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Least popular tour pro, or did we all get him wrong?

From the archive (September 1984): The legendary pro-am story that haunted J.C. Snead

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Sam Snead was born the last of six children in the hills of Virginia near Hot Springs, where he started as the assistant pro at The Homestead and built his home on farmland nearby. He came from a sprawling, athletic family of Virginians, larger than life, like one legendary uncle who stood 7-foot-9 and weighed 365 pounds. Sam’s most famous kin was nephew Jesse Carlyle Snead, who showed promise playing baseball for the Washington Senators farm system before turning to professional golf in 1968. An eight-time winner on the PGA Tour (and later four-time winner on the Champions Tour), J.C. had a mixed reputation as not being a very nice guy to draw in pro-arms—even Sam was ambivalent about him—but friends would tell you the opposite. Outrageous myths began to grow around J.C.’s unpopularity. Were they honest or unfair assessments? We decided to investigate.

The writer we chose for the job was a skilled profiler, Mickey Herskowitz, who has written 50 books, including the varied autobiographies of Dan Rather, Bette Davis, Mickey Mantle and Howard Cosell. Born in Houston, the former columnist for the Houston Post and Houston Chronicle spent days with J.C. at his home in Hot Springs and came back with a full report. Today, Mickey is 87 years old, still in Texas. Snead is 79 and moved to Hobe Sound, Fla. This story appeared in September 1984. —Jerry Tarde

Once you have said that J.C. Snead is a real live nephew of his Uncle Sam, the connection kind of breaks down. Sam Snead is part of the glory of golf, an original, a name that ranks with Hagen, Hogan and Nelson among the Old Masters.

J.C. (for Jesse Carlyle) Snead may or may not be the least popular player on the tour today, one of the 10 toughest interviews, or one of the five most in need of a Dale Carnegie course. It is troubling enough that some people think so, and these conclusions have appeared in a distinguished national magazine (this one). I mean, has the media ever lied to you?

Of course, a lot of athletes would have taken that rap and run with it. That is, they would have advertised themselves as The Golfer You Love to Hate, and hired Howard Cosell’s PR man, and effected a scowl that would have made Mr. T look sweeter than Michael Jackson.

Do you know what would have happened? People would have started to write and talk about what a stand-up guy J.C. is, a rugged individualist. They would have dug around for the soft center under the hard crust. He might have published a book and become an analyst on golf telecasts and starred in a Lite Beer commercial.

It’s the American way.

But none of this, and less, has happened to J.C. Snead. During a period of what he sees as bad press and bad karma, his game and health and purse have all suffered. In the past 12 months he has earned almost nothing in fringe monies. “I have gotten a reputation for being a hard-ass,” he says, “and I think it is undeserved.”

That sentence is pure J.C. Snead: direct, earthy, a little wistful. It is almost as if he had been taking a test ever since he turned pro in 1964. And now, at 42, after $1.5 million in winnings, and seven titles, and competing on three Ryder Cup teams, he had been told he was to be graded only on neatness and personality.

He had been a late starter, coming to golf at 27, as Sam’s nephew, and as a failed ex-baseball player, out of a Grizzly Adams kind of childhood. Whatever else one thinks of him, a background so distinctive should have made J.C. an unending source of what is loosely called “good copy.” We can only wonder what combination of his shyness, or stubbornness, and the critical judgements of press and fans, relegates him to a lesser universe.

His wife, the former Sue Bryant, is a city girl, a product of the Florida suburbs, bright and strikingly pretty. She has her own theory about her husband’s reputation. “Jesse isn’t very good at game-playing,” she says, “and he isn’t always tactful. It all goes back to how he was raised. You’re raised in this country, and if you step in mud or dirt or whatever, you say so, you don’t call it banana pudding. It’s sad, but on the tour it seems there have to be good guys and bad guys. And he’s been labeled a bad guy.”

The question is why? What did he do, to whom and where? Even if he didn’t, how does he deal with his problem? If you don’t think you are the least-liked player on tour, what can you do? To paraphrase a former president of the United States, it is hardly the most effective form of public relations to cry out to the world, “I AM NOT A HARD-ASS.”

