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The ride of Sam Snead’s life

From the archive: Sam Snead's annual pilgrimage to the Masters was going fine. But then something went horribly wrong
April 07, 2020
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Editor’s note: This is a new series on the 70th anniversary of Golf Digest commemorating the best literature we’ve ever published. Each entry includes an introduction that celebrates the author or puts in context the story. Catch up on earlier installments.

Sam Snead was on the Golf Digest masthead since the 1960s. He attended pro panel meetings, told jokes at our outings and took $50 golf bets from our editors. In 1980, he won the inaugural Golf Digest senior tour event at Newport Country Club, where at parties he played the harmonica, Lionel Hebert blew the trumpet and Don Cherry sang. Sam taught in our schools, wrote instruction articles and was part of the Golf Digest family for decades.

By 1998 Sam was 86, no longer competing on the senior tour and making fewer appearances overall. It was always important with Sam, who had a suspicious nature, to match him with the right collaborator. Over the years he came to enjoy the company of Senior Writer Guy Yocom, who recalls: “The Masters really had become the one moment in the year when he could still shine. He would practice for weeks in preparation for that one drive off the first tee on Masters Thursday in the Honorary Starter tradition. My story pitch was to shadow Sam during the Masters, come away with his best stories, his interactions with other old-timers and write a long-form summary for the next year’s preview issue.”

As editor, I liked Guy’s idea but thought the story needed more texture beyond what happened at Augusta and suggested that Guy ride with Sam and his son Jack from his home in Florida to Augusta. I don’t remember offering Yocom much direction except for one line: Give Sam the “Driving Miss Daisy” treatment.

“Looking back, the first couple of hours in the car were wonderful,” Guy says. “But the last five hours were really scary. I was witnessing something dramatic and unique, but I couldn’t help feeling intrusive. Jack Snead loved and idolized his father so much and was fearful he was losing him right then and there. It was so personal, and Jack and Sam gave me their trust and incredible access. The story had a triumphant ending and was a real saga, one of those once-in-a-career things for a writer. I still feel privileged to have done it.” This article first appeared in April 1999. Sam Snead died in 2002 at age 89. —Jerry Tarde

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When you’re driving with Sam Snead, you tend to forget the car has a radio. We had left his winter home in Fort Pierce, Fla., at 4:45 a.m. on Tuesday of Masters week 1998, and two hours later, as the sun began peeking over the pines, Sam was still spilling out stories from his traveling days in the 1930s.

“Driving through West Texas at night, there were times you didn’t need to turn your headlights on,” he says. “If there were no clouds and the moon was full, you could see the road just fine. The only thing you had to worry about was running out of gas. That, and those big dips in the road. When it rained they filled with water, and if you hit one it could wreck your car.”

Jack Snead, Sam’s son, wears a contented smile as he sits behind the wheel listening to his father talk. The black Lexus LS 400 is humming smoothly toward Augusta National Golf Club, still 400 miles away. “You sure are talking a lot, Dad,” he says. “You nervous? I think you are. You’re worried about playing in the Par-3 Contest.”

“I’m not nervous,” Sam says. He tries to prove it by staying quiet for a moment, but then he starts in again. “You won’t know it when we get to Georgia, but that state had the worst roads of all. It had lots of wood bridges that were only wide enough for one car. One car had to pull over and wait for the other car to pass. And there were cows and pigs all over the roads. It was real dangerous, especially at night. I hit a pack of shoats once, sure did. Sent them pigs flying everywhere.”

On and on Sam goes. About the big Cadillac he bought for $1,725 before World War II, and how he sold it after the war for $2,700. How he’s never had a flat tire in his life. About the time a second car rear-ended him and Johnny Bulla in 1936, and how Bulla got whiplash but Sam didn’t because he was lying down in the back seat. There was the time in Florida when he passed two cars at better than 110 miles per hour. “The first car was a policeman, and he was chasing a speeder,” Sam says.

