The story of Gene Sarazen and the golf shot heard ’round the world

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Associated Pressby ASSOCIATED PRESS Published: Sat, April 11, 2015 7:00 AM Updated: Sat, April 11, 2015 7:06 AM shares email

(EDIT: Short people can’t play the PGA Tour anymore? If it can happen once, it can happen again. And Gene was short. Short and sink putts from all over the place can still win. Jimenez proves it too. He was playing PGA Tour at 48!!)

The crowd in the lobby of the Bon Air Hotel in Augusta, Ga., was jammed with people — professional golfers, reporters, tournament patrons and plenty of hangers on. Gene Sarazen, the diminutive winner of three PGA Championships, two US Opens and the British Open, snaked through crush and walked toward the elevators. It was April 6, 1935, the night before the final round of the second annual Invitation Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club. Sarazen, 33, was experienced enough to know he needed a good night’s sleep.

Waiting for an elevator, Sarazen saw his friend Bob Davis, a columnist for the New York Sun. “Think you can catch ’em tomorrow?” Davis asked. Sarazen was three strokes back of the leader, Craig Wood, and one behind Henry Picard, who recalled the encounter in his 1950 memoir.

“The way Craig is going,” Sarazen replied, “it is going to be a stiff assignment, but with a little luck I might still do it.”

Gene Sarazen signs his scorecard after making his double eagle during...  News Photo - Getty Images

“I’ve got just what you need.” Davis removed an ornate ring from his finger and dropped in Gene’s hand. Davis explained that it was from Mexico, then leaned close and said, “It’s a lucky ring.”

  • Gene knew it would interfere with his grip, but thanked Davis and said, “I’ll carry it in my pocket.”

The following afternoon, Sarazen was paired with his old friend Walter Hagen. Nearly ten years older than Sarazen, “the Haig” had 11 major victories, including four “Opens,” as the British refer to their national championship. But as Sarazen walked onto the first tee, Hagen was missing.

The Haig had been dawdling on the putting green and finally arrived on the tee with no time to spare, long one of his signature moves. He was not in contention on the final day, and seemed intent merely to chat with his friend through their round. Both men used Augusta National caddies, a custom that paired local African-Americans with players that would continue for decades.

Each player was dressed in wool pants and sweaters. It was a cold, blustery day in the 40s, and the course was rain soaked. They were among the last groups that Sunday, 80 years ago this week; Wood and Picard four holes ahead of them. The practice of pairing the leaders in the last starting time had yet to be adopted.

As Sarazen and Hagen teed off, the tournament host and founder of Augusta National, Bobby Jones, was on the back nine. He later finished well out of the money in 25th place.

Sarazen started the Sunday round 4-under par, but bogeys on nine and ten had left him at 2-under. He got one back by birdieing 13 and was then two shots behind Wood, who had bogeyed 16.

On the par-4 14th, Sarazen, pulled his drive into the rough. As he studied his lie, a roar erupted from the 18th green. Word quickly reached Sarazen and Hagen — Wood had birdied the hole to finish six under. Sportswriter O. B. Keeler captured Hagen’s reaction.

“Well, Gene, that looks as if it’s all over,” Hagen said.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Sarazen replied. “They might go in from anywhere.”

Sarazen, center, smiles as he receives a $1,500 check for winning the Augusta National Tournament in Augusta, Ga., in this April 8, 1935 photo. Presenting the check is Grantland Rice. At right is golfer Craig Wood. Trailing Wood by three strokes with just four holes remaining, Sarazen holed a 235-yard 4-wood shot on the 15th hole for a double-eagle 2, then won in a playoff. It was "the shot heard round the world."

The lone reporter following Sarazen and Hagen realized that Wood was the story at the clubhouse. In a video recording before his death, Sarazen recalled the writer’s remark, and said, “I’ve seen enough of you two bums. I’m going up there.”

Sarazen made his par on 14 and trailed Wood by three shots. On the tee at 15, the “Firethorn,” as the members called the hole, Sarazen asked his caddie, whose nickname was “Stovepipe” for the battered silk high top hat he wore, what he needed on the next four holes to win the tournament. Sarazen later described his caddie’s response.

“To beat Craig Wood?” Stovepipe asked.

Sarazen said yes, causing a skeptical Hagen to chuckle a bit.

“Ooh,” Stovepipe sighed, “you need four threes. … Three, three, three, three.”

Sarazen would have to eagle the par-5 15th, par 16 and birdie each of the last two par-fours.

At that time, Wood was in the clubhouse and all but holding the $1,500 winner’s check. “I knew then the odds were 1000 to 1 in my favor,” he said to a journalist afterward. “I felt the tournament was over.”

