Smooth-Swinging on the Courseand In Business


Sam Sneads swing was to golf what harmony is to music.
A melody is nice. But when harmony enriches a good melody, the heart swells and rises in the chest, whether youre a musician or not.
So it was with Snead. Millions of people (not all of them golf fans) got to see him do his magic in person. (His gifts translated well to film, plenty of which remains, thank goodness.) The way his muscles flowed into place was symphonic, without a hint of abruptness. And like good harmony, the flow was so transcendent that while you were still being transported by one element of Sneads swing, another had begun to amaze you, all surging into a satisfying whole.
This is what we have to remember of Sam Snead. But there is much more, even more than his legendary storytelling prowess.
When a cherished life ends, there is always sadness. We are programmed to resist changes from the comfortable, and it was decidedly comfortable to have Sam Snead alive and in our sport. But the sadness of death can be softened a bit by the knowledge that the life was long, productive and marked by honor.
Again, so it was with Snead. Sam Snead and Wilson Golf.
Even cynical reporters have long ago given up bashing professional golfers for changing club companies faster than you can say spring-like effect. The economics of modern professional golf ' and golf equipment ' have changed what the market and fan sensibilities will bear.
On the other hand, Sam Snead signed with Wilson in 1937, when he was 25. And that was it. Sixty-four years. One company. In 1938, Wilson came out with the Blue Ridge irons, named for the region that contains Sneads hometown, Hot Springs, Va. That line lasted more than 50 years; the classic shaped clubs bore an engraved straw hat of the kind Snead favored. They were the first clubs a lot of kids ever hit (me included), filched from their parents bags during long summer evenings on the front lawn.
In true Snead style ' something I like to call backwoods flash, or Walter Hagen with grits and gravy ' his signing with Wilson was not your garden-variety contract fest. Word from inside the company is that the chief of Wilson in the mid-1930s accepted a challenge from a counterpart at another company ' something about how the challengers Cuban golf pro could whup anyone the Wilson fellow could put up.
So Mr. Big (as he was called at Wilson at the time) calls in Tommy Armour and Gene Sarazen and tells them, heres the match and weve gotta win.
Is it big money? Sarazen says.
Really big, says Mr. Big.
Gene must have had enough pressure in his life about then. Armour too. They conferred for a moment, then turned back to Mr. Big, and Armour told him the score.
Weve got this kid from Virginia youve never heard of.
Mr. Big bought in, and down Sam went to the land of dulce de leches. He thoroughly humbled the pre-Castro golf great, so humbling him that Snead had to hop an immediate flight off the island to keep body and soul together.
And when he returned, Wilson offered him a $5,000 endorsement deal. Big money for a 25-year-old kid as the country was clawing its way out of the Great Depression.
As stories go, that one just scratches to tip of the Snead iceberg. Since the news came Thursday afternoon, many people in golf have hardly put down the phone, working out their mourning by telling story upon story upon tale upon yarn. Thats something else he left us.
With a proper nod to Arnold Palmer and the rise of televised golf, Billy Casper took the history one step further backwards in American golfs genealogy.
Sam and Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen were some of the greatest contributors to the game, Casper said from his San Diego home Friday morning. Because of them, golf really had an opportunity to grow and flourish. Sam was with Wilson his entire career ' and that speaks well of the character of the man. If you dont do the job, you dont get to stay with a company like that.
Ive often written of my doubt that endorsements, those devilishly hard-to-measure creations of modern marketing, really sell golf clubs. But Im willing to suspend my disbelief in Sam Sneads case. Sure, he and Wilson helped each other to prosperity. But Sam wasnt just selling clubs.
Sam Snead sold golf. Generations bought in. For millions, it has been a happy enterprise.
Swing easy, Slammer.