Samuel Jackson Snead never cared for his nickname, “Slammin Sammy.” Snead preferred “Swingin Sam” because, as he explained to Golf Digest shortly before his 2002 death, “that was the name that showed off my true strengths: smoothness and rhythm.”
How smooth was Snead? In 1983, a college golf coach working on his doctoral thesis attempted to determine the perfect golf swing based on a computer composite of 10 prominent PGA Tour players. In his search for perfection, the coach realized the stick figure on the computer screen — we’re talking 1983 technology here — took a swing virtually identical to the swing of Sam Snead.
“Watching Sam Snead practice hitting golf balls,” the late touring pro John Schlee once said, “is like watching a fish practice swimming.”
An apt description of Snead’s swing would be “textbook,” except Snead didn’t learn from a textbook. He taught himself as a dirt-poor child in Virginia. His first clubs were tree branches.
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Snead’s career was notable for its longevity. He won a record 82 PGA events, and won them in five different decades — between the 1930s and 1980s — another record. And yet the most prolific champion in American golf history never won the nation’s oldest and most prestigious championship, the U.S. Open.
The list of those who’ve also been denied an Open trophy resembles a Who’s Who of Golf: Greg Norman, Nick Price, Nick Faldo, Seve Ballesteros, Vijay Singh and, of course, Phil Mickelson, whose six second-place finishes have only intensified the frustration.
Mickelson owned a one-shot lead after 71 holes in the 2006 Open at Winged Foot, only to plunk a hospitality tent with his drive on No. 18. Rather than taking his medicine by pitching his next shot onto the fairway, Mickelson channeled Clark Kent in a crisis and went for the green. He hit a tree.
“I just can’t believe I did that,” Mickelson said after his double-bogey 6 left him in a three-way tie for second, one shot behind Geoff Ogilvy. “I’m such an idiot.”
Snead was similarly flummoxed at the Philadelphia Country Club in 1939, before leaderboards were standard equipment at the U.S. Open. Hearing a gallery roar from afar, Snead assumed he needed a birdie on the par-5 finishing hole. He was misinformed. A par would’ve earned him the championship, and a bogey would have forced a playoff.
Snead ended up with a triple-bogey. Faulty club judgment after his drive landed in the rough — he used a two-wood, putting the ball in a bunker — turned what should have been victory lap into a wheels-flying-off spill.
“What happened,” Snead would recall, “has haunted me ever since. When you need a bogey-6 to tie for the U.S. Open and you make an 8, you’re ready to take the gas pipe.”
A runner-up four times in the Open, Snead had a storybook chance to avenge that 1939 collapse 20 years later, at Winged Foot. A third-round score of 67 put him four strokes behind eventual champion Billy Casper, but Snead finished with a five-over par 75 on Sunday, and never again seriously contended for the championship he most coveted.
Golf is nothing if not bewildering. Snead’s swing was technically flawless, but a flawless swing doesn’t work wonders if, say, the wrong club is pulled from the bag. And while a flawless swing will put anybody in position to win anywhere, it doesn’t much help with draining a clutch back-nine putt on a Sunday afternoon, when the whole golf world is watching.
“You Can’t Always Get What You Want” are lyrics eternally associated with Mick Jagger, rock music’s version of Sam Snead. (At age 71, Jagger is still touring with the Rolling Stones. When Snead was 71, he fired a 12-under par 60 at The Homestead in Hot Springs, Virginia.)
Snead didn’t get what he always wanted. Regarded as something of a folk hero by fans — he was the first pro golfer to score lucrative endorsement deals — his everyday-man-in-the-straw-hat persona concealed a crusty edge.
“It goes without saying that my biggest disappointment was never winning the U.S. Open,” he told Golf Digest in 2002. “I’m reminded of it all the time. It hurts when people remember you for the things you didn’t do, rather than the things you did do.”
Snead did this: He developed a swing so fluid that a fellow PGA Tour competitor likened his practice shots to a fish practicing swimming.
If those words didn’t ease the despair of never winning a U.S. Open, Swingin Sam wasn’t listening.