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My Shot: Doug Sanders

Congenial hit men, 190-proof moonshine and a bank shot off a freight train: Darkness and light from a pro who saw it all.

Doug Sanders

Doug Sanders, photographed May 8, 2003, in Houston.

August 2003

I missed a 30-inch putt on the last green that would have won the 1970 British Open. It's all anybody wants to talk about. I won 20 times on the PGA Tour, and if you gave me one birdie, four pars and a bogey wherever I could put them, I'd have five majors. But it's that putt everybody remembers. What can I say? It's what I remember most, too.

The cardinal sin in match play is to get complacent. The way to avoid that is to be cruel. You want to step on your opponent's throat and enjoy it while you're doing it. Don't let 'em up. Beat them as badly as possible. Even if your opponent is a nice guy, imagine that he wants to humiliate you, and give it back double.

We were too poor to make it. My dad walked five miles to work in Cedartown, Ga., for 50 cents a day. There wasn't enough to eat. No doctors. Lice in our hair. Ratty hand-me-down clothes. So many people in the Depression had it like that. The strange thing is, nobody complained. Everybody just floated through it, waiting for the nightmare to end.

I started out caddieing at a nine-hole course. I wanted to play so badly. One day the pro, Maurice Hudson, said I could hit balls over by a hedge, so long as I was careful. I'd hit a ball, then place the next ball at the very edge of the divot I'd just taken. I'd do this over and over until I'd made one long, 20-yard divot. I'd fix them, then start a new strip.

I chipped and putted for nickels and dimes against older guys, grown men. I never won. They chided me. "Come on, sucker," they'd say. They'd clean me out and I'd walk home in the dark, depressed and discouraged. The lightning bugs flashed around me; they looked like ghosts. I had to quit playing. But I'd show up at the course before the sun came up and practice. I'd practice more at night. Regardless of the weather, Sanders was there. After three months of practice and no gambling, I showed up with $5 and said, "Let's go." We chipped and putted, and I took all of their money. I walked home that night with $20 in my pocket, the most money I'd ever had. The lightning bugs didn't look like ghosts anymore. They looked like stars.

I quit drinking 10 years ago because it started going to my head more than it used to and was too hard on my body. All of my tricks — drinking a glass of milk every fourth cocktail to coat my stomach, for instance — didn't work anymore. Drinking is a young man's vice.

I wasn't a very good husband. 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 Knievel 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 on balance I'm fine with being Doug Sanders.

I don't know of two people who did it more their way than me and my friend, Frank Sinatra.

The more you get, the more you want.

Most of my career, I slept only four hours out of every 24. I didn't need more than that. I could lie down and tell myself, eight minutes, conk out, and be deep asleep for that eight minutes. I'd wake up feeling pretty refreshed. I didn't want to sleep a third of my life away. For me, going to sleep was like ruining a good dream.

Picking cotton for a nickel a day when I was 7 years old was murder. I hated it. The heat was intense and the cotton hulls chewed up your hands something awful. It was just like the movie, "Places in the Heart." One day I decided to take a shortcut. What happened was, when they planted the cotton, they would plant several watermelon in the fields along with it. When the workers got thirsty, they'd bust open a watermelon and have at it. One day I buried a little runt watermelon deep in my sack to make it weigh more. I poured a little water on the cotton just for good measure. When they put my sack on the scale, the owner caught me immediately. He began his lecture with, "Son, your ass is gonna wear out before my size-13 shoe will." He forced me to work for him until all the cotton was in. It taught me a lesson about doing a job the right way. I also swore I'd never pick cotton again.

In a money game at Cedartown one day, a guy named Dallas Weaver found his ball behind a tree. A lot of money was riding. We thought he was dead. There were train tracks running by our course, and just then a freight train came through. Dallas Weaver turned sideways, took some kind of low iron and banked a ball off the side of a freight car and almost onto the green. That was 50 years ago, and I've never seen anyone top that shot.

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