Love, liquor & lavender – golfer Dave Sanders
The record never really does speak for itself. If Doug Sanders’ did, it would scream, and he wouldn’t have to, with every fiber of his ward-robe and being.
By a stroke, Sanders was second to Jack Nicklaus in two British Opens, not just the famous one at St. Andrews in 1970. By a stroke, Sanders was second to Gene Littler in the U.S. Open (1961). By a stroke, he was second to Bob Rosburg in the PGA Championship (1959).
Sanders was fourth at the Masters in 1966, a year when his worst finish in a major was eighth. After winning the Canadian Open as a 22-year-old amateur, Sanders decorated the PGA Tour for 19 summers. He won 20 official tournaments: one more than Tom Kite or Ben Crenshaw, six more than Fred Couples or Corey Pavin, just as many as Hale Irwin, twice as many as Payne Stewart.
Along the way, Sanders beat Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Tom Weiskopf in various playoffs. He won back-to-back tournaments in four different years. When Captain Ben Hogan tartly introduced the American side at the 1967 Ryder Cup (“Ladies and gentlemen . . . the finest golfers in the world”), Sanders was among them.
Of course, with the exception of a 30-inch putt, he was famous for none of these things. He was famous for love, liquor and lavender. He was famous for pastel-colored outfits with, most famous of all, matching shoes. He was famous for famous friends and a short backswing.
The backswing came from the same place Sanders did, Cedartown, Ga., in Polk County. Just as the gamblers and moonshin-ers worked their angles around the cotton fields and the Baptist Church, golf at Cedartown’s nine-hole course had to be negotiated in the narrow openings between the honeysuckle brambles and the meandering creeks.
For the caddies, speed meant nearly as much as accuracy. They sneaked their own shots whenever their employers were on the other side of the rise. Consequently, Sanders had a swing so short and sudden that it was barely visible to the naked eye.
While a field hand, he had been the kind of boy who slipped stones or melons into his cotton sack to improve the payoff ($2 per 100 pounds). As a caddie, he would find desolate golf balls, fill in their cuts and nicks with soap, cover them over with white shoe-polish and sell them as gamers. Sleeping through most of his school days, he unconsciously majored in metaphors.
“I have always taken care of my cover,” he says with breathtaking honesty, “better than my core.”
Today’s closetful of shoes, as shiny and bright as hard candy, represents no mystery. Sanders didn’t have shoes of his own until he was 8. “One left,” he says, “and one right.”
To the boy tramping 21/2 miles home from the Cedartown course, “the lightning bugs looked like ghosts.” They would go with him to all the big cities of the world. “I never got tired of walking up that road,” he says. “I just got tired of walking up that road broke.”
Sporting lifes who talked Sanders into skipping school ferried him as far away as 200 miles for gambling games. He lost his virginity in a ditch at the age of 11.
In seventh grade, when the teacher stepped out for a moment, he and a girl made love standing up behind a Hammond’s Map of the World. He took it for love, anyway.
Even in bib overalls, George Douglas Sanders was a handsome boy. Conscious of his appearance, he starched his blue jeans to emphasize the crease and washed his tousled hair twice a day.
Sanders’ older brothers, Ernest and James, had marks: deep and sorrowful ones. Dougie didn’t have any, or at least they didn’t show. Ernest, the eldest son, was blind. At the age of 4, he was playing in a coalyard and picked up a dynamite cap. James lost a hand with the Marines in Korea.
Their father was a bootlegger. Sanders says, “I can still see Dad and Mom sitting there at the Masters.” With a split grip, the old man had attempted only one golf shot his whole life, just to see what all the fuss was about. Since the hit was pretty straight and fairly solid, thereafter he considered it an easy game. He’d tell Hogan, “If you ever need any help, Ben, come see me. I’ll show you how to do it.”
Mom was a piney-woods linguist-“She spoke three languages,” Sanders says. “Fluent Georgian, fluent Texan and a little English.” Her features were soft and delicate, but her eyes never completely let go of the cotton mill, the kitchen stove and the Depression. “She was a dream mom. But I’m not sure if Mom ever knew what I did. When I’d leave town, she’d say, ‘Son, good luck to you, in whatever you do.’
“I don’t know why,” Sanders says, “but I wanted to win.”
The celebrity carousel
On his first airplane ride, he declined the meal, fearing it was extra. But this was not his style for long. He fell in with Dutch Harrison and Al Besselink and Tony Lema and Jimmy Demaret. “It’s only when you’re broke,” Demaret always said, “that you can enjoy life.”
Through them, Sanders found Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby and Bob Hope and Jack Benny and Phil Harris and Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. and Errol Flynn and Gene Kelly and Gene Tierney and Jill St. John. Any carousel that came around, he jumped right on.
