Sanders shows his true colors

By Bill Fields Photos by Robert Seale
June 25, 2007

Doug Sanders was the pro without a curfew or much of a backswing. His closet was out of an Easter parade, and his hues often were the news. "The two most frequent questions on tour were, 'What did Arnold Palmer shoot?' and 'What's Doug Sanders wearing?' " says the 20-time PGA Tour winner, whose loud clothes and late nights often obscured just how good he could play.

"They used to say the only time I left the fairway was to get a phone number," says Sanders, 73 and semiretired in Houston.

His fairways-and-greens game,produced by a compact action made from a wide stance that he styled taking surreptitious swings as a kid-caddie in rural Georgia, was never better than in 1961. Sanders won five tournaments, tied for second place in the U.S. Open at Oakland Hills, and finished third in the PGA Championship at Olympia Fields—two of his 13 top-10 career finishes in major championships.

Sanders' biggest victory that season came in May at the prestigious Colonial National Invitation in Fort Worth, where his 281 total in windy conditions bested Kel Nagle by one stroke. "Colonial wasn't extremely long, but it was a shotmaker's course," says Sanders. "You couldn't go to sleep at all or you would find yourself in trouble. When the wind blew, all the bookies bet on me because I could keep it down beneath the wind. I could play any shot at any time."

Fellow pros knew how much talent Sanders had, but a fast lifestyle became his calling card. He ran with Frank Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack and loved the wee hours and all that came with them. "I don't think you can live the way I did and look back and not have some regrets," he says. "I practiced hard, but if I had left off all the partying I did and worked harder, no telling what I could have done."

There is the matter of the major he never won—especially the 1970 British Open at St. Andrews, where he missed a 30-inch putt on the 72nd hole, then lost a playoff to Jack Nicklaus the next day. "I came so close," he says. "I had all the opportunites. If I had won one of those major championships, I would have been a giant in the clothing industry."

As it was, Sanders once owned 359 pairs of golf and dress shoes, many custom-dyed to match his vast rainbow of a wardrobe—so different from the meager circumstances of his boyhood in Cedartown, Ga., where his family picked cotton. "I didn't have my own shoes until I was about 10 or 11 years old," he says. "Had hand-me-downs—two lefts, two rights. I'd cut the toes out and put tape on 'em."

When he finally had a reversal of fortune in a money game with his fellow caddies who used to empty his pockets, he had enough cash for a new pair of tennis shoes. "If I ever strutted," he says, "that was probably the biggest strut I ever had. That was one of the most proud moments of my life—I had my own shoes."

Sanders, who has been divorced three times, misses his absent friends from the high life. But having overcome torticollis, a painful condition in which the head and chin are tilted in opposite directions—the discomfort had him considering ending his life before a 1995 operation gave him relief—he wants to stay busy.

"I haven't had a drink in 14 years or a cigarette in 25 years," he says. "I do about 10 outings a year, but I'd like to do more. I can still hit it straight as a string. I can turn it around the trees, do anything with the ball. And I'm a good storyteller."