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Sam Snead: One of a Kind

Imagine Golf Club's Dermot Gilleece on the enduring influence of the old Slammer

Posted Oct 05, 2009 by Dermot Gilleece

sam snead

In recalling his US Masters debut in 2000, Padraig Harrington talks about the feeling that Augusta National seemed to open up its doors to him.  Essentially, this had to do with the fact that the first celebrity he met at the entrance to the clubhouse was Sam Snead, regaling a rapt audience of press and players about aspects of his illustrious golfing career.

It made a huge impact on Harrington who was still feeling his way on tour at that stage and had gained only his second tournament win, in the 500 Sao Paolo Open, the previous weekend.  As it happens, the Augusta occasion has also stayed with me, in that I was fortunate to be part of the listening throng.

All of which is prompted by the fact that it is now 50 years since the so-called Slammer made his swansong appearance in the Ryder Cup.  That was at the Eldorado Country Club in Palm Springs late in 1959, when Snead made an appropriate departure with a 6 and 5 singles thrashing of Welshman, Dave Thomas.  He continued to represent his country, however, in what was then the Canada Cup, partnering a young buck named Arnold Palmer to victory at Portmarnock the following year.

Incidentally, 1959 was also the occasion when members of the British and Irish team cheated death in the infamous "Long Drop" in which the aircraft taking them to Palm Springs from Los Angeles, almost fell from the skies during unexpectedly severe turbulence.

Christy O'Connor Snr, who was to begin a celebrated partnership with Peter Alliss in that particular Ryder Cup, later spoke of bumps which became jolts, increasing in frequency and violence.  "Collars were undone," he said, "and once the air hostess reached for the sick bag, she started a trend.  This was it, I thought to myself. I said a prayer."  Later, the players and accompanying journalists completed the journey by road after the plane had returned to Los Angeles."

A different memory of the 1959 Ryder Cup in which the home side cruised to a five-point victory, was recalled by the incomparable Ian Wooldridge some years later in the sports pages of the "Daily Mail", where I happened to work at the time.  It took the form of a sort of postscript to the event, with himself and Ronald Heager of the "Daily Express" interviewing Snead in the locker-room at Eldorado.

According to Wooldridge, Snead was "courtesy itself", even if he kept his famous hat on indoors.  As the scribe put it: "He removed his chewing gum, refrained from spitting and asked about the health of a number of mutual acquaintances."

Wooldridge went on: "Unfortunately, this unexpected exhibition of charm was sorely tested by an uninvited fourth party, a wealthy, middle-aged businessman who was stoned out of his senses by what could hardly have been less than a hogshead of dry Martini."

It seems that every time Snead made a point, the eavesdropping businessman cried: "Shrite, Sam. You tell 'em boy."  All of which was accompanied by a resounding belch.  Eventually, Snead could stand it no longer, so he excused himself from the company of the two British scribes and addressed the businessman.

"Youse a Texan, aincha?" said the proud Virginian.  "Shrite, Sam, boy.  Ah'm a Texan," came the reply. "Then," said Snead, "you'd better watch this."    

With that, Snead crossed the locker-room, removed his boater, stooped down and placed it carefully on top of a pair of shoes resting on the floor. He then returned to the businessman, jerked his head in the direction of the hat and the shoes and said: "Do you know what that is?"

The bemused and befuddled intruder confessed that he didn't.  "That," said Snead, "is a Texan with all the bullshit kicked out of him.  Now, will ya just get ya big fat ass outa here?"          Whereupon peace and order were restored to what proved to be a fascinating interview.

As countless observers discovered over the years, the old Slammer was one of a kind.

- Dermot Gilleece

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