In those days, golfers and entertainers were gin and vermouth. Walter Burkemo, the PGA champion of 1953, went to high school with “Lonesome” George Gobel, the country comedian. As boys, they once tried to place an overseas call to Adolf Hitler to talk him out of the war. The impulse of the entire clan was to stir a drink and call somebody, everybody.
“I was just kind of accepted into that group, I don’t know why,” Sanders says. “Friendship. The stories that we told, sitting around. We used to go up to Bob Hope’s house just to laugh. Sinatra and I talked a lot on the phone. He always called me ‘George Douglas.’ I always called him ‘Francis Albert.’ We communicated.”
By 1959, Sanders had a phone in his car. Dougie always went first class.
But, in the earliest days, luxury was when he didn’t require a passenger to help foot the gas bill. He could drive to the next tournament alone. “Between 12 and 2, I never turned the radio on. That was my quiet time. It was about the only time I ever stopped to think.”
The way Hillary Clinton has conversations with Eleanor Roosevelt, Sanders had regular talks with Walter Hagen, the patron saint of the bon vivants. “Haig,” he’d say to the empty car, “I’m putting you in the closet for a while.”
At the start of every season, Sanders went on the wagon until he won a tournament. “I did most of my winning,” he says sheepishly, “early in the year.” After that, he enjoyed life. Did he drink on the golf course? “Did I drink on the golf course?” he says.
“It was Doug who taught me how,” says the dried-out Scot, Brian Barnes, back from the dead. “I remember the first time I played with Sanders. Even his golf towel seemed to smell of alcohol. I asked him about it and he told me he soaked it in vodka.” As Sanders recalls, “I had girls stationed all over the course, bringing me vodka tonics.”
Two weeks after turning pro, he married a little bit of Cedartown. They quickly had a son and separated, though he paid her to return for 30 days to circumvent the selective service.
Next, he married a performing water skier at Cypress Gardens. They also divorced. He went through a lot of women who sent him mash notes, who said to look for them in the gallery. They’d be wearing a yellow dress.
Eventually, he found Scotty. She left, too, but after 27 years of hard marriage. He misses her. “She was solid,” he says.
Scotty was the pretty brunette with the hands over her face standing beside the lounge singer, Buddy Greco, when the famous putt was missed.
Having got up and down out of the treacherous Road Hole bunker, Sanders was a stroke ahead of Nicklaus with just the Valley of Sin between him and the British Open title of 1970. Lee Trevino’s caddie, who had carried for Tony Lema when Lema won at St. Andrews six years earlier, handed Sanders a white tee. “Here,” he said, “it’s one of Champagne Tony’s.”
After a reasonable drive at the soft 18th, Sanders hit a careful sand wedge 30 feet past the pin and had two putts for the championship.
The first was on line and seemed well-struck. But it was 2 1/2 feet short. As Trevino measured and then made his birdie for third place, Sanders allowed himself to imagine the headlines. Three years without a victory, he’d had to qualify for the British.
Standing over the short putt, Sanders was actually taking the putter back when abruptly he stopped. A speck of dirt had blown into his line. Stepping out with his left foot, keeping the right one in place, he leaned over and brushed the speck aside.
In Fort Worth, Tex., Hogan leaped out of his chair. “Walk away, Sanders!” he shouted at the TV screen. “Walk away! Walk away!”
When Sanders replanted the left foot, he failed to notice that his stance had been slightly changed.
The gallery tittered nervously. After the hush was reinstated, he couldn’t shake a sense of someone still snickering. The instant he struck the ball, he wanted to rake it back. In a reflex action, he almost did.
It missed on the right side of the cup by about an inch.
He and Scotty and Greco were staying in an old farmhouse. That night, Sanders went out alone to feed the cows in the Scottish half-light. Tripping on something, he took a header into a ditch. He was back in the ditch.
Picking himself up and shambling over a fence, he approached the cows sociably. Probably unfamiliar with magenta, they scattered. He lay down in the meadow, looked up at the sky and let go of some old dreams. The bravest of the cows came over to him and he jumped on her back and rode her to the last roundup.
In the 18-hole playoff, Sanders rallied from four strokes down to one down with a hole to play. Nicklaus removed one of his sweaters and overdrove the par- 4 18th. Sanders marked the four-footer he had for birdie to watch Nicklaus try a putt of at least three times that length. Of course, it went in. Sanders made his own birdie and they shook hands. Some time later, he had the grace to say to Nicklaus, “I gave it to you on Saturday [the fourth round], but you won it on Sunday.”
A lone senior triumph
That isn’t the end of Sanders’ story, although it often seems to be. In 1972, he won the Kemper Open, his 20th tour title. The savage swing that had kept him in cortisone for so many years was taking increasing tolls. But he played when he could, where he could, as well as he could.
