I saw this wonderful shot hit over and over around the greens, one I had never seen hit by the women pros in two years. It's the shot that sometimes causes CBS's Gary McCord to call for "full-flaps" as the ball nears the hole.
First time I saw it, I thought my player had skulled it the way it took off for the hole hugging the ground, skidding along until it reached its target: the 2-foot circle around the hole. Then, as if by remote control, the brakes came on as the ball came to a screeching halt. You could almost hear the squeal as the ball stopped.
Greg Norman knows how important the sand wedge is - he lost two majors to the club in a matter of months. The first came at Inverness in 1986, when Bob Tway birdied the 72nd hole from the greenside bunker while Norman, playing alongside, had a front-row seat to witness his own major demise. The other loss came the following spring at the Masters, when Mize's miracle sand wedge rolled and rolled some 140 feet into the hole for a sudden-death victory.
As for the two golf shots that serve as mile markers of sorts for Sarazen's career, the first is one of the most famous in history. In 1935, in the second year of the Masters, Sarazen holed out on Augusta's par-5 15th with a 4-wood from more than 200 yards out. His improbable double eagle propelled him to victory the following day and became known as "The Shot Heard 'Round the World."
Much later in his life, at The British Open at Royal Troon in Troon, Scotland, in 1973, Sarazen, using a 5-iron, aced the famed "Postage Stamp" 8th hole. He was 71 on that day.
Sarazen was also the first to have won all four of golf's major championships. A fine player and great gentleman he was. His gift of the sand wedge is literally a game-changer, one of the most lasting contributions to the great game.
Sarazen stood only about 5-5, but with his nimble mind and graceful game, he is one of golf's giants. When you hear the name Gene Sarazen, think of those famous shots; think of the way he led off the Masters as the game's elder statesman with the ceremonial first shot for so many years in his trademark bucket hat and Plus-4 knickers. Think of the twinkle in his elfin eyes. And, think of him whenever you reach for your sand wedge to extricate yourself from trouble. For all of it, golfers around the globe say, thank you, Squire.
Story published Friday, May 6, 2011 ( Volume 6, Number 3 )