Golf's young Sam Snead just keeps getting better

Play it again, Sam. Equipment manufacturers and others in the golf industry are fond of referring to their sport as "the game of a lifetime." Their best unpaid advertisement is Samuel Jackson Snead, age 68 and still a winner as a touring professional.

This fall Sam Snead, fittingly, won the $100,000 Golf Digest Commemorative Pro-Am at the home of American tournament golf, Newport Country Club in Rhode Island.He captured the new senior event by a stroke over former Masters champion Bob Goalby and by more than that over such imposing rookie seniors as Don January and Gene Littler, then denied rumors that he played in the first US Open there in 1895. "I caddied," he kidded.

When Snead holed his 15-foot birdie putt on the last green, it gave him a 67 for the day, which meant he had shot his age or better every year since he turned 60, won in six different decades, and posted 165 professional victories overall! There has never been a record like it for longevity and sheer breadth of accomplishment.

The colorful legend of Sam Snead just keeps rolling along like Old Man River, and players 30 and 40 years his junior regard him with undisguised awe.

Tour pro Tom Kite was recently doing his bit to add to the legend, telling about the time he played a practice round with Snead and Bobby Cole at Augusta National before the Masters, ans Sam was losing a friendly match with Cole. There is nothing Sam likes less than losing on the golf course, unless maybe being photographed without his omnipresent straw hat on.

At the tee of the par-5 13th hole, Sam cunningly suggested to Cole, a big-hitting youngster, that he cut the corner of the dogleg. "When I was your age," Sam cooed, "I used to just hit it over those trees and have me a little middle-iron left to the green."

Cole succumbed to Sam's cajolery, and blasted a mighty shot that climbed and carried . . . and struck the top of a tree and dropped into the creek. How, he wanted to know, had Sam ever managed to bring off that shot.

"Son," drawled Sam, "when I was your age those trees were only thism high."

Of such stuff are legends made, not to mention Snead's record of 84 tour victories -- far more than anyone else has achieved -- plus numerous other first-place finishes in tournaments not part of the regular PGA circuit.

Last year, Snead became the first man to shoot his age on the tour, at the Quad Cities Open. Two days later he became the first man to shoot lower than his age, with an astonishing 66. They're still talking about it in locker rooms across the land.

Later in the summer, at the PGA Championship near Detroit, he upstaged superstars like Tom Watson who were young enough to be his grandchildren by birdieing the long 18th hole, converted from a par-5 to a par-4 for the tournament, three times in four days. Under normal conditions at Oakland Hills, those three scores would have been eagles.

Behind the scenes, fuzzy-cheeked fellow contestants watched with disbelief in their eyes when he kicked the top of a seven-foot doorway on a dare.

An incredible physical specimen, Snead has a shoulder turn that is still the envy of the game.

"Sam's unbelievably strong and supple," says Dave Hill, "and he also can hit you any finesse shot you call. He has so much sensitivity in his hands he can feel the hair on them."

Snead has been able to last so well through the powers of his mind as well as his physical capabilities. "He doesn't attack the ball the way he used to, but he knows how to maneuver his way around the course using all 14 clubs in the bag ," says Bob Toski, a teaching guru. "He's also very innovative, and deserves a lot of credit for learning to putt in a different manner late in life so he could prolong his career. There will come a day when many, many good golfers will putt sidesaddle the way Sam does. He had the courage to change to it when everybody else thought it looked funny."

Adds Dr. Cary Middlecoff, "People always talk about Sam's great natural talent, which he has, but in the last 25 years he 's developed a remarkable ability to correct his swing in the middle of a round. If he starts duck-hooking, you can bet he'll have it stopped in two or three holes. Ben Hogan once said that golf is a game of constant correction, and Sam's mental alertness has kept him going, too."

It was entirely appropriate that Sam won, along with Gardner Dickinson, the first Legends of Golf Tournament 2 1/2 years ago, because he and the event have probably been the two strongest catalysts in the senior golf boom.

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