The late Doug Sanders will always be remembered for that putt at St Andrews. But it doesn't even begin to tell the story of what he went through
Every five years a man will make his way across the Swilcan Bridge, negotiate the Valley of Sin, and be faced with a putt to win the Open at St Andrews. This will be the culmination of his career, the pinnacle of a journey that started as a child, many years before. It may be the greatest thing he ever does in his life.
But get that putt wrong, and you may never live it down. Just ask Doug Sanders who, 50 years ago, wrote his name into golf history on that famous 18th green.
“I just made a big mistake trying to hurry up and get it done,” said Sanders. “The gallery were going wild. It wasn’t that I was nervous, it was just bad thinking on my part.”
At the 1970 Open, Sanders was atop the leaderboard. He missed a four-footer for birdie on the 14th to give him a two-shot lead, but a great recovery from the Road Hole bunker on the 17th secured a one-shot lead, and, with Jack Nicklaus having already finished, he knew he was just four shots from winning his first major.
Sanders was known for two things. On one hand he was the peacocking playboy who partied with Evil Knievel and the Rat Pack and dyed his pants to match his socks.
On the other hand he was golf’s nearly man. Despite winning 19 PGA Tour events since 1957, he had failed to win a major, missing out on three occasions by a single shot. Surely now, at St Andrews, everything would change.
Back home in Cedartown, Georgia, Sanders’ parents had no idea what their son was going through.
“They didn’t know what I did, really,” he explained. “Mom sometimes, when I was going to leave the house, she said, ’Good luck to you, whatever you are going to do.’ They saw me on the news, but never said anything to me because they didn’t have enough knowledge of it.”
The family had had a tough upbringing in Great Depression-era Georgia. His dad walked five miles to work to earn 50 cents each day. His mother was a cotton picker and his brother had been blinded in a dynamite accident aged four.
At Cedartown, where he caddied, Sanders once watched a man named Dallas Weaver recover from behind a tree by hitting his ball against the side of a moving train.
“That was 60 years ago and I’ve never seen anybody top that shot,” he recalled. Sanders didn’t own a pair of shoes until he was 12 years old. By 1970, he owned 271.
As an amateur he had won the 1956 Canadian Open, then the following year met the Rat Pack while playing in the Tournament of Champions in Las Vegas.
Fame, wealth, money and girls would soon follow.
“They would tell me stories,” Sanders said. “We got along like I was their son, their brother. We were just so close together, they were just true friends and it stood that way for so many years.
“For me, going to sleep was like ruining a good dream. I used to hit the ball so straight, they used to say the only time I left the fairway was to get the number of a pretty woman.”
Three failed marriages tells you that Sanders knew how to live fast, but when a golf tournament was underway, the drinking stopped. He became focused on the task in hand and 20 titles in 17 years followed.
For me, going to sleep was like ruining a good dream. Stood on the 18th green at St Andrews, facing a three-foot putt for the Open, Sanders was ready. He composed himself, bent down to flick away a blade of grass that had blown on to his line, then prepared for the biggest shot of his life.
And then he missed.
A play-off ensured, but you don’t give Jack Nicklaus a second chance and, like he had done four years earlier, denied Sanders the Claret Jug.
Sanders won just one more tournament after that miss, and his world began to fall apart.
Things culminated when he was diagnosed with torticollis, a rare condition that caused his spine to bend one way and his chin the other.
He said: “I was in such pain. Every time I tried to sign an autograph, I was in agony. The pain was so severe that I couldn’t live like that, I couldn’t even be with a woman.”
Doctors warned him away from alcohol and painkillers as the condition caused pain so severe, they had experience of patients who had committed suicide by accident, when trying to dull the pain.
The only answer was an eight-hour operation, which had a 50 per cent success rate, and Sanders said he was more than prepared to take extreme measures, just in case the operation did not work.
He explained how he offered a hitman $40,000 to kill him and make it look like a burglary: “I said, I can’t live like this. It will be the easiest money you ever made, you just meet me on the road and do me.”
During the operation, his heart stopped beating and he fell into a coma for 10 days. When he awoke the doctors informed him he was cured, although he would need to take painkillers the rest of his life.
Nowadays, Sanders tells you the riches don’t mean a thing and that his friends are the most important things in his life. He formed a friendship with Nicklaus, who hasn’t once mentioned that missed putt.
“It’s hard to believe when I sit down and tell stories about my life,” said Sanders, who has played golf with four different Presidents.
“To be a poor kid from Georgia, my mother working in a cotton mill, there are just not the adjectives to express the life I have been able to live. It was better than I ever thought it could possibly be.”
Maybe, Sanders is finally getting over that missed putt.
This feature originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of National Club Golfer and has been adapted for online.
Thanks for stopping by.
We wondered if you might like to contribute to supporting our journalism?
As the world enters uncharted waters, we’d like to be able to keep our content open for all to entertain and inform in the months ahead.
We’d like to think we are the voice of the ordinary golfer the world over. Whether your interest is in the game from tour level to grassroots, the latest equipment, or independent course rankings, we’ve got you covered.
If you want to read more about how you can help us and to donate, please CLICK HERE.