The automobile was central to Sam’s life. He never flew unless he had to, even up through the 1960s, and he’s not flying now—even though the trip will last nine hours—because, he reasons, “you’d have to rent a car when you got to Augusta anyway.” Maybe he’s scared of flying. On the way to the British Open in 1946, the engine of a Constellation airplane he was flying in caught fire, and they barely made it back to New York. In Iowa once, the small plane Sam was a passenger in crashed on takeoff, and he and the pilot narrowly escaped the burning wreckage. In any case, Sam prefers driving, and he’s good at it—he fits into the passenger seat the way a good horseman sits in the saddle, his knees drawn up and his trademark straw hat cocked jauntily off to one side. With his easygoing way, he’s proving to be about the best traveling companion you ever had.

Sam finally drifts off to sleep, and when Jack realizes he can talk without his father hearing, he explains why this living legend, now 86 years old, is so anxious about a trip he had taken so many times before. “People have a hard time believing it, but Dad gets lonely,” Jack says. “He’ll play solitaire by the hour at a pine table in his home in Hot Springs [Va.], and there’s a spot on the table near where the deck sits that’s worn down from his stroking the cards off the pile. This trip is good for him. He loves going to the Masters.”

The Masters! Sam is embraced everywhere he goes, but at the Masters he is patted and hugged nonstop by old friends and rivals, slack-jawed players, awed reporters and green-blazered club members. He never opens a door. Even the outgoing chairman, Jack Stephens, bows deferentially before shaking his hand. Walking near Sam, you feel more than see the number of heads turning as you go by. Sam just eats it up. He is allowed—encouraged—to turn the Champions Dinner blue with his salty stories. When he is introduced at the Honorary Starter ceremony, he is cuddled with throaty cheers and applause resonant with affection.

Sam’s memories of Augusta are convoluted and not overly sentimental. On Clifford Roberts, the cofounder and chairman for more than 40 years: “Cliff was a tough bastard, but you have to be to run that place. The caddies there think his death was a murder, not a suicide, and I believe them.” On Bobby Jones, whom he actually played with in an early Masters: “A good driver, good fairway-wood player and good around the greens. Not a very good iron player, though. The field lapped him on the par 3s.” On the course: “Augusta National is something now, as pretty a course as I’ve ever seen. But at those old Masters, the fairways were bad and the greens hadn’t taken root very well. It was too early in the year.” On taking part in the Honorary Starter ceremony: “Aw, I’ll hit my pukey drive, then take off. Arnie Palmer says he’ll play in the Masters till he dies. Me, I’ll keep coming two more years probably, then that’s it.”

We’re coming up on Jacksonville at about 8:30 a.m. when Sam suddenly bolts upright in his seat. “I’m gonna be sick,” he says, and Jack quickly pulls the car into the emergency lane of I-95.

Jack winks at me as if to suggest Sam is sandbagging us. His father says cantankerous things frequently these days, and nobody, least of all Jack, seems to mind. Sam has always had a way with golf, people and animals. Playing in Boca Raton with his nephew J.C. Snead years back, Sam spotted a bobcat peering out from the edge of the woods on the third hole. He knelt and murmured to the cat, and when it came closer, Sam seized it, stretched it out and stuffed it in his golf bag. When he told the caddies back at the clubhouse what was inside the bag, they didn’t believe him. “One of them unzipped that bag, and the bobcat stuck his head out and growled,” Sam laughs. “That caddie liked to have had a heart attack.” Sam bought a collar for the bobcat but had second thoughts the next day when it sliced J.C.’s palm open with one swipe of its claws. “I’m sure I could have tamed him, though,” Sam says. He even had a pet fish, a bass, in a pond near his home. “At first he let me tickle his belly, then he got to where he would lay across my hands and let me scoop him out of the water. I don’t know why, but he liked being out of the water.”

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Sam awakens briefly to tell Jack he’s driving too fast and to ask what route we’re taking. He complains about feeling dizzy and a bit nauseated, then closes his eyes again. Jack looks over at him with concern. As we pass the new World Golf Hall of Fame near St. Augustine, Jack mentions he had recently donated the lunch bucket Sam had used as a small boy. “His mom had stuffed it in the attic of the old house he grew up in,” Jack says. “We knew it was his because Dad carved his initials in it.”