Yet a small irony is at work here. He openly admires the kind of sportsman whose label he doesn’t want. Ted Williams, George Blanda and Bobby Knight never were afflicted with terminal niceness. Says J.C.: “Williams was the only idol I ever had. I thought he was a god.” Knight is “a great coach whose players learn about life.” Blanda is “another one who had to keep proving himself.”

Sam Snead did not always have a saintly image, but he disarmed his critics with a quip or a story or sometimes a grin. Sam defends his nephew, although—given that famous Snead honesty, that no-bull’s-wool reflex—the issue seems briefly in doubt. “He takes after my dad. He was a haughty sort of man. Never said a bad word to anybody. Never said much of anything.

“J.C. is a person who is kind of hard to make friends with. He doesn’t want to bother people. He thinks he does the right thing by staying out of their way. I’ve told him, some people want to be bothered. If they applaud a shot, he ought to tip his hat or wave or smile or say hi. Don’t just walk off.”

The J.C. Snead story is an interesting one not only for the local color and family connection. It is interesting because it brushes the line between writers and the people they cover, and goes to the heart of the contract that exists between the writer and you, the reader. Have we treated these people fairly and without favor, and as fully dimensional figures? Do we owe them more sympathy, or none?

Nothing has haunted and disturbed J.C. Snead quite so much as the Case of the Phantom Pro-Am. It is a tale that seems to rank right up there with the story of The Vanishing Hitchhiker. The story travels.

It has been reported as having occurred at four or five courses, but the details are consistent. The money involved is described as between $600 and $750, the putt of the amateur partner between two feet and six. The pro (J.C. Snead) has ignored his partners or grouched at them for 17 holes. Then, at 18, it dawned on him that they needed this dinky putt for a birdie to win it all. Suddenly, he was Mr. Goodwrench, friendly and helpful, lining up the putt and reminding everyone: “Now, pards, if you make that, we’ll win the pro-am and I’ll win $750.”

Given that encouragement, the high-handicapper back-handed the ball across the green and into a bunker. Up yours.

The only flaw in the story is the fact that Snead swears it never happened and no living soul has ever come forward to verify it. First reported in the fall of 1983, the anecdote has followed him from Orlando to Canada to Doral to San Diego. Not a week goes by that he isn’t asked or kidded about it.

Many of his fellow golfers found the story amusing. Arnold Palmer thought it was harmless and advised J.C. to go along with it. “But Arnold,” said Snead, “it never happened. And if you were the head of a big corporation, and you wanted 15 pros to play in a clinic with your best customers, would you invite me after reading that?”

Palmer said, “I see what you mean.”

J.C. Snead just misses—by about a quarter of a mile—finding any humor in the story or the corner it has boxed him in. “I figure it cost me at least $100,000 this past year,” he says, “maybe more.” The only pro-ams I got invited to were Amana and the three or four I’ve always done. Not a single new one. Last summer at Westchester they had five pro-ams going at the same time on Monday, and I was in my motel room. They had guys playing who couldn’t qualify for a tournament. And I wasn’t invited. It comes from that story.”

Snead knows he should shrug it off with a casual French phrase and contrate on his game. But the story spreads like some kind of fungus. “It hurts,” he says. I haven’t even admitted that to my wife. But it really hurts to feel you’re not wanted. Since this crap really started, I think I would have quit if I had something else to do. It got to the point where it was embarrassing to show up, to hear people make their little snob remarks.”

Uncle Sam chips in: “When those things get going, they just seem to build. It’s too bad, because common sense tells you it didn’t happen. That would be stupid, a man knocking off a ball when his team has a chance to win. No matter how he hates the pro, I never heard of any club golfer blowing a chance to win like that.”

J.C. has a better reputation among his fellow pros on tour, many of whom seek his advice on the practice tee. “Some of the tour players such as J.C. who the public thinks are awful are the ones the players like the most,” says tour veteran Andy North. “He’s a devoted family man who loves his time away from the tour and enjoys the basic things of life. To me, he’s one of the most likable guys out here.”

Adds Joe Inman: “What he says most of the time is the truth, but he talks sometimes when he shouldn’t say anything. In our world today there are a lot of false people, but J.C.’s not one of them. If they have a war and line everybody up, I want to be on his side. He’s a good person—he just never learned how to politic.”

