In some quarters the feeling persists that pro golf lacks color, that today's players are as exciting as vanilla ice cream. One would hope, of course, that Doug Sanders is not the yardstick by which others are measured.
That would be quite unfair, since Sanders owns a special niche in the pizzazz department. During the 1960s, he entertained galleries with his short swing and humorous banter while bedazzling them with his rainbow wardrobe.
The "Peacock of the Fairways" is all but invisible on the tour these days, but he's far from out of golf. To the contrary, he's found new ways to share his love for the game, organizing an international tournament for juniors, giving clinics, and serving as a driving force behind the Doug Sanders Celebrity Invitational, a civic-minded fund raiser in Houston.
Sanders played in only five PGA events last year and finished out of the money in all of them. The competitive flames that carried him to $771,284 in career earnings have abated, and as a player, he admits he's "looking for a new desire right now. I'm not old enough for the seniors circuit yet, although I'm getting ready for it." In two years, he can join other 50-and-older stars such as Arnold Palmer, Billy Casper, and Sam Snead.
Presently his diversified golf activities are funneled through a downtown Houston office, Doug Sanders Enterprises.
A favorite topic of conversation is the Doug Sanders International Junior Golf Championship, an event he has funded.
Now in its fourth year, the competition pulls together winners from match-play tournaments in Australia, Europe, and the United States for a head-to-head finale. Eventually he hopes to have 17-and-under representative from every continent.
The tournament is in keeping with Doug's global outlook, developed during years of golfing travel. As an amateur he journeyed north and south of the border to win Canadian and Mexican titles. In 1957, after turning pro, he won the Barranquilla Open in Bogota, Colombia. Later in his career he would secure victories in the Bahamas and Japan, a country where his unorthodox swing and flamboyance made him quite popular. Speaking of endorsement income, Doug says, "I did more business in Japan than [Jack] Nicklaus and Palmer combined."
Money, however, has never been the measure of the man. Sanders counts his wealth in friendships, which should make him a wealthy person. "I've met kings, queens, princes, dukes, earls, counts, presidents, vice-presidents, and celebrities all over the world, all because I've worked hard in the sport I love ," he says fondly.
Golf has afforded Sanders opportunities he never dreamed of. Born into a family of modest means, the native of Cedartown, Ga., graduated from picking cotton to caddying. Like so many other youngsters, he got started playing the game on the sly, sneaking onto the local course with his nag-toting brethren. "Sometimes there were 10 of us playing at the same time, with four balls in the air at all times," he recalls.
This experience, Sanders feels, cultivated his abbreviated swing, made all the more peculiar by a wide, stiff-legged stance. Appearances aside, the swing brought results. Doug once estimated he hit the ball out of bounds only five or six times during his first five years on the tour.
After "majoring" in golf at the University of Florida, Sanders sold insurance and honed his game enough to turn pro in 1957. By 1960 he moved up to 10th on the money-winning list, then to third (with $57,428!) the following year, when he nearly won the US Open. An engaging personality who could defuse the tensest situation with his wisecracks and banter, Sanders was heralded as the "golfer to beat in 1962" on a Sports Illustrated cover. He didn't quite live up to that trumpet fanfare, finishing seventh on the money list, but he remained in the hunt for top honors through most of the '60s.
His biggest disappointment came as the new decade began. Doug made a dramatic bid to win the 1970 British Open at St. Andrews, a victory that, if secured, would have been his first in a so-called "major." On the final hole, he missed a three-foot putt, forcing an 18-hole playoff, which Jack Nicklaus won the next day.
Sanders jokingly says that third putt cost him "about a million [dollars] a foot." It may have been worth that to Nicklaus, who hadn't won a major title since 1967, but gathered new confidence thereafter.
Though Sanders was involved in his share of dramatic finishes, what the public probably most remembers about Doug are all those tailored clothes. The sartorial king of the tour, he has as many as 50 pairs of shoes and slacks in his closet. And even today, his crayon-box wardrobe is well stocked with 127 sweaters.
He's never gone the bargain-basement route, either, paying top dollar for the most stylish apparel on the rack. "I always wanted to wear the finest," he says , "because my clothes set the stage for everything I did."
Before Joe Namath ever made headlines. Sanders had established himself as a fun-loving playboy. To this day he expresses no regrets about his late-night partying on the tour.
Now he lives much more quietly, enjoying a happy home life with his wife, Scotty, and a pet cat. Interviewed by phone, it's obvious he's lost none of his warmth or charm, and certainly none of his sense of humor.
Speaking of his son, Brad, who's enrolled in law school at the University of Santa Clara, Doug laments, "He may be the only guy I ever knew to overdraw an unlimited expense account."