Such was the case for the legendary Gene Sarazen, author of one of the most famous shots in Masters history, a double eagle on the par 5, 15th Hole (rivaled in drama, timing and impact by Tiger Woods chip-in for birdie at the 16th Hole last year).
The feat took place in 1935 and it is said to have put the Masters on the map of the world sports stage. While this perspective has its merits, it also deserves to be viewed in an appropriate historical perspective.
1935 was the second year of the event. Sarazen had missed the inaugural tournament due to a commitment to play in a series of exhibitions in South Africa with Joe Kirkwood, an infamous trick-shot artist (and another true, classic character of the era). While today, a golfer would be criticized if he passed up an invitation to the Masters to play in an exhibition, in 1934, the tournament was known simply as the Augusta National Invitational Tournament and would not be known for its more famous moniker for another few years. It was, however, the personal party of the sports reigning icon, Bob Jones, and a disappointed Sarazen made it a point to insure he was there in 1935.
Sarazen started the 1935 tournament with a solid 68, one stroke behind first-round leader Henry Picard, and he followed that with a 71. Rain arrived for the third round and Sarazen shot a 73. Therefore, heading into the final round he stood at four-under par, a total of 212, and in fourth place, three shots behind the leader, Craig Wood.
In an era before modern pairing considerations (such as television), Wood actually teed off four groups in front of Sarazen, who was paired with Walter Hagen.
Wood would post a three over par score of 39 going out, which gave hope to the pursuers chasing him. Taking advantage, Sarazen started strong and at one point was tied for the lead before bogies on the 9th and 10th Holes dropped him back. Wood, who had finished second in the prior years inaugural tournament, had steadied himself, picking up two strokes to par on the back side, through the 17th Hole. At this time, Hagen and Sarazen were at the tee box of the reachable, par 5, 485 yard, 15th Hole with Sarazen trailing Wood by two strokes. The fairway before him sloped from right to left and Sarazen launched a long drive that used the holes contour to his advantage. His drive settled near the crest of the hill some 235 yards from the green.
As Hagen and Sarazen reached their drives, they heard a roar from the 18th green echoing through the pines. They assumed, and soon it was confirmed, that Wood had birdied the 18th and Sarazens deficit now stood at three strokes. Upon hearing the news, Hagen is reported to have said, Well, thats that, and he played his second shot safely before the water fronting the green. Years later, Sarazen speculated that Hagens posture at that moment was not an admission of defeat, as the 42-year-old legend was not a threat to catch Wood (Hagen would finish tied for 15th place, at five over par), but was intended to send a message to Sarazen to hurry-up and play a safe shot to keep things moving as Hagen reportedly had a special date waiting for him to finish.
Sarazen surveyed his options and decided that going for the green was his only option if he was to shave three strokes to par over the final four holes to catch Wood.
His ball lay behind a small crest in the hill in a slight depression. Deciding that he needed loft, he chose his new, Wilson 4-wood, which featured a scalloped back. Although the term did not exist, the club was arguably the games first hybrid club (which is remarkable given the credit Sarazen is already given for his part in the development of the modern sand wedge). Before hitting the shot, Sarazen rubbed his good-luck ring off the forehead of his caddie, Stovepipe, for luck. The ring was given to him by a friend who claimed it once belonged to Mexican President Benito Juarez who was supposed to have been wearing the ring on the night he was elected (this account is widely disputed). Sarazen is renowned as a fast player and he took little time over the shot. Toeing the club to decrease its loft, he lashed at the ball with a swing that distinguished him as a power-golfer, despite his 5 4 frame.
In 1935, the green complex was not as it is today with less banking and a smaller body of water fronting the green. Sarazens ball narrowly cleared the water, bounced onto the putting surface, then rolled from right to left directly toward the pin, before diving into the hole. Contrary to popular belief, there were only a couple dozen patrons surrounding the green at the time. Significantly, Bob Jones numbered among them as he had made his way down from the clubhouse to watch his friends finish (Jones, who had finished well before, had rounds of 74, 72, 73 and 78 to finish tied for 25th). Sarazen would later note that one of the most satisfying things about making the shot was the fact that it was witnessed by both Jones and Hagen.
When word of what had happened got back to the clubhouse, it was met with shocked disbelief. Members of the media had been congratulating Wood and the name on the winners check (of $1,500) had reportedly already been drawn out to Wood. Sarazens deficit-erasing score caused an additional conundrum for the media in that they did not know what to call the accomplishment of three-under-par on one hole, eventually convening and deciding upon the name double eagle over other suggestions such as a twin dodo.
As history tends to skip pages, it is important to note that Sarazen still had work ahead of him after the double eagle if he were to maintain his share of the lead. He posted scores of par on the 16th and 17th Holes. At the uphill 18th Hole, he struck an uncharacteristically weak drive that resulted in him calling upon the services of his heroic 4-wood once again to reach the green. Two putts later and he had earned his place in a playoff.
The next day, the two men would square off in a 36-hole playoff, the only one in the tournaments history. As it appeared that fate was already on Sarazens side, the results of the playoff would prove to be a testament to the same, as he soundly defeated Wood, 144 (71 ' 73) to 149 (75 ' 74), to win by five shots. It is interesting to note that the two times Sarazen played the 15th Hole in the playoff, he would post only pars on the site of such drama only a day earlier.
The victory would mark Sarazen as the first man to accomplish the career professional Grand Slam with victories in the (British) Open Championship, the U.S. Open, the PGA Championship and the Masters. Of course, this distinction was not noted for many years later as the Augusta National Invitational Tournament was not looked on as a Major at that time and the concept of the Grand Slam being something other than what Bob Jones had accomplished five years earlier did not take shape until the dominating years of Ben Hogan.
None-the-less, Sarazens spectacular shot not only defined his career, but helped lay down a Major foundation.
Copyright 2006 Matthew E. Adams Fairways of Life
Editor's Note: Matt Adams is a reporter for The Golf Channel, equipment expert, twenty-year veteran of the golf industry and speaker. In addition, he is a New York Times and USAToday bestselling coauthor of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series and author of Fairways of Life, Wisdom and Inspiration from the Greatest Game. Fairways of Life uses golf as a metaphor for life and features a Foreword by Arnold Palmer. To sign up for Adams Golf Wisdom email quotes or for more information, go to www.FairwaysofLife.com.