Nineteen months and nine days before his 50th birthday-July 24, 1983-Sanders went into training for the Senior PGA Tour. Scotty threw him a birthday bash at London’s Dorchester Hotel, in the same suite where Prince Philip had his bachelor party. Sanders almost drowned in champagne.
He came out of the chute second, fourth, sixth and first, winning the World Seniors Invitational at Quail Hollow. But that was all. For 10 years, he staggered down the money list, from the teens to the 20s to the 30s to the 60s to the 80s.
As he reached the age of 60, his head and life both slipped off their spindles. He began to twitch. Simultaneously, his hands would jump right and his head would jerk left. He had to bite his shirt to keep his eyes over the ball. The disorder is called torticollis.
“I’ll tell you what I think caused it,” he says, shrugging a cell phone into his chin like a violin. “Twenty years of this.”
Anyway, his head was practically on its side and the pain was like a cramp that wouldn’t go away. “I hurt too damn bad to hug the pretty women,” he says. “I wanted to die. The thought was there.”
As he tells it, he did die. “Finally, I underwent an operation and my heart stopped on the table.
I was walking along. I didn’t see anybody or anything. But I was in heaven. It was like a big mountain-copper, silver. I was looking down in the valley-the glitter and everything. Behind me was so powerful. Then something hit me like a hammer in the heart.”
A bigger blow was delivered to the solar plexus by a Houston TV station that insinuated in an investigative series that the principal charity in the annual Doug Sanders Celebrity Golf Classic was Doug Sanders.
“If I had done anything wrong,” he says, “I would have killed myself.” But his $20,000-a-month management fee was, at the least, unseemly. And all of the charitable things he and Scotty had done off the books were lost in the public accounting.
He was stripped of the tournament, and more than just the tournament.
Sanders has a vague dream, a wishful hope, of coming into money again someday
and using it to put up a building for Scotty and all of the troubled children she has always championed.
“She’s the daughter of a Baptist minister,” he says. “She left the drink and the smoke to go back to the church. I was still . . . out there. I think, since I’ve been divorced, maybe I’ve just become human.”
This is by way of explanation for the tears in his eyes.
“I was hard. I could do anything and never let it bother me emotionally. Like when my father was dying in 1966, I didn’t show anything. If he died, he died. I loved him.”
Doug led his blind brother, Ernest, into their father’s room. Of course, Ernest had to run his hands over the old man’s face to see him. “I went to a place I had in the backyard,” Sanders says. “I always had a place in the back to cry.”
After that, his mother moved in. But he was busy. Only one time can he remember spending an entire day with her. At the end of that day, he sat on her bed and held her hand. ” ‘Son,’ she told me, ‘thanks for spending the day with me.’ Then she looked up at the ceiling and said, ‘God, if you’re ready to take me, I’m ready to go.’ She closed her eyes.”
He is talking in the living room of the sprawling home he has occupied for 30 years in Houston. He shares the house now with a look-alike of Ernst Blofeld’s white cat from the James Bond movies.
Out back is a small, elegant swimming pool, a tennis court without nets, stables where there used to be horses and a two-bedroom guest bungalow that has housed visitors as disparate as Sinatra, Arnold Palmer, Bob Newhart, Oral Roberts and Spiro Agnew. The late Vice President was known chiefly for two things: graft and conking Doug Sanders with a golf ball.
Framed letters cover the living room walls, many on White House stationery. “Thanks so much for the great golf shirts and tote bag” (Bill Clinton). “I’m delighted to receive the ‘Mr. President’ golf shirts” (Jimmy Carter). “I’ve never been in such good shape for sports socks” (Ted Agnew). “The socks are sensational” (George Bush).
Hope and Crosby are well represented. “Thank you so much for the chocolate golf balls” (Bing). John Wayne seems to apologize for not being a golfer. Jack Benny writes: “It’s tough enough to miss a short putt and then have to come back the next day and face a playoff against a guy like Nicklaus. But, to top it all off, then you were down four strokes at the 13th and not only didn’t give up, you came back with one of the greatest surges anyone ever saw. P.S. Screw you.
I got an eagle yesterday.”
A cornucopia of keepsakes
Memorabilia is sprinkled around the room, all of the rooms, as haphazardly as the treasures in a claw machine. The items range from a pool-table blanket signed by Suharto, Sinatra, five Presidents, Margaret Thatcher and Ferdinand Marcos, to napkin dolls made by Sam Snead at the dinner table, to movie posters personalized by Jack Lemmon and Kevin Costner (“To Doug, I was glad to enter your world, if only for a short time”).
Dominating the clutter are large displays of autographed golf gloves under glass, Sanders’ invention. Not just Masters, Open, British, PGA, LPGA and senior winners, but “Popular Singers” (Robert Goulet, Bobby Vinton, Eydie Gorme), “Country Singers” (Vince Gill, Travis Tritt) and Super Bowl coaches and quarterbacks.