We’re coming up on Jacksonville at about 8:30 a.m. when Sam suddenly bolts upright in his seat. “I’m gonna be sick,” he says, and Jack quickly pulls the car into the emergency lane of I-95. As rush-hour traffic howls past a few feet away, Sam vomits on the pavement. He finishes and stands upright on shaky legs. Jack steadies him from behind. “Are you all right, Dad? What is it?” Sam breathes deeply, mumbles and steps back in the car. “Nothing. Let’s go,” he mutters.

Sam’s valet, a gruff fellow named Joe Bachman, has been following us in a second car, and he and Jack discuss what to do. “Let’s get past the city and then stop,” Bachman says. Thirty minutes later, we pull off the freeway into a large gas station, where Bachman checks Sam’s pulse and feels his forehead. Several customers pumping gas are oblivious to Sam’s plight. They beam with happiness at seeing him, even as he’s bent over, hands on his knees, gasping for breath.

Bachman asks Sam how he feels. “I think it was that chicken I had last night,” he says, but Jack and Joe aren’t buying it. If it were food poisoning, he would have fallen ill hours ago. Joe gets on the cellphone and calls the doctor. They suspect that maybe Sam has accidentally taken a double dose of vitamins, or maybe Ginkoba, the herbal stuff that supposedly improves your memory. Then they make Sam talk, to see if he’s alert. “Maybe we should go to the hospital, Dad,” Jack says. “You’re slurring your words.”

“I’m not slurring my words, and I don’t want to go to the damned hospital,” says Sam, slurring every word. “Let’s get back on the road.”

We obey, but the breezy mood in the car is now baleful. Jack speeds up and holds the steering wheel tighter. We whiz up to Savannah, then fly over to Stateboro without much talk, other than Jack quizzing Sam every few minutes to learn how he’s feeling. Finally, we turn onto Route 25, which will take us the rest of the way to Augusta. Now Jack, trying to burn off some stress, is talking fast and sentimental about his father and what it has meant being his son for 53 years.

“When I was a kid, Dad was gone 40 weeks of the year,” he says, his eyes darting between Sam and the road. “He seemed to be gone in eight-week clips. I missed him so much. My favorite time was Thanksgiving because the whole family would gather and we got to spend the whole weekend together. My mom would make big lunches for the men, and they’d take off hunting. They let me go with them. There hasn’t been an occasion since I enjoyed more.

“The stories they told! We had an uncle who lived during the Civil War they called Big John Snead, who stood 7-foot-9, weighed 350 pounds and wore a size-27 shoe. It’s true; I looked him up in the hall of records in Warm Springs. In those days they had fence-building parties, where the men would gather and fence a neighbor’s pasture. The women would cook and sew while the men cut these huge chestnut trees into 11-foot rails. The wood was green and heavy; a stout man could lift four or five of them. Well, one day somebody asked where Big John was, and here he came over a hill, carrying six over each shoulder. We Sneads have always been plain people, but we were unusual.”

Sam comes to, and he is more lucid. He and Jack talk more. It’s country talk about “ramps,” an onion-like vegetable that is delicious but so foul-smelling and persistent that the staff at The Greenbrier is warned that if they eat even one, they can’t come to work for two days. How possums carry a disease that is deadly to horses. The right way to skin a deer, which is to tie it to a tree, hook the hide to a chain and pull it off with your pickup truck. How turkeys have the best eyesight of any animal. How skunk pelts are worth a lot of money in Asia. About real-life hillbillies who live near Hot Springs, who come down out of the mountains to peddle goods at craft fairs and whom you recognize by their angular faces, crooked noses, close-set eyes and buck-teeth. “You don’t monkey with them,” Jack says.

We pull over one last time. Bachman comes over and tells Sam to walk around the car. Sam refuses. “I’m asking you to do it because we care about you and want to know you’re all right,” Bachman growls. Sam doesn’t budge, and Bachman grows angry. “Listen, we’re not moving from this spot until you get out and walk around the car.”