But one of J.C.’s appealing qualities is his willingness to lower his guard and to describe a moment that may not reflect to his own advantage. “I’m sure I struck people as temperamental,” he says. “In pro-ams, it was a case of wanting to win but not feeling real easy with people I didn’t know. The last eight to 10 years, I always made it a point on the first green to offer my help in lining up putts or club selection or yardage. After four or five holes you generally can tell who needs help and who will accept it. If a guy takes a suggestion and seems eager for more, I’ll help him every swing I can the rest of the way.

“Then you run into guys who feel they know more about golf than you do. I corrected a banker once, and he argued with me. I told him, ‘Look, if I came to you for a loan, I wouldn’t expect to tell you how to determine your interest rates.’

“Another time I had a run-in with John Y. Brown, before he became governor of Kentucky. He probably thinks I’m the biggest horse’s ass in the world. We were playing in a pro-am in Kentucky. He’s a pretty good player, a 5- or 6-handicapper, but he hit one in the rough on a par 5. No way he could hit it out of there. I couldn’t hit it out of there. The grass is up to your ankles. He gets in there with a 3-wood. I said, in what I thought was a nice way, ‘Now, wait a minute. Take a 7-iron or something and hit it down the fairway. You can get it on the green in three.’

He said, ‘No, I want to hit a 3-wood.’ I said he couldn’t, and he said, ‘The hell I can’t.’ That kind of got me going. I bet him $10 he couldn’t hit it 20 yards. His face turned red, and I thought he was going to explode. He got in there and took a cut, and the ball went about five feet. I mean, Jack Nicklaus or Ben Hogan couldn’t have hit a 3-wood out of there. It was like trying to hit a 3-wood out of six inches of water. Can’t be done. The next two par 5s John Y. put it back in the rough, and he was going to show me he could hit that damned 3-wood out of there. Never did. Took himself right out of the hole each time. And I never got invited back.”

At first blush, the alleged incident of the rude pro and the tanked putt might seem of only passing interest, hardly worth taking sides over. But J.C. feels he can’t ignore it, believing the story to be at the bottom of his selection as The Least Favorite PGA Tour Player in a poll of 20,000 Golf Digest readers (March 1984). It wasn’t the kind of cause that would send people pouring into the streets, waving their “Free J.C. Snead” placards. But he welcomed the expressions of support that came from friends and even some amateurs who had gone to the firing line with him.

One such letter went to Golf Digest from Thomas R. Devlin, the president of Rent-A-Center Inc., in Wichita, Kan., who was in Snead’s foursome the first round of the Disney World Classic in Orlando.

“I wasn’t expecting to enjoy the day,” Devlin wrote. “However, Mr. Snead was friendly and warm. One member of the group was very nervous. Mr. Snead went out of his way to work with him and help him to relax and feel comfortable. I was very impressed with his manner.

“The next morning, on my way to breakfast, I ran into J.C. He recognized me and invited me to go to the club with him for breakfast and introductions to some of the other pros. He was very gracious. I suspect that many people are misinformed, as I was, about him.”

A congressman from Illinois, Marty Russo, also took issue with the results of the survey. Wrote Russo: “I find it hard to believe that anyone who has talked to him and gotten to know him could rank J.C. as anything but first-rate, on any scale.” All of which recalls a story told by a onetime Illinois congressman named Abe Lincoln about a man being tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail, who said: “If it wasn’t for the honor, I’d just as soon walk.”

To know or to understand the Snead who isn’t Sam, it is necessary to examine the soil from which he sprang. The town of Hot Springs, Va., sits in a scenic valley surrounded by majestic mountain ranges on three sides. The names echo and soar and clap with thunder: Allegheny, Appalachia, The Shenandoah. It is a town that grew up around a field of mineral wells and a hotel called The Homestead.

On a clear and balmy summer day, J.C. climbed behind the wheel of a Chevrolet and headed through the hills to the airport at Roanoke, 35 miles away. He turned into downtown Hot Springs on a street with no sign. (“It’s the only street we got,” he said. “Must be Main Street. They built a new post office and a new bank and added a wing to the hotel. That’s the only things that have changed since I was a little kid.”)

At 8 in the morning, the town was stirring. That is, a man in a straw hat was talking to a burly fellow outside the office of the Exxon station.

“There’s Sam, now,” said J.C., swinging into the driveway.

