Play It Again, Sam (& Co.)

Yesterday I posted a photo on Twitter that seemed of interest to many people, though admittedly fewer than were drawn to Mrs. Kanye’s latest overexposed selfie.

It was a handwritten fax I had received from the great Sam Snead. That it was a fax dates the document almost as much as the identify of its author. Snead died May 23, 2002, four days shy of his 90th birthday.

The single page—sent at 6:34 P.M. on July 14, 2000—recounts the eight strokes Snead took on the last hole to lose the 1939 United States Open at Philadelphia Country Club. Sixty-one years had passed and the wound was no less fresh.

The handwritten fax from Sam Snead detailing his triple-bogey to lose the U.S. Open 61 years earlier.

I had reached out to Snead for a story I was writing for Maximum Golf, a News Corp. publication that expired even before Slammin’ Sam, having been shuttered in 2001. I set out to ask famous golfers to identify the one shot in their career they would most like to have over, the one that could still wake them in a cold sweat decades later. The reaction to the Snead photo on Twitter made me search out that article, which appeared in the March 2001 issue of Maximum Golf, headlined “D’OH!”

Getting athletes to relive the not-so-glorious moments isn’t easy, but only one golfer refused to answer my question: Greg Norman. I assumed he declined because Greg would have more difficulty than most greats in isolating just one painful, costly shot. Plenty of others did play along. Herewith, some of their selections made 15 years ago.

Arnie Palmer: With a one-shot lead, Palmer safely hit his tee shot on the final hole at the 1961 Masters and looked sure to win his third green jacket in four years and become the first back-t0-back winner at Augusta National. He even accepted a congratulatory handshake from a friend in the gallery. Instead, Arnie ballooned a 7-iron into the right bunker, skulled his sand shot across the green and made a double-bogey to lose by one to Gary Player. Watch the old newsreel of it here:

“I learned an important lesson,” Arnie told me. “Don’t let anything break your concentration on the job at hand. Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.” Minutes earlier Player had gotten up and down from that same bunker.

Gary Player: He suffered a reversal of fortune nine years later. In the 1970 Masters, he stood in the fairway of the 72nd hole knowing a par could earn him a spot in a playoff. His caddie pulled a 5-iron but Player opted to hit an aggressive 6-iron instead. He found a bunker, made bogey, and missed the Billy Casper-Gene Littler playoff by one shot. Thirty years later he wistfully told me that if faced with the shot again he’d aim 15 feet right of the flag and give himself a chance to win while ensuring at least a playoff. Player went on to win two more Masters.

That 18th at Augusta National featured in many golfer’s nightmares. Ben Crenshaw led by one entering the final round in the 1989 Masters, but his approach on 18 found a greenside bunker. The resulting bogey cost him a spot in the Nick Faldo-Scott Hoch playoff.

Johnny Miller: Part of the reason Johnny is so adept at getting inside the heads of players down the stretch in big events is because he’s seen his share of both ecstasy and despair. Johnny’s pick for the shot he most wanted back was the tee shot on the final hole at Carnoustie in the 1975 Open Championship. He tried to draw a drive on the 18th but found a bunker instead. He needed two swipes to escape, which you can see early in this video:

Miller ended up with bogey. Playing alongside him, Watson made birdie and went on to beat Jack Newton in a playoff the following day. “I was probably the best player in the world at that time,” Miller told me. “But the moral is, never aim the ball where, if it goes straight, you’ll be in trouble. You know, they named that bunker the ‘Miller bunker.’ If I had won, they never would have named anything after me.” Miller went on to win the Open—his final major—the following year.

Seve Ballesteros: The mercurial Spaniard couldn’t let go of his second shot on the par-5 15th at Augusta National in the final round in 1986. He snap-hooked a 4-iron into the water and watched his title hopes sink. “That shot on 15 is something I shall never forget,” he said back then. “All my hopes vanished.” Jack Nicklaus went on to win his sixth title.

The shots selected by Colin Montgomerie and Tom Lehman were eerily conjoined at the 1997 U.S. Open at Congressional. Tied for the lead and facing a par putt on 17, Monty became aware of noise on the nearby par-3 18th. So he waited. And waited. And waited. Five minutes later, he hit the putt. And missed. Back in the fairway, Tom Lehman was one stroke behind Monty and Ernie Els. He had to wait too. When Monty finally cleared the green, Lehman pulled his approach into the water.

Of course, Monty went on to hit an even more painful shot on 18 at Winged Foot in 2006. If Snead’s example is anything to go by, Monty can expect that shot to still keep him awake decades from now.


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