HOT SPRINGS, Va. – The drive up U.S. Route 220 north is a meander through a Robert Frost poem. Twists and turns and a light rain falling. Barren sycamore trees in a black-and-white setting.
The road traveled, by more or less, comes to an end on this occasion at a plot of farmland in Hot Springs, where an entrance sign reads Olde Snead Links. It’s appropriate as U.S. Route 220 is, for a two-county stretch, Sam Snead Memorial Highway.
These 350 acres are where Samuel Jackson Snead spent the summers of his final 25 years of life. It’s where his son, Sam Snead Jr. (Jack) lives today, and where Sneads have always resided since being issued a land grant by the King of England in the mid 1700s.
Sam wasn’t born here, not on this farm. He was delivered and raised a few miles down the road in Ashwood. The white, two-story home (pictured below) still stands, but with no evidence of its historical significance – no sign in the yard, no commemorative plaque, just an active porch light and a wreath on the front door that should have come down months ago.
“That was Dad’s room,” said Jack Snead, pointing to the far left window on the top floor of the Ashwood home, noting that Sam shared such space with his sister, Janet, 9 years older.
There were six Snead kids born to Harry and Laura. Sam was the youngest. He came along on May 27, 1912, when his mother was 47 years old. He died May 23, 2002. He’s buried in the family cemetery alongside his wife, Audrey, and some ancestors dating back to his great-great grandparents.
Like his place of birth, his place of rest is nothing grandiose. Just a small, square enclosure, down the hill from his farmhouse. No large, granite headstone, rather a foot-sized, metal funeral-home marker reading 'Samuel Jackson Snead, 1912-2002.'
“Dad was a simple man,” Jack said. “Plain as an old shoe. He liked to go down to the service station, before they tore it down, and chew the fat. He liked to hunt and fish. He was as local as they come.”
History recollects a different Sam Snead. History tells us of a man defined by the many tournaments he won and the one he never did. History says ole Sam told stories that would turn Milton Berle a sharper hue. History says Sam was a backwoods country boy who had a God-given gift for golf.
History is right, but history is just hitting the high notes – and occasional low ones – 'cause history didn’t really know Sam Snead.
William Campbell did. Campbell, a brilliant West Virginia amateur and World Golf Hall of Fame member, first met Sam in 1936. He can tell you just about everything you need to know about the man – and if you let him, he will.
THE STORIES OF SAM
“To make a long story short …” Campbell will say, but then continue with the longer tale. And that’s a good thing. A great thing. When it comes to Sam Snead – and the stories from people who knew him – you want the extended version.
These stories are as revealing as they are entertaining. And some are entertaining to the point of disbelief. Like the time when Sam decided to start a monkey farm in Hot Springs.
As told by Campbell: “Sam was playing against Bobby Locke in South Africa (in 1947). He saw these squirrel monkeys and figured he’d start a monkey farm back home. To get them through customs, he hid them in his shirt on the flight back. They scratched him up something fierce. The problem was, he wasn’t going back to Virginia. He had to go to Augusta for the Masters. So he leaves these two monkeys in his hotel room while he’s playing and they destroy the place. The manager is furious. He finally gets them back home and puts them in the basement of his house. That drove Audrey crazy, because they made a mess there, too. One day, while Sam’s out playing, the monkeys escaped through a window that was ‘accidentally’ left open – at least one of them did. Something fell on the other one and killed it. That was the end of Sam’s monkey farm idea.”
With Sam, there was fact and there was fiction, and ever the twain shall meet. Sam didn’t bury money in his back yard and never asked aloud how his photo made it into the New York Times even though he had never been to New York. These are fiction, but Sam knew the rube routine sold and so he was complicit in cultivating the image.
Fact was, Sam wore a straw hat to hide an embarrassing receding hair line. His greatest victory was the 1942 PGA (pictured above), which he won after being granted permission to play before entering the Navy. His greatest defeat – non-U.S. Open division – was losing the 1950 PGA Player of the Year award to Ben Hogan.
“He won 11 times that year and Hogan won only once. Of course, that win came in the (U.S.) Open after his car crash, but people said they didn’t want Dad to win it two years in a row, since he won it in ’49,” Jack said.
“That really hurt him. Took the wind out of his sails.”
Other facts: Sam’s pay for his first job at the Cascades Course was a bottle of milk, a sandwich and half of what he earned for lessons; he abhorred smoking, rarely drank until his later years, loved Louis L’Amour western books, was ambidextrous and was a horrible judge of distance.
Rather than trust his instincts on approach shots, Snead would seek advice from his caddies or try to find out what other players hit.
“His opponents took advantage of that,” Campbell said. “They’d yell out, ‘That was a hard 8 (iron)’ – when it was really a 9 – and when Sam, who was always longer than everyone, would try to feather an 8 or hit 9, he’d blast it over the green.
“Sam had one caddie he could trust, name of Jim Stead from Greensboro – that might have been why he won that tournament eight times. They tried to get Stead to caddie for him in the 1950 U.S. Open at Merion. They sent Stead up to Merion at the beginning of the year to be a regular caddie so he would be eligible – since only local caddies could be used – but when the USGA found out, they introduced a lottery system so no one could ‘have their own guy.’ Imagine if Sam, and not Ben, had won the ‘50 Open.”