Sure enough, it was.

Sam walked over, put his elbow on the passenger-side window and said, “Thought you were leaving.”

J.C.: “Running late. I’m on my way.”

Sam: “All right. Did you hit some yesterday? Hit ’em better?”

J.C.: “Pretty good, but I was still turning the short iron. Right to left.”

Sam: “Well, dammit, follow it along the line a little more, and they won’t close up as fast.” He backed off a step and gave the rented Chevy a curious look. “This your car?” Assured that it was not, he nodded and said, “Well, don’t get your ass up over the dashboard, as they say.”

J.C.: “I won’t. Thanks.”

You had to see the look on the nephew’s face to appreciate the meaning of the phrase “hero worship.” It was the kind of awe and affection you have seen on the faces of small boys looking up at an all-star first baseman, a look without doubts.

The fact is, J.C. barely knew his Uncle Sam when he was a youngster. He was on closer terms with his uncles Pete and Homer. But what he really knew was the land, these roads, that bridge. He knew them inch by inch. Hot Springs was a company town, and the company was The Homestead, where his father retired as chief engineer after more than 50 years on the job.

No more than 5,000 people live in all of Bath County, which includes Hot Springs, and a crime wave is when someone steals a chicken. The man talking to Sam Snead at the gas station was the brother of the fellow who manages J.C.’s farm, just outside of town. “Now that guy right there,” J.C. was saying, “comes from a family of 11. That bunch was raised like somebody was raised in the 1880s. They didn’t have any running water, no electricity, they hunted for most of their food, they raised a big garden, and their mother canned everything.”

With his golf earnings, J.C. and Sue bought two parcels of land, the Patterson place and the Jenkins place, for a total of 900 acres. They completely restored and doubled the size of a farmhouse first built in 1901, adding a second story and a master bedroom with a bathroom bigger than some of the clubhouses J.C. once changed in. It has a Jacuzzi.

A trip through those hills with J.C. turns into a travelogue. George Washington passed through town. Robert E. Lee spent the night in a house where the Cascades Hotel now stands. One of the fiercest battles of the Civil War was fought a few ridges away.

He points out his father’s house, and Sam’s, and the redbrick building where he attended grade school. A groundhog, odd-looking creature, skitters across the road. A hundred yards away, the leaves rustle as a fawn leaps deeper into the woods. All nature seems to call.

Over there, he shot his first deer, and two mountains over, he killed a bear. Through those trees you can see the path where the Cherokees once came to take the mineral waters, 100 degrees, right out of the ground.

“I appreciate nature and what a good friend it is,” J.C. says. “I notice when we’re playing golf, the guys I play with, they walk around the course and they only notice three things: the grass, the greens and their ball. That’s it. They don’t see frogs or snakes or squirrels or turtles. I’m always looking for something. My eyes are always working.”

There have been Sneads in that valley since the 1700s, hard by the West Virginia line. They are mountain folk—you might even call them hillbillies—and proud of it. They are governed by a code that J.C. describes in this way: If you’ve done anything wrong and you’re asked a direct question, you admit it, even if you were one of many. But you volunteer nothing.

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Once he worked as a lifeguard at The Homestead and, to save his job, on the advice of his superior, he denied an act of mischief to the lady who ran the place. “You know what?” he says. “It still bothers me today, that I stood there and looked that woman in the eye and denied something I had done.” He paused, then added: “That was nearly 30 year ago.”

It is part of J.C.’s natural honesty that belongs with the natural athlete and the natural outdoorsman, to not sugarcoat or nudge the myth of family fidelity.

His love and respect for Sam need no embellishment here. Just try to suggest to him that Ben Hogan had more shots or Byron Nelson more style. But into his early 20s, he was never quite sure how to take him.

“When I was a kid,” he says, “Sam never really made me feel comfortable. He always said something to hurt my feelings. Like, I’d slip out to one of the courses to watch him play in a tournament, and I knew he was a famous golfer and all that. I was always shy. I’d want to say hello as much as anything. He was family, and he was supposed to be the best.