Sam straightens up, fakes a punch to Bachman’s belly and roars with laughter when Bachman flinches. “Now get your ass in your car and let’s go,” Sam says.

Sam glares at Bachman, then gets out of the car and stands nose to nose with his valet. “This … is … a bunch of … crap!” Sam bellows. Feeling embarrassed and self-conscious, he takes a lap around the car. With four steps to go, Sam suddenly moans and staggers toward Bachman, as if he’s going to fall. Bachman opens his arms as if to catch Sam. But then Sam straightens up, fakes a punch to Bachman’s belly and roars with laughter when Bachman flinches. “Now get your ass in your car and let’s go,” Sam says.

“What do you do with a guy like that?” Bachman says, and Jack Snead, looking on, just shakes his head.

We make the drive up Magnolia Lane at 2 p.m., and it is some scene as Sam gets out of the car. People freeze and stare at him. An older woman whispers to a friend, then giggles and blushes. Others call out to him. You understand better Sam’s inextricable link with the Masters. He first played there in 1937, in the depths of the Great Depression, when players wore broadcloth shirts and neckties, and corn whisky flowed at the tournament Bobby Jones called the Augusta National Invitation. Sam finished second there in 1939 by one stroke when Ralph Guldahl shot 33 on the back nine on Sunday. It took Sam 10 more years before he finally won, in 1949, donning the first green jacket ever presented. Then he won again in 1952 and once more in 1954, when he edged Ben Hogan in a playoff. Sam’s record there is sensational. He finished second twice and was in the top 10 an amazing 15 times. He played every year until 1983, by which time he had turned in a record 146 rounds. In the context of Snead’s incredible career, in which he won 81 times on the PGA Tour, the Masters was his most solid territory.

I hurry over to the press area while the Sneads check in, and when I return just a few minutes later, there is bad news. The cardiologist who mans the first-aid station during the Masters has looked at Sam and ordered him to the hospital immediately. He is taken there by van, posthaste.

Something really is wrong, possibly a mild stroke. Sam is kept overnight for observation and an endless series of tests, so he misses the Champions Dinner that evening. But the attendees close the dinner by telling Sam Snead stories, and they all sign menus to be sent to him. Bob Goalby and Doug Ford are especially eloquent. In a charming testament to age, Herman Keiser, who won the Masters in 1946, signs one of the menus twice.

The next morning, I drive up to University Hospital and tell them I want to see Sam. They refuse at first, but I implore fervently. Finally they say OK, and a security guard ushers me to Sam’s private room. I find him sitting on the edge of the bed eating an early lunch, talking on the telephone with his girlfriend back in Florida. I remember the way she asked Sam for a kiss goodbye as he prepared to leave Fort Pierce, and how he said, “All right, come and get it,” and the way she pranced across the room to buss him on his cheek. He’s wearing a smock, though his navy-blue polyester slacks and socks are underneath. His loafers, golf shirt and Dorfman/Pacific straw hat are stacked neatly on a chair nearby. Sam is swinging his feet like a schoolboy, and his appetite is wonderful. With gusto he shovels carrots, mashed potatoes, a roll, a salad with Thousand Island dressing, chocolate-cream pie and pineapple. He guzzles ice tea.

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“How they treating you, Sam?” I say.

“OK,” he says. “They said I had a stroke, but if that’s the case, I didn’t know anything about it. I want to get the hell out of here. I’ve just been run ragged lately, that’s all. That and that bad chicken I ate.”

In this setting, Sam more closely resembles a man in his 80s. He is bald as a badger, and his hands are fantastically embossed with liver spots, gnarls and wrinkles. Two of his fingers won’t straighten completely. In truth, Sam is not a stranger to hospitals. He has no triceps in his right arm; one of the toes on his right foot was amputated at the first joint; and his shoulder was dislocated in that awful car accident en route to Augusta seven years ago that left the driver of the other car paralyzed. He has carpal tunnel syndrome in his left hand and he once broke the radius of his right wrist. As a young man he had back problems. Then there’s the dry macular degeneration in both eyes, which has left him almost blind. The doctors gave Sam a gizmo to hook to his eyelids twice a week that is supposed to stimulate the eyes and possibly make them better, but Sam hates using it.