———

Bobby Jones, the greatest golfer of the Golden Age of American sports, 1919-1930, capped his competitive career, all played as an amateur, in 1930 with an extraordinary feat. He won his era’s Grand Slam in a single year — the British Open and Amateur, and the U.S. Open and Amateur. He was only 28 at the time.

Shortly afterward, Jones commissioned noted British golf course architect Alister MacKenzie to design a golf course on a former plant nursery in Augusta. The private golf club, Augusta National, opened in December 1932, and in 1934, Jones hosted his first invitational tournament. A few folks called the event the “Masters” at the time, but Jones resisted using that name formally until the 1939 tournament.

After Horton Smith won the first tournament, Jones reversed the order of the two nines — the original No. 1 became No. 10. That brought the harder nine, one refined over the years, into play during the tournament’s crunch time. Otherwise, the old adage never would have been coined: “The Masters begins on the back nine on Sunday.”

The son of Italian immigrants, Eugenio Saraceni grew up in Harrison, N.Y., a small town on Long Island Sound. Eugenio worked part-time to supplement the income his father earned as a carpenter. He sold the Saturday Evening Post, picked strawberries, and lit gas lamps, all before discovering golf at age eight.

He began caddying at nearby Larchmont Country Club in 1910 at age eight. Eugenio and his caddie friends laid out a pitch-’n-putt course on a vacant lot and worked on their game using hand-me-down clubs from the Larchmont members. Like so many boys before and after, they bet on their games, usually skins matches for pennies a hole.

After falling ill in the 1918 flu epidemic, Eugenio started playing at a public nine-hole course, Beardsley Park in Bridgeport, Conn. After the local newspaper wrote about a hole-in-one he had made, Saraceni decided his name sounded too much like a violin player’s. Welcome to the game, Gene Sarazen.

Sarazen started as a shop assistant at Bridgeport’s Brooklawn Golf Club in 1918 and declared himself a pro the following year.

Gene Sarazen 1922.jpg

Short at 5-feet-5, the dark Italian became America’s “melting pot” golf professional. Sporting a dress shirt, tie, and plus fours when he played, he was always a gallery favorite. Sarazen wore his trademark pants throughout his life, even at age 97, when he hit his last ceremonial tee ball at the 1999 Masters.

His natty attire, plus his ownership of a Connecticut dairy farm, prompted the press to bestow his well-known nickname, “the Squire.”

Sarazen had not played in the first Masters because he was on a worldwide tour playing exhibition matches with Joe Kirkwood. But this week, he had played well in practice rounds, including a 65 that tied Jones’ course record.

Following a custom of the day, the club’s members organized a Calcutta before the tournament’s first round. Participants “bought” players in an auction, with the man’s odds reflecting his chances of winning; all the money went into a pool. Afterward, whomever “owned” the tournament winner received the biggest payout from the pool. In 1935, H. H. Hunter of New York, made the highest bid for the favorite, Jones, paying $625. On the strength of his practice rounds, Sarazen sold for the second highest bid, $500.

In the afternoon before the first round, Gene reflected his confidence when talking with the esteemed sportswriter Grantland Rice. “I’m keen about the course, and I never saw any golf battlefield in better shape,” Sarazen said. “I honestly think I can step along here.”

But late that night, an unsettling moment interrupted his sleep. He awoke as his hotel room door opened and the hallway light cast a woman’s shadow into his room. Gene bolted out of bed, grabbed his driver and chased her out of his room.

On the first day, Sarazen lived up to his Calcutta odds and shot a 68. His playing partner, Tommy Armour, described Gene’s round to reporters. “It matched the greatest golf I have ever seen Harry Vardon or Bobby Jones play.” Picard’s 67, however, led the field.

Picard led after the second round at 9-under par, but slipped to a 76 on day three and fell out of the lead. Wood shot 69-72-68 over the first three rounds, giving him the lead at – under. Olin Dutra was in second place at minus 6, and Sarazen fourth, at 4 under.

But on the back nine in the final round, everything was about to change in the young Masters tournament.

———

As Sarazen and Hagen walked onto the par-5 15th tee, a gallery of only about 25 people followed them. At 485 yards, the hole was straight with the preferred landing area for drives about 250 yards distant, on or just beyond the crest of a hill. It was 5:30 in the afternoon.

Of their two drives, Gene’s was the best and with a tail-end hook came to rest 235 yards from the pin. As they walked along the crown of the hill, Sarazen said later that he could see an apparent celebration at the clubhouse of Wood’s impending victory.

Sarazen, however, had no joy when he saw his tight lie on the closely mown fairway. He studied the slope of the fairway down to a pond guarding the front of the green, a body of water much bigger then than today.

“I went into a huddle with Stovepipe as to whether I should play a three-wood or a four-wood,” Sarazen wrote later. He needed the distance from the three to get to the pin, but the greater loft of the four to get the ball airborne and over the water. He played a Wilson Turfrider 4-wood, which had a concave groove on the sole that helped with tight lies.