Amazingly, Snead and Hogan went head-to-head only three times in official events, with Sam winning on every occasion, including an 18-hole playoff in the 1954 Masters.
“It made sense,” said Campbell. “Ben brought out the best in Sam. And Sam always played better in match play than stroke play. In match play – or a playoff – the opponent was with him. In stroke play, his mind could only imagine what others were doing – and he always imagined the worst. We called that the ‘Melancholy of the Mountains.’”
Another fact: Snead’s playoff record on tour was 12-5. Only Tiger Woods (11-1) has a better career winning percentage out of players who have won at least six playoff encounters.
There was fact, there was fiction, and then there was legend.
Legend had it that Sam had a sixth sense with animals.
“He had this pond outside his house and he trained fish,” Campbell said. “I don’t know how you train fish, but he got them to swim into his hands and he’d tickle their bellies. People saw him do it.”
Legend had it that Sam had an uncle who stood 7’9” and weighed 365 pounds.
“True story. And he didn’t have that disease, that gigantism. He was perfectly proportioned,” said Jack, who went to the Bath County courthouse to verify the figures.
Legend had it that Sam shot 59 no fewer than 10 times. That he had 35 career holes-in-one. That he could run 100 yards in 10 seconds flat. That he could kick the top of a 7-foot doorway from a standstill – in his 70s.
“Dad was a true athlete – and strong. He used to chop wood with an ax to stay in shape,” Jack said, before picking up one of Sam’s old clubs and placing the butt-end between his right index and middle fingers.
“Dad could balance a club like this. Try it and tell me how strong you have to be to do that.”
With Sam, legend wasn’t just popular myth; more often than not, it was verifiable fact.
But these tales – the feats of strength, the commune with nature, the wow and the wonder – more accurately describe what Sam could do, not who Sam was.
WHO WAS SAM SNEAD?
One-hundred years after his birth and 10 years after his death, that question is answered in vagaries and misconceptions.
“There was a lot said about Sam – that he was ornery, cheap, profane, a hillbilly. There is truth to that but you also have to consider the evidence to the contrary,” said Campbell.
Ornery. Sam could sense what you wanted. If you approached him, he would internalize your purpose. He had been burned by people early in his career and wasn’t going to let someone take advantage of him. If he felt you weren’t on the up and up or that you didn’t respect him, he wasn’t going to placate you.
And if you wanted an autograph during a round or some form of commiseration, well … Sam was working.
“When he was playing golf as a professional that was his office. That is where he made his living,” said Del Snyder, who, starting in 1955, worked nearly two decades for Sam at The Greenbrier, where Sam began as an assistant pro in '36, left for a spell in the '70s and returned in '93 as pro emeritus.
“He might not have been as jovial as Lee Trevino, but Sam was out there to make a living. I think that’s why some people took him as curt.”
Cheap. Sam played golf for two reasons: winning and money. Even in his later years, if you wanted a game with the great Sam Snead, you had to pony up first.
“Real frugal,” was how Jack described his father. “Last eight, 10 years of his life, he lived off Social Security checks. He had plenty of money, but you come up the way he did, during the Depression, it teaches you to be safe with your money.”
Safe, but not miserly. In talking with those who knew Sam, one thing above all stood out. It was best described by Campbell as his “quiet generosity.”
“At Sam’s funeral I was asked to give a eulogy,” Campbell said. “I spoke of his giving nature. The minister picked up on it and said, ‘Sam didn’t want this to be known while he was alive, but there’s not a church in Bath County to which Sam didn’t give something of significance, always anonymously. Whether it was an altar or a roof or something for the congregation – it didn’t matter what the denomination either – he always gave and did so anonymously.’”
“Sam has done so much for the population of Bath County,” said Don Ryder, current director of golf and former head professional at The Homestead, where Sam started caddieing at age 7. “The high school football team won the state championship a few years before Sam passed. A lot of the kids couldn’t afford to buy the rings so Sam bought championship rings for the entire team.”
Even county officials weren’t aware of Sam’s impact on the community. When it was first proposed to name that stretch of U.S. Route 220 Sam Snead Memorial Highway, some rejected the idea, asking, ‘What has he done for us? Why should we honor him?’
“They didn’t know. Didn’t have a clue,” Jack said. “Dad never let people know. He just gave – roofs, food, cars, money. He gave people what they needed and didn’t ask for anything in return.”
“He told my wife at dinner one night, ‘If it’s recognition that you want for your generosity, then it’s not charity,’” said Campbell.
Profane. There is no denying that Sam’s humor was inappropriate in certain settings. The jokes he told in private to friends, he told to unwitting strangers in public. It was homespun humor that didn’t always travel well.
Nowhere were his stories more famous – or infamous – than at the Masters Champions Dinner.
“There would always be a bunch of guys around Dad at the dinner, almost two-thirds of the room. They’d laugh it up and have a good time. The serious ones were on the other side,” Jack said.
Fuzzy Zoeller was part of the 67 percentile.