Sanders commissioned a painting of Nicklaus to accompany the prize of his glove collection: the 28 second-place finishers in Nicklaus’ 18 professional majors.
How does Sanders, how does anyone, have the time for this?
“Not having a tournament anymore,” he says, “not having a wife.”
Are these things worth a lot of money? “They’re not for sale,” he says. “Nothing I have is for sale.”
Even Hogan, who didn’t wear a glove, signed Sanders’ gloves. Only one star has decided he has signed enough gloves for Sanders. Sweetly, Palmer keeps filling new orders. On the latest glove, one actually smudged from play, Arnold has written “Ryder Cup Team, 1975.”
“I wish he had said ‘captain,’ too,” Sanders says. “I wanted him to say ‘captain,’ too.”
If Sanders had made the putt, he thinks, “Maybe I would have been captain of a Ryder Cup team. Certainly I would have had all the money I needed. I would have spent more time with my son, I know that. I’d have been a better husband.”
Off the living room is an astronauts alcove: airplane models and Apollo matchbooks and John Glenn’s signed golf bag. Alan Shepard or one of Sanders’ other pals carried Doug’s money clip into space. Sanders went close to space himself, in a U2 spy plane.
“Look at the curvature of the Earth,” he says, narrating the tape. “Look how black it is there. One of the happiest moments of my life, right here. Yeah, baby. Champagne.”
He has quit drinking and has been baptized. His head still rides his shoulders a trifle woodenly, but he looks pretty good, especially when he smiles.
“Ray Bolger, Mike Douglas,” he says, thumbing through one of 43 leather-bound albums as thick as Manhattan directories. “There’s Engelbert Humper-dinck. You look back, sometimes it’s sad. You say, ‘Wait a minute, where the devil did it go?’ Frankie Avalon. I’m not ready for it to go that quick. Mom with Mac Davis.”
All of Phyllis Diller’s postcards through the years have been carefully pressed into the archive. (“Dear Doug, why can’t you take me seriously?”)
“Yeah, I was voted one of the 10 sexiest athletes,” Sanders says. “What a hell of a life I’ve lived. I was on ‘The Dating Game.’ “
A 33-year-old Life magazine (Liz Taylor on the cover), placed casually on the bar, reports, “Doug Sanders wins at golf, girls and living. It’s a great life if you don’t get old or lose your cash.”
He is 65. Places to play are drying up. Like all pioneers, he is dismayed at how much money has come to golf and how little of it is going to pensioners. But, oh, golly, hell, damn.
“When you go at the pace I’ve gone,” he says, “more, more, more, more, you don’t have a chance to sit down and think. You’re running. I woke up one day and stopped. Here I am now. I’ve just stopped. I had time to look at the flowers in a different way. I’m looking at them now and they’re not blooming.”
‘Just to be out there again’
He has lost 21/2 clubs in iron distance, but says, “It’s amazing how straight I’m hitting it.” Orlimar’s utility woods delight him. “I’m solid. I just don’t play enough to know how far they go.”
Invitations and outings are precious to Sanders, not for the winning anymore, “just to be out there again.”
“Just to smile and sign my pictures and hand them out, just to tell some 90- year-old lady how gorgeous she looks, to tell some 5-year-old girl she’ll grow up to be a princess, to tell some boy of 10 what a strong handshake he has and to tell his father how good he looks in that suit.
“You can’t do that sitting at home.”
A speakers bureau could use him. He’s a good speaker, especially now that he has something to say. He has been thinking-although has not yet fully thought it out-about a sports bar, where his memorabilia would sparkle. “I don’t just want a restaurant, I want a driving range, a par 3. I want to be around golf.”
Sanders doesn’t need and really can’t afford the big house anymore, but he doesn’t know where he would go. “I wouldn’t know what state,” he says, “let alone what city.”
Thirty-three years ago, he just missed Tony Lema’s flight to eternity (“I was going to be on that plane; it was my birthday”) and never gave mortality a thought. Now, he thinks of it quite a lot.
“That’s the reason I started the memorabilia,” he says. “I just don’t want to leave without people knowing I’ve been here. I just don’t want to pass away and no one knows anything. I’m just gone.
“There are feelings that should never die: The first time you fall in love. The first tournament you lose. The first one you win. There’s no halo over my head, but I was a pretty good player.”
The cat he took in is wild and imperial. The raccoons that come in force to Sanders’ back door are tamer. He has counted as many as 26. After dark, in a pink warmup suit, he goes out with a drum of raccoon food and spills it all over the property. The lightning bugs look like ghosts. It’s all gone in the morning.
COPYRIGHT 1999 New York Times Company Magazine Group, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group