Meanwhile, Hagen, who had to lay up on his second shot, began fidgeting. Hagen biographer Tom Clavin related the Haig’s impatience: “Hurry it up, will you, Gene? I’ve got a big date tonight,” implored Hagen, whose penchant for a good time was well known.

Sarazen decided on the 4-wood and then remembered the lucky ring. “I extracted it from my pocket,” he wrote later, “and rubbed it over Stovepipe’s head to give its reputed powers every chance to work.”

“I took my stance with my four-wood and rode into the shot with every ounce of strength and timing I could muster,” Sarazen said of the shot. “The split second I hit the ball, I knew it would carry the pond.”

Rice gave his take on the shot in his newspaper column the next day: “The ball left the face of the spoon like a rifle shot. It never wavered from a direct line to the pin.”

The ball cleared the pond, landed short of the green and rolled directly into the hole. Around the green, the small gallery burst into cheers, which alerted nearby fans of the miraculous shot. “When that wild howl went up,” Sarazen said afterward, “I felt, for just a second, like crying.”

Bobby Jones, who had finished his round and walked to the 15th, witnessed Sarazen’s 4-wood shot. Author David Barrett quoted Jones’ reaction: “That was one golf shot that was beyond all imagining, and golf is largely imagination,” Jones said later. “From duffer to star we all dream of impossible shots that might come off. This one was beyond the limit of all dreams when you consider all the surrounding circumstances. I still don’t believe what I saw.”

After Hagen holed out, the person who relayed scores on 15 to the central scoreboard by the clubhouse had trouble getting the scoreboard crew to believe him. Confusion continued for a while in the clubhouse, and two-time Masters winner Ben Crenshaw tells an old story.

“I don’t know how it was carried, but the runner or somebody said, ‘Mr. Gene … made a two on 15,’ ” Crenshaw said. “A guy in the clubhouse said ‘No, you’ve got the holes wrong, 16 is a par 3.’ And the guy said, ‘No, Mr. Gene … made a two on 15.’ ”

Also in the clubhouse, Craig Wood’s wife Jacqueline quickly became anxious about her husband winning on this, their first wedding anniversary. Pacing about, sportswriter Paul Gallico reported a comment from she drew a comment from another player’s wife, “You’ll get used to this, dear.”

(END OPTIONAL TRIM)

Having erased Wood’s three-shot lead on one hole, Sarazen had to par the last three holes to gain a playoff or birdie one of them for the win. “No one ever asks about the last three,” Sarazen told author Curt Sampson.

No. 16 was playing 135 yards that day, and Sarazen hit an 8-iron within 10 feet. He missed the birdie putt, but got his par. He also pared 17. But 18 was a struggle.

“The wind was against me on that hole, 420 yards long and all uphill after the drive,” Sarazen recalled later. The wind forced Gene to hit a 4-wood approach, when normally a five-iron would have sufficed. His ball landed just past the flag and rolled 30 feet up the sloped green. After Hagen putted out, Gene gently rolled the double-breaker to within three feet.

“I stepped up and hit the three-footer instantly,” he said. “It dropped and I had tied Wood.”

Sarazen and Wood played a 36-hole playoff the next day. In what was an anticlimactic stroke play match, Gene beat Craig by five shots, making 24 straight pars from holes 11 through 34.

Rice presented the winner’s trophy and a check for $1,500 to Sarazen afterward. (The green jacket tradition didn’t start until 1949.) Wood, who had placed second in the first Masters, found himself in a familiar spot.

———

Newspaper reporters quickly dubbed Sarazen’s double eagle “the Shot Heard ’Round the World.” More recently, George Peper, a long-time golf writer and editor, declared it the “most famous shot in the history of the game.” Peper also noted that Sarazen helped draw attention to Augusta National, which in turn, helped the Masters rise to the level of the two Opens and the PGA Championship and become a major tournament.

Masters shots to remember: Sarazen's double eagle

In 1955 on the 20th anniversary of Sarazen’s double eagle, the rarest of all golf’s birds, Augusta National constructed a bridge across the pond that fronts the 15th green. Known as the Sarazen Bridge, it displays a plaque that commemorates the historic shot.

Sarazen’s feat is one of many on Augusta’s back nine that have thrilled both the galleries and TV audiences in many Masters. That accentuates the importance of Jones’ reversal of the nines before the 1935 tournament. The Augusta Chronicle cited how golf writer Dan Jenkins sees the irony in the switch.

“The double eagle legend would be lost,” he said. “A double eagle on No. 6. So what?”

———

Michael K. Bohn is the author of Money Golf, a history of the gentlemanly wager on the golf course.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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