But what a physical specimen Sam has always been. For most of his life he could pick the ball out of the hole without bending his knees. His arms are abnormally long and his hands are uncommonly supple; he could bend his thumb back and touch his wrist without an assist from the other hand. At 80, he could still kick the top of a seven-foot doorway—for years he performed this feat regularly inside the Augusta National clubhouse, and you can still see the cleat marks over one of the doorways there. At 17, he could run the 100-yard dash in 10 seconds flat.

His athleticism blended wonderfully with his golf game. His swing, which Jack Nicklaus still says is the best he ever saw, is mesmerizing, like watching ice cream melt, but his grace concealed unbelievable strength. “For years, Dad carried around an exercise contraption made of handles and springs, the kind bodybuilders would pull across their chests in magazine advertisements,” Jack says. “As it got old and rusty, it got hard to stretch. Men would take that thing and couldn’t stretch it at all. Hell, they couldn’t stretch it using their legs. Dad would just smile and pull that thing back and forth like an accordion.”

How can you quantify his genius at golf? Sam has made holes-in-one with every club in his bag, and he once made an ace with his 3-iron, swinging left-handed. It is well known that he shot a 59 in the 1959 Greenbrier Open, but at the Old White course he had five chances to shoot 58 if he could have one-putted the final green. (He three-putted and shot 60 all five times.) In 1936, playing the Homestead’s Cascades course, he scored nine consecutive 3s on the back nine. He shot 60 another time at the Lower Cascades course when he was 71 years old.

Now Sam is in the hospital again, and he is not at all happy about it. “That nurse was mean,” I say, trying to make small talk. “She almost didn’t let me in here.”

His athleticism blended wonderfully with his golf game. His swing, which Jack Nicklaus still says is the best he ever saw, is mesmerizing, like watching ice cream melt.

“I haven’t seen a pretty one yet,” he replies. “The last one that was in here turned around to leave and I told her, ‘Hey, that looks like two boys wrestling under a blanket.’ ” He laughs mischievously. A minute later, the nurse comes back and asks me to leave. It’s time for more tests. Sam glances at her, then winks at me. “That’s the one,” he says. The nurse rolls her eyes, looks at me and points to the door.

They release Sam late that afternoon, and he immediately goes to a home rented out by an old friend, a lawyer name Jack Vardaman.

That evening, I phone Jack Snead to get the prognosis. He says the doctors ran every test imaginable, including a heart echo, MRI and carotid artery scan. He explains that Sam experienced a mild case of TIA, a temporary stroke-like condition in which blood vessels leading to the brain constrict, depriving it of oxygen. That explained the nausea and dizziness. It is very common in older people, especially those with a busy lifestyle. Sam is all right.

“The doctors were amazed at something, though,” Jack says. “They said Dad had no plaque in his veins, which is almost unheard of for a fellow his age. They said his heart was slightly oversize, which is true in a lot of athletes. His blood pressure is like that of a 30-year-old.”

Sam slept well that night. At 7:30 on a sparkling Thursday morning, we follow Sam onto the practice tee at Augusta National, where he will warm up for the Honorary Starter ceremony. The bleachers are already packed, and as Sam comes into view, the crowd cheers. Jack dumps a pile of balls at his dad’s feet, and Sam starts to loosen up, grunting as he swivels, a club behind his back. We worry that he might not be able to swing, but to our astonishment, Sam stoops over and, without bending his knees, slaps his wrists on the ground. Then he hits a few balls, none very well, chortling ruefully at his mis-hits. “Gotta keep my right leg firm,” he mutters. “Turn that left hand over. … Don’t get too quick; it’ll go left. … Nice and easy. … That’s better.” He works his way through the bag—which still contains a 1-iron, incidentally—and finishes with the driver, hitting it indifferently. He tries four different drivers, and none of them produce good results. He looks stiff, and his shots lack power.

