To Sam, With Love Signed: Greensboro


The headline just about said it all on that overcast April morning at the 1965 Greater Greensboro Open. The city and its treasured golf tournament, now known as the Wyndham Championship, had outdone itself to honor its aging hero Sam Snead on the occasion of his 25th appearance here.

But the best was yet to come, as it turned out four unbelievable days later, when Snead walked off the 18th green at Sedgefield with his eighth GGO victory. He had won a PGA TOUR event at the ripe old age of 52 years, 10 months and eight days and established a record that remains in the books a half-century later.

Hollywood would be hard pressed to script a more remarkable week. Little wonder that for the Wyndham’s 75th tournament a year ago, Snead’s unthinkable feat was voted its most-memorable moment.

Most memorable indeed. Gathered for the tournament was perhaps the strongest field of the season, save for the Major championships. Arnold Palmer was here. So were Gary Player and Billy Casper and Raymond Floyd and Julius Boros and just about everybody else of note except Jack Nicklaus, who had withdrawn late the previous week because of a bad back.

But Sam Snead? It was a nice gesture to have him back, they all said, though one had been heard to ask wryly what many were thinking: “What’s that old man doing here anyway?” They would find out later, to their peril, but that is getting ahead of the story.

Ed Sullivan, the CBS entertainment giant who had introduced Elvis Presley and the Beatles to the world on his Sunday night prime time variety show, came down from New York to be toastmaster at a banquet in Snead’s honor. Some 800 people jammed the old Plantation Club for the occasion, including Fred Corcoran, who had been PGA TOUR manager in 1938 when Snead won the inaugural GGO.

Hunting/fishing buddy Dave Goforth presented Snead a big-game rifle from his fans here, GGO chairman John Rendleman gave him a $500 check for his favorite charity, a Hot Springs, Va., hospital, and former mayor and friend Carson Bain gave him free hamburgers for life from McDonalds. It was that kind of evening, one that chairman Jim Betts recently called “a really fun night, a wonderful way to start tournament week.”

Indeed it was, but the highlight was a closing remark from Sullivan — and Snead’s response.

“Wouldn’t it be nice,” Sullivan asked rhetorically, “if old Sam could go out there and win again?”

Pause for laughter.

“You young fellers better watch out,” replied Snead, squinting into the bright lights. “I just might do it.”

When Snead putted his way to an opening-round 68 the next day, the Snead faithful began to come alive. When the tournament began, many hoped but few believed he could do it again. Now they were wondering if this could be 1950 all over again — that was the week he ran off with it, winning by 10 shots over Jimmy Demaret and stirring up such excitement that they actually ran out of tickets on Sunday.

This time he was just close enough to make one wonder. He was two behind Tommy Aaron, a plodding TOUR regular and one behind two obscure figures named Martindale and Hunt.

Friday dawned sunny, and the temperature climbed into the low 60s on a Sedgefield golf course about to burst into full April bloom. And Ol’ Sam didn’t fade, as many feared. He was two under at 69, tied with Billy Casper.

Casper and Snead. What a contrast. When Snead won his first GGO in 1938, Casper, who had just had an eagle and two birdies on the last four holes of the second round in 1965, was laboring over first-grade arithmetic in Southern California. Can it be? Well, yes. Next day Casper became human again, shooting one-over-par 72, and here came Snead again with another sub-70 score. This time his three-under 68 earned him a two-stroke lead over superstar Casper and two bright youngsters named Labron Harris and Phil Rodgers.

Okay. It’s been a good ride for Greensboro’s hero from up north in old Virginia. Now’s the time for youth to prevail, right? Wrong.

Snead posted a second-consecutive 68 and won his eighth GGO by a whopping five strokes. Later he confessed that his strategy had been to “play for pars, hope for an occasional birdie and make them catch me.” And catch him they tried, but one by one those in closest pursuit met their competitive death.

Actually, Snead slew them with his putter. On the 13th he holed a “real gobbler,” a “China to Japan” putt of at least 60 feet for birdie. It became a rout when he sank birdie putts of eight and six feet on the next two holes.

Fittingly, a then-record GGO crowd estimated at 11,000 erupted in breathless joy when the final putt dropped. And it was made all the sweeter by the millions more watching the historic feat on national TV — in living color, no less, when such was in its infancy.

Not only was he now the oldest person ever to win on the PGA TOUR, he was the first to win the same tournament eight times, and to take two of the victories a quarter of a century apart.

“You young fellers better watch out,” a grateful Sam Snead had said four nights earlier.  “I just might do it.”

He apparently knew something the rest of us did not.

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