“He’d see me. He’d cut a look out the corner of his eye and see me standing over there, and he wouldn’t say a word. And maybe a hole or two would go along, and then he’d come by and he’d say something, and it would always hurt my feelings. Just the way he was. Like, ‘Boy, what are you doing out here? Why the hell aren’t you out caddieing and making some money?’ I know now he didn’t mean anything by it. If nobody had been around, it would have been all right. But there was always a crowd around, and he’d say it in front of other people, and it always made me feel like a jerk, or so out of place.”

As time went on, Sam realized that his brother Jess’ boy was the one most like him. At 6-2 and 205, J.C. was bigger than his illustrious uncle. Both had been brilliant all-around athletes in high school and shared a love of baseball. Sam briefly played Class D ball and was once a partner with Ted Williams in a sporting-goods store.

J.C. has been described as one of the finest athletes the state of Virginia ever produced. He was born in 1941, two years after Sam had already blown the best chance he would ever have at winning the U.S. Open. J.C. was a triple threat in football. In basketball, he averaged 26 points a game and led the team to the only state championship in the school’s history. In baseball, he batted .400.

He played junior college football—the first Snead ever to attend college—and signed a contract in 1961 with baseball’s Washington Senators. In three minor-league seasons he hit a high of .318 but broke an ankle and clashed with a manger and gave it up.

The final conflict was over a stolen glove. A gang of kids ripped off his team’s clubhouse, and J.C. lost a new glove. The insurance covered the cost of a new one, $40, but when the old ones were found a few weeks later buried in the ground near the ball park, the manager told J.C. he ought to reimburse the club. J.C. told him to take the old glove and put it where the sun don’t shine. The manager filed a report citing J.C. for having a bad attitude.

Even after he quit the team, the act of doing so was painful enough that he stayed in his motel room three days before he left for home. There he faced disappointed Uncle Sam, whose first words were: “Boy, why’d you quit?”

“I told him,” says J.C., “that in baseball until someone told you that you could play, you didn’t play. I decided to try golf. After playing baseball and swinging that heavy bat, I could hit so is far it was a joke.”

Three weeks after he put away his baseball glove, J.C. had an assistant’s job at Purchase, N.Y., working for a pro named Charlie Beverage, another Hot Springs product who had apprenticed under Sam.

The first time Beverage asked Sam to check out his nephew, Sam declined. First, he had to be convinced that J.C. was serious about the game, and second, that he wasn’t looking for a handout.

“When Sam first started out,” J.C. says, “a few guys hustled him out of some bucks. And some of the family—not mine—hit on him a few times. When you get out there and scratch from absolutely nothing, and you get something, and along the way people take some of it away, you learn the hard way, and you learn quick. Sam may have a reputation for being tightfisted. He’s really not. He does a lot for people that nobody hears about. That’s the way people are around here.

“I had already joined the tour [in 1968] before I finally got to play a round with Sam. He was the pro at Boca Raton, and I’ll tell you, I was scared to death. That was just about as nervous as I’ve ever been in golf, the first time I played with Sam. After he found out I was really dedicated, he did everything he could to help me. Our relationship has just gotten better and better. We’re not only uncle and nephew, we’re friends.”

A few weeks later, the Sneads played golf in Hot Springs, and Uncle Sam birdied seven of the last eight holes and had his nephew down four strokes with four to play.

“He’s his own worst enemy,” said Sam, candid as ever at 72. “Hard-headed as a damned mule. We were riding in the cart, and I said, ‘Just because you’re mad, you follow a bad shot with another. You have to stop that.’ J.C. has got the ability out of this world, but it flashes on and off. Palmer told me, ‘He doesn’t know how good he is. He doesn’t take advantage of it.’ I think a lot of people on tour envy the talent J.C. has.”

They might not envy him his reputation, or temper, or a recent siege with low blood sugar that sapped his strength and weakened his game. And no doubt he could use a little of his Uncle Sam’s showmanship.

But there is no pretense about him, and he needs no polls—good or bad—to tell him who he is or where he came from. He is J.C. Snead, who is never going to be Sam, who is 42 and playing for his wife and his son, Jason, 5, and his own pride. He is battling to get back his health and his game and his reputation. Well, he isn’t so sure about the reputation.

“I have had people tell me lately how much they enjoyed playing with me,” J.C. says. “They tell me I’m really a nice guy, a credit to my profession. I tell them, ‘Don’t tell anybody—you’ll screw up by image.’ “

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