Doug Sanders grew up on the poorest side of the tracks in Cedartown on Georgia’s west side. His was an austere life focused on survival. Golf enabled him to escape the clutches of poverty and connected him with the elite in professional golf and also with Hollywood’s glitz and glamour society.
On the PGA tour he enjoyed marquee status competing with Demaret, Hogan, Snead, Casper, Palmer and Gene Littler. He also had a little black book that contained the private phone numbers of the likes of Dean Martin, Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra and, of course, a goodly number of the opposite sex. The big dogs in Hollywood were his playmates.
The stars aligned for him to cavort with celebrities and movie star royalty in Palm Springs and Las Vegas or wherever they congregated.
Stay in his guest cottage out by his pool at the Woodlands in Houston where he lived for years and there were framed Christmas cards, autographed to him from celebrities such as the aforementioned.
Once while my wife and I were staying in his guest house, he went into a utility room about 10 p.m. and brought out a big bag of cat food. He flicked on a flood light surrounding his pool and gave a little wildlife call.
Immediately, dozens — had to be close to 100 — raccoons raced to the pool patio for their nighty feast. Made one realize that old saw that “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy,” was apropos.
His closet with all his multi-colored outfits was as big as his bedroom and as neatly organized as a general’s. He was always happy to show it off. He had ample racks and shelves to accommodate all of his ensembles.
His logo was an artistic design of a swashbuckling peacock and its rainbow of colors. This logo appeared on all of his shirts and sweaters. He seemed to have an outfit of every color from pink to yellow to blue to red — all tastefully and fashionably loud. For example, if he chose lavender,
his pants would be solid lavender, his shirt would be lavender themed along with lavender socks and lavender shoes.
Underneath his showmanship attire was a competent golf swing. His short back swing brought about the notion that he could play out of a phone booth. He became a Houdini with his short game. Chipping and putting was where he would take your money.
Doug knew the ways of a hustler. He taught himself to play golf on a nine-hole course close to his home which was adjacent to a cotton patch where he had to pick cotton. At the Cherokee Golf and Country Club, the story goes that barefoot caddies were adept at picking up wayward shots with their toes and improving the lie. Finally it became a club rule that caddies had to wear shoes.
Sanders, after a brief stop at the University of Florida, had a successful career on the PGA tour but probably made more money on Monday and Tuesday than he did in most tournaments.
Spending money back in Cedartown — that was a different story. He had none unless he could finesse it on the golf course. Later the art of finessing took place in bridge games where he charmed rich, older ladies who could lose big money and laugh about it.
He won 20 times on the Tour and was a four-time runner-up in the majors. For sure, he was the best player never to win a major, which was highlighted by his loss in the British Open in 1970 at Saint Andrews. In the final round, he saved par at No. 17, the famous “Road Hole,” when he
blasted out of the bunker for a tap-in putt which prompted Jack Nicklaus, who would eventually win the tournament, to say that blast from the bunker had to be one of the greatest shots under pressure ever in a major championship.
Sanders, leading by one shot at the 18th hole and playing with Lee Trevino, hit a screaming drive which ended up 74 yards from the pin. His pitch shot, however, went well past the hole, leaving him with a long downhill putt which ended up three feet above the hole. This was where
Sanders made his name, always making tough shots under pressure.
Wearing a lavender sweater, by the way, he got into his stance, swaying his body back and forth, as was his routine. He got set to win his first major. Suddenly, the sun glistened off a speck of sand between him and the hole. He leaned over to flick it away never leaving his stance.
In Ft. Worth, Texas, 4,500 miles away, Ben Hogan was watching with a couple of friends and exclaimed, “Back away, back away.”
It is a shame Doug did not hear Hogan. He missed the putt which meant he and Nicklaus would have to settle the championship in an 18-hole playoff on Sunday since the championship in those days normally ended on Saturday. Doug scored a 73 while Jack’s 72 enabled him to
claim his eighth professional major.
Doug had a playboy reputation and lived a good life. He was among the first former players to host a senior tour event and invited me to assist with his press committee. The stars, including Clint Eastwood, showed up as expected.
A highlight for this country music aficionado came when Doug made a deal with Willie Nelson to put on a concert for the staff and volunteers, a small, very private group, but Willie gave us the same performance he would have given to a full house at the Houston Astrodome. Doug could always call in a favor from his important friends.
Doug had a pleasant smile and a warm greeting for everybody — from the Hollywood hierarchy to the caddies. His telephone-booth-backswing and magical short game served him well as a professional golfer except for that one time at St. Andrews when he needed it most.
When he died last week, I flashed back to the days of following a fellow Georgian, the “Peacock of the Fairways,” on the PGA Tour and made a toast to a classic host who rubbed shoulders with entertainment’s biggest names.