My Shot: Doug Sanders

By Guy Yocom Photos by Darren Carroll
August 12, 2010

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.

The moonshine we made around Cedartown was not clear, like grain alcohol. It was the color of Coca-Cola. After I strained it through a tablecloth it was the color of gasoline. It’s about as powerful as gasoline, too, about 190 proof. I always kept a gallon or two of moonshine around for guests. They were very curious about it; most people have never tasted real moonshine. I gave a small glass to Dean Martin once with the standard warning. “This is not like whiskey,” I said. “Take tiny sips, or you’ll be in for it.” Dean was skeptical. He took a mouthful, swallowed half and was ready to swallow the other half when I went to light a cigarette. Dean’s eyes got big, and he sprayed what was left of the moonshine on the floor. “Don’t light that smoke!” he screamed. “You’ll blow my head off!” My moonshine almost sent Dean Martin to his knees. It is not to be trifled with.

When my feel was good, I could snatch a fly out of the air with two toothpicks. When my touch was off, I was just another player. Once in a while my feel would desert me suddenly. One year in Orlando I opened 66-66 and had a four-shot lead. Yet, early in the third round, I knew I was going to be lucky to finish in the top 10. My touch was gone, and I knew there was nothing I could do about it. There’s a lesson in this: When the train runs off the tracks, don’t panic, because it’ll just ?ake it worse.

Three failed marriages taught me this: You can disagree with what a woman says, but never argue with how she feels.

You hear how Ben Hogan was a thoughtful, interesting, chatty person away from the golf course. I never saw that at all. I played with Ben a lot and was on the 1967 Ryder Cup team that he captained. The truth is, Hogan was the hardest person to talk to I ever met in my life.

In hot, humid weather I gave myself an edge: I shaved under my arms. Give it a try. You’ll feel clean and classy. You’ll be more comfortable. Your deodorant will work better, too.

Right now I’d love a glass of buttermilk. I crave it but can’t find it anywhere. It’s almost extinct, like the dinosaurs.

A no-tipping policy serves two purposes: It keeps the workers poor and denies the customer an opportunity to feel good about himself. Therefore, I ignore it.

Generosity is giving more than you can. Pride is taking less than you need. Jill St. John told me that. She got it from Kahlil Gibran.

Doug Ford had the best short game I ever saw. He was a tough guy. If I had asked him to teach me a couple of shots, he probably would have said, “Get out there and learn yourself, like I did.” One night I took Doug down to a steakhouse. Got him a big steak for $3.95, ordered a couple of carafes of wine for $1.25 apiece. We got to laughing. The wine kicked in. “Tell me how you played that pitch on 17 today,” I said. “Well, first you weaken your grip,” he said, and he went on to give me all kinds of secrets. I would have given him $50 cash to teach me that shot, but I got it for under $10 and had a good meal to boot.

In the early 1960s very few of us had regular caddies. At a tournament you took the caddie they assigned you, and there were some beauties. Bobby Brue slipped $10 to the caddiemaster once, hoping he’d get a caddie who knew what he was doing. On the first hole, Bobby asked the guy how far it was to the hole. The caddie answers, “About three blocks.”

Clothes make the man. You know how you go to a hardware store to buy paint and they have 50 shades of white? I went to great lengths to blend the colors of my clothes just right. I found my best color combinations at the pharmacy. I’d look at all the colorful medicine capsules, choose the ones I liked, then have the pharmacist dump out the medicine. I’d stick the top half of an empty yellow capsule onto the bottom half of a blue one, then send it to the factory where my shirts and slacks could be colored the same way. My wife would send my white underwear and socks along with the capsules so they could be dyed along with the other fabric. Oh, my clothes were beautiful. Still are.

Figure out how much you spend on clothing each year, then spend it in equal sums twice a year instead of in dribbles. Once a year, thin out your wardrobe. Give away what you don’t need.

I had torticollis, a neck condition where my head tilted one way and my chin went the other. I couldn’t hit a golf ball without biting the collar of my shirt to keep my head in place. The pain was terrible, like an intense cramp that never goes away. The doctor said he could operate for eight hours and probably straighten my head, but the chances of curing the pain were only 50-50. I didn’t want to live anymore. I started looking for a possible way out. I made a phone call, and a few days later my doorbell rings. The man at the door introduced himself as Tony and said he was there with orders to help. We worked out the details over dinner. We would go to a public place that wasn’t crowded. In the parking lot there, when no one was around, Tony would put a bullet in my head. It would look like a robbery; I wanted to avoid the stigma of a suicide. There was the matter of how much the hit would cost. The rate Tony gave me was too low; I upped it to $40,000. For that kind of dough, I knew I could count on him to do the job right.

The operation was a success. A surgeon in Montreal straightened my head, and much if the pain was gone — though I still take pain pills. I called the man in charge and told him I wouldn’t be needing Tony. He said congratulations, good luck, and if I needed him I knew where to find him.

During my torticollis operation, my heart stopped beating. Suddenly I was walking barefoot on a grassy path. There were two small mountains to my left with a beautiful valley between them. Everything was illuminated, yet there was no sun. It was beautiful. I thought, I made it! Then there was a huge thump, and I was back on the operating table. For just a moment, I was disappointed to be back.

My brother, Ernest, was blind from age 4. He picked up a dynamite cap in a coal yard and lit it with a splinter. Blew his fingers off and his eyes out. He was amazing. He would hitchhike from Cedartown to Macon and back; he could walk along the road and find his way home by sound and feel. His cane was like a long finger. He was an excellent guitar player, could roller skate and was a whiz at geography. Never forgot a name or a voice. It was almost like he was whole. After a while it was hard to feel sorry for Ernest, which is how most handicapped people want it anyway.

You won’t learn a thing hanging out with drunks, dope addicts and other asses. You got to be around winners. Some people never figure that out. I knew it by the time I was 12.

Winners listen to other people. They’re always trying to learn; they respect other people’s opinions. Losers just want to talk.

I won a lot of money playing gin. I had a good memory, so I always knew what cards had been played. I could pay attention — did you know most people put all of their high cards on one side of their hand? And I had experience. If you have those three things, you can clean up. If you’re missing just one, you should play for pennies or else stick with golf, because you’ll wind up a pigeon.

If you want someone to be on time, don’t tell them to be there at 9 o’clock. Tell them to be there at 8:58. When you nail down an exact minute, it stays in their mind. They’ll think, This guy’s precise.

Like a lot of tour pros, I escaped a hundred speeding tickets. We left our driver’s licenses in the trunk of the car. When you retrieved it for the highway patrolman, he’d see that big, shiny golf bag with your name on it. A dozen balls and a signed photograph, and you were on your way.

One time I couldn’t talk my way out of the ticket. I had to pay $30 on the spot. When I got back in the car, my son, Brad, who was 6 at the time, said, “What happened—you find someone who doesn’t play golf?” I said, “Shut up.”

If you feel your friends overlook the Christmas cards you send, do what a friend of mine does: Mail them in July.

If I could jump in a time machine and go back 30 years, I’d do it in a second. Golden years, my ass.