OPEN GOLF: Doug Sanders interviewJuly, 2012
The Peacock of the Fairways on a tough upbringing, that putt at St Andrews and hiring a hitman to put a bullet in his head
ONE word that will never be associated with Doug Sanders is boring. He dresses flamboyantly, surrounded himself with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby and has a list of tales that most of us can only dream of.
His heart might have stopped beating twice but, at 78, he remains as lively, and mischievous, as ever.
We finish our half-hour chat with a joke; unfortunately it’s not suitable for these pages but, two months later, it still makes me giggle.
Sanders is a rare treat, he will always be associated with a putt that never dropped but that particular storyline barely scratches the surface.
Tell us about your upbringing, which was far from the privileged one of many golfers?
My brother, before I was born, was four and was hit by a firecracker which blew his eyes out and his fingers off. Another brother went into the Marine Corps and he had his right arm blown off in Korea. My other two sisters have both passed away so I’m the only one left. I’d pick cotton aged seven; pick 100 pounds a day for a dollar. During the Depression my dad would walk five miles there and five miles back for 50 cents a day.
How did you get into golf then?
I got into golf looking for balls for nickels and dimes and started caddying when I was 10. Everyone had gone off to war so there were no new balls and they were a real luxury. The guys would take me round the back for chipping and putting and they beat me out of my money and I would walk home and those lightning bugs would look like ghosts. The next day it was the same all over again.
How long was it before you started to take their money?
I got tired of losing all my money and walking home broke so I practised chipping and putting and by the time I was 13, after an event caddying, they all said ‘come on sucker, we ain’t had any of your money for a while’ and I beat them and those lightning bugs didn’t look like ghosts no more with four $5 bills in my pocket.
Were you always into looking your best?
Jimmy Demaret was one of the best dressers and nicest guys I ever met in my life and he wore a lot of Hawaiian colours. I’ve never done anything half-assed. I was the first guy on tour to put two colours together. Then I got the shoes to match, then the glove.
I was always looking for different ways, one year I was at Augusta and this guy wrote me a letter the following week. I hit a drive and a 5 iron 10 feet behind the flag on the 10th and when I bent down to read my putt he could see the top of my white pants. I showed that letter to my wife and she bought 20 to 30 pairs of underwear and 30 to 40 pairs of socks and she would dye them in a big vat so everything matched.
How expensive was it?
My ex-wife spent $137,000 35 years ago to redo my clothes and shoes, at one time I had over 250 pairs of shoes. This was before anyone knew what colour was, I wish someone would call me as I’ve got so many fabulous ideas for a line of clothes.
You only played in one Ryder Cup, why was that?
I had won 15 tournaments before I was eligible for the Ryder Cup. When we joined the PGA we weren’t members for five years and then you could play in the Ryder Cup. Ben Hogan was the captain in 1967 and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life.
My ex-wife spent $137,000 35 years ago to redo my clothes and shoes, at one time I had over 250 pairs of shoes.
What sort of a captain was he?
Hogan called us together and said ‘Gentlemen, I want you to know one thing. Ben Hogan does not want his name on that losing trophy, you do understand don’t you.’
‘Yes captain. Yes captain,’ we would reply.
He would come up to you with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other and he would say ‘Doug, you will win today won’t you?’
‘Yes captain. Yes captain.’
After the match he would just say ‘you won today, didn’t you?’ Do you want to tell Ben Hogan that you lost – shit no!’
He got up and he said ‘Ladies and gentlemen, in all my experiences I have never seen a team as good as this American team. No team can beat them.’
There was no way we could lose that match and, thankfully, we didn’t.
And what sort of person was he?
All he ever wanted to do was win. Byron Nelson was the closest friend he had and he said in his entire lifetime that they never had dinner just the two of them. He had that will to win like no other, the closest I have seen anyone come to it was Gary Player.
I was playing down in Sacramento and Hogan, Snead, Palmer were all there. I shot 66 and won it. We drove up to the next tournament and this was the first tournament that Gary ever played in. I asked Gary if he would take $250,000 and go back to being an amateur – he said he was going to win all four Majors.
This was 1958. Only Hogan had won all four of the current Majors and I laughed at him. Not only did he do that but he was the next person to do it. Better still he also lived a normal life doing it.
How long do you go without thinking of the missed putt at St Andrews in the 1970 Open?
Oh, I sometimes go five minutes without thinking about it. Everything just got away from me, I was thinking about everyone having a good time instead of just ➤ getting the thing done and enjoying that later. That’s what destroyed it for me. Hogan would have focused, I didn’t.
What was going through your head standing over it?
I was thinking about so many things, I was thinking about taking too long and why was I going first and I never thought about the putt. I had already lost the British by a stroke, the US Open by a stroke, the PGA by a stroke and had I birdied the 16th hole at Masters one year I would have won that. Four pars and a bogey and I could have won five Majors. I don’t think anybody has been that close without winning one.
What was your putting usually like in the closing stretch?
I shot three 62s in one year and I didn’t one-putt 17 or 18 in any of them. I used to get excited at around seven under and would think about a 59 but would then drop a shot. I finally got to the way of thinking that when I was seven under I would think I was level and look for another birdie.
So people would be surprised to learn you were a phenomenal winner on tour?
I won 20 times on the tour. People just measure whether you have won a Major. Only three golfers in the past 38 years who have won more tournaments – Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson and Tiger. And yet I’m not even in the Hall of Fame.
You struggled with a neck condition, torticollis, how bad did that get later in your career?
I couldn’t hit a ball without biting my shirt collar to keep my head in place. I could not live the way I was living, I was in such pain. My head would hit the pillow for two or three hours before I could go to sleep. It was a cramp that would never go away. I have been around a lot of people and I sent a message to somebody to get a hitman to call me.
The doctor said anyone who had this would just drink more and take more painkillers and finally overdose. I could not carry on like this and the doctor said he could operate but the chances of success were only 50-50. This guy, Tony, knocked on my door and I told him how bad I felt, I just couldn’t let people believe I would take my own life. We sorted out a deal over a dinner for him to put a bullet in my head.
I had an operation in Montreal which straightened things out though I still take pills and called to say I wouldn’t be needing Tony’s services.