Doug Sanders Dies at 86

Colorful Doug Sanders Almost Won Everything

Doug Sanders was one of the strong supporting figures on the PGA tour when I was a pre-teen and starting to get really interested in watching tournament golf. I use the term ‘supporting figure’ because despite winning with some regularity, twenty times to be precise, he didn’t win the big ones. Of course, I knew exactly who he was, but I never quite got the true gist of his personality, and how it was expressed.

Sanders was born in Cedartown, Georgia, and played for the University of Florida. Among his other claims to fame is winning his first PGA event, the Canadian Open, as an amateur. in 1956, about the time I began waking up to the game. There are other events and characteristics for which he is remembered, but at the time, I didn’t know about any of them. Apparently, when the majors rolled around, he established a reputation as the heart-break kid. He lost four of them by one stroke, and never did beat the curse, despite winning five important tournaments in ’61. He played in one Ryder Cup under then captain Ben Hogan. That team was reputedly one of the best the Americans fielded in that era.

The one that really hurt the ‘Heartbreak Kid’ was an Open in 1970. He stood on the 18th green in the final round, needing only to sink a three-foot putt to defeat the new terror on the block, Jack Nicklaus. One can only guess at the level of tension attendant on being in such a situation. It was so rare to be one stroke ahead of Nicklaus in any fourth round, that it must have seemed surreal. Whatever the case, the putting demon grabbed hold of Sanders, he stabbed at it and pushed it wide. The needed par escaped him, and a playoff ensued in which Nicklaus defeated Sanders by – you guessed it – one stroke.

There were other stinging final moments as well. In ‘In ’59, he dropped the PGA to Bob Rosburg, by one stroke. Two years later, he lost the Open to Gene Littler – yes, by one stroke. I needn’t go on with the litany of fatal final moments. It was the Nicklaus defeat that stung the worst, however. He often responded when asked, that he could often go as long as five minutes without thinking of it, even years later.

Apparently, Doug Sanders was the most progressive fashion model to be seen on the PGA tour, unless one counts John Daley, of course. I don’t really remember that, either. We had a black-and-white television, and I didn’t see any colors, despite knowing that they were there somewhere. I mostly remember Sanders in a light colored greyish sweater looking like nearly everyone else.  Still, those who were paying more attention report that the two biggest questions of the day were usually “What did Arnold Palmer shoot?” and “What was Doug Sanders wearing?” he was referred to by commentators and fellow p[layers on a regular basis as “The peacock of the fairway.” Tommy Bolt put it in more stark terms. Sanders “looked like a juke box with feet.”

Here’s what I really remember about Doug Sanders, besides his willingness to go for the risky shot with some regularity. he experimented with a technique that I hadn’t ever considered, and one I now consider all the time. If anything is going wrong, I shorten my backswing. It looked so odd, this strong guy taking the club back about half way. How was it going to go anywhere at all with a swing like that? But, it did.

Doug Sanders struck me in those days as a friendly sort, with a good sense of humor – and I’m really fond of people like that. Whatever putts he missed or tournaments he let slip away, he was an important part of the painting in my childhood’s golfing eye, and he will be missed.

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