Gene Sarazen, who won the 1935 Masters with help from that famous double eagle on the par-5 15th hole, comes onto the range next. He walks nimbly enough for a 96-year-old man, and the crowd cheers him lustily. Sam walks over and gives him a hug. Sarazen and Snead have had their differences—55 years ago, Sarazen scolded Snead for playing a Masters practice round in his bare feet, but it was a long time ago.

“How are you, Gene?” Sam asks.

“I’m good on the outside, Sam, but I’m not so sure about the inside,” Sarazen answers.

“Well, get over here and let’s get you warmed up,” Sam says. He gives Sarazen a bit of advice, telling him to slow down his swing, to pause a wee bit more at the top of the backswing and to tee the ball higher. Sarazen is bemused. “I came here to hit one ball, Sam. You want my shoulder to fall off?”

Byron Nelson comes out next, and he and Sam shake hands and talk briefly. There is time to kill, because a hard rain the night before has postponed play until 9 a.m. Eventually it is time for the ceremony, and we move off the range and around the clubhouse to the first tee. The people are packed deep along the first tee and up on the veranda. Jack Stephens comes out to begin the introductions. First he introduces Sarazen, who receives an appreciative round of applause. The Squire’s grandson tees his ball for him, and Sarazen bumps a serviceable shot just onto the fairway. Next comes Nelson, who won the Masters in 1937 and ’42. His wife, Peggy, tees his ball, too, and he pushes it to the right and shrugs.

It is Sam’s turn to hit. “Ladies and gentlemen, you may have heard that Sam Snead fell ill on his way to Augusta, that he spent some time up in the hospital,” Stephens says. “That’s true, but he kicked the windows out so he could be here with us today. So let me introduce to you the Masters champion of 1949, 1952 and 1954 … the PGA champion of 1942, 1949 and 1951 … the British Open champion of 1946 … and holder of a record 146 rounds played here at the Masters. This man won 81 PGA Tour tournaments. Let’s give a warm welcome to Slammin’ … Sam … Snead!”

The applause for Sam is prolonged, and trebled in volume. Sam tips his hat, walks forward and tees his ball. He sidles alongside the ball, waggles beautifully—he always had the most beautiful waggle in the game—and cocks an eye down the fairway. Then it is as if an angel enters Sam’s body, for he wheels away from the ball like the Slammer of old, his right shoulder stretching behind him, his left arm jutting into the sky. He pauses distinctly at the top and brings the club down like the arm of a locomotive.

Pow! The ball explodes off the clubface like a bullet, arcing high and far toward the distant fairway bunker on the right. At the last moment it turns over and returns to earth, coming to rest in the exact middle of the center mowing stripe, 230 yards away.

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There is a moment of paralyzed silence, and then thunderous, sustained cheers shatter the morning. People jump, scream, back-pound and high-five each other. The fellow standing next to me shakes his head and his voice breaks as he mutters, “Unbelievable. … Unbelievable.” He looks at me with tears in his eyes, and he isn’t ashamed.

As for Sam, there always was a lot of ham in him, and with a broad grin he plucks the tee from the ground, doffs his hat, skips a few steps and kicks his right foot in the air. The crowd roars. Sam leaves the tee as if levitating, fans straining across the ropes to touch him.

The denouement is swift. Why Sam wouldn’t hang around awhile and soak up the adulation pouring over him is beyond me, but he immediately retires to the rear of the clubhouse and calls for the car to take him back to Florida. I suppose in the context of all he has seen and done in his 65-year career, this is just another nice moment. We say goodbye, and I linger as Sam poses for a few pictures, signs some autographs and talks privately with an Augusta National member, someone he apparently knows. The last thing I hear him say is an end-of-sentence snippet that makes the member chuckle: “ … you don’t have to hang from a tree to be a nut.”

It isn’t much of a parting line, but for people who live forever, there will always be next year.