“Sam always told the raunchiest damn jokes you could ever imagine, but it’s a bunch of old men in the room,” said the 1979 Masters champion. “You couldn’t repeat 100 percent of them, but everybody looked forward to it because they probably hadn’t heard a raunchy story in a while and Sam always had one. It was great.”
Sam loved to hold court. When he wasn’t on the course making a living, he was spinning yarn. It didn’t matter if it was a locker room, a restaurant or underneath the Big Oak Tree at Augusta. Didn’t matter if you were a president or a pauper, overly sensitive or receptive to the risqué – and while his jokes were true blue, his stories were tinged with history and amusement.
“Sam was fantastic to be around,” said Robert Harris, director of sports and recreation at The Greenbrier. “We traveled everywhere and he always entertained people. He was a master storyteller.”
One story Harris recalled had Sam on a single-engine airplane out of Iowa. Sam was relaying the encounter to a couple in The Greenbrier lobby.
“The cargo – his luggage and clubs – put too much weight on the plane,” Harris said. “The pilot tells him, ‘Mr. Snead, if we’re not in the air by the time we hit this boggy spot in the runway I’m going to abort the takeoff.’ So they’re rolling down the runway and they bounce over the boggy spot and the plane doesn’t get airborne. They go right through a Coca-Cola sign and they’re mowing down corn. And Sam is telling this story and his arms are waving around. The lady has her hand over her mouth and she’s mortified. She says, ‘Well, Mr. Snead, I bet you had a few choice words for that pilot.’ And he said, ‘Sure I did. I asked him how much I owed him for the ride.’”
A hillbilly. There are no incorporated towns in Bath County. Not a single traffic light. Just a dozen small communities and about 5,000 people. It’s situated high in the Allegheny Mountains, where the fog lies low like a welcome guest come to set awhile.
“When you’re born in the mountains,” Jack said, “you never get it out of your system.”
Sam was an Appalachian man. While he spent nearly three-quarters of every professional year traveling and playing, as Campbell noted, “He was only good for about two, three weeks on the road before he’d start to get a little irritable. He was home at home, if you know what I mean.”
More than any accomplishment, it was his environment that defined Sam. In the farm office he shared with Jack there are myriad keepsakes. There are posters and pictures, a room filled with hundreds of Sam’s golf clubs. His tournament badges, including one that noted he competed in the U.S. Open – the tennis version – are enclosed in glass, along with a piece of plastic that reads, 'This card entitles Sam Snead to eat as our guest at any McDonald's for life – Ray Kroc.' On a coffee table rests the putter with which he shot 59 at The Greenbrier on May 16, 1959 as well as the beloved driver he bought off Henry Picard for $3.25.
But there is no trophy case. No green jackets, no Ryder Cup replicas. Nothing that showcases his major achievements. Those reside in places like the World Golf Hall of Fame and in The Greenbrier clubhouse.
“Stuff like that (trophies) didn’t mean much to him,” Jack said. “The title – winning – that’s what he wanted.”
There are, however, mounted fish and deer heads, even an elephant tusk. When asked what he and his father used to talk about, Jack responded, “Mostly hunting and fishing.”
Despite having four brothers and one sister, Sam felt alone growing up. He found solace in nature early. In his twilight, he found no comfort in killing. “Jackie, don’t go up there and shoot deer, now,” Sam would tell his son.
“When you get older, you have a new respect for life,” Jack explained. “Dad told me, ‘Those poor animals. They live hard and they die hard.’”
SAM, I AM
C.S. Lewis wrote: If you take a thing like a stone or tree, it is what it is and there seems no sense in saying it ought to have been otherwise.
Sam was Sam. He didn’t put on airs and never pretended to be something he wasn’t – even if that something was pleasant in polite society.
History, legend, fact and fiction all have their Snead stories. They paint broad brushstrokes, leaving the inner, most important details to be covered by family and friends.
Sam began caddieing as a kid. He fashioned clubs out of maple branches and buggy whips to learn the game. He turned pro in 1934, won his first prominent event in ’37, and captured his first of seven major championships in ’42. He is estimated to have won upwards of 185 worldwide tournaments, officially captured 82 PGA Tour events (most all time) and unofficially won one LPGA title. He played on seven Ryder Cup teams, captained three and was among the initial class inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974.
“Dad never bragged about himself,” Jack said. “I do remember one time, though, he told me and my wife, ‘There was a time when I walked up on the first tee and knew nobody could beat me. That’s a damn good feeling.’”
This is heavy stuff. You put this at the top of biographic prose, not 2,800 words in. But this isn’t about what Sam did; it’s about who Sam was.
Harris: “He was kind. Always stopped and talked to people. People would interrupt him at dinner and he’d gladly take a picture or sign an autograph. If you had to travel with him at an airport, it was hard to get him on the plane.”
Ryder: “He was very generous and very loyal, and not everyone knew that.”
Snyder: “As far as I’m concerned, he was wonderful. We never had a cross word in all my years of knowing him. I knew him since I was a kid. I’m 78 now. We did some hunting, played a lot of golf, and I was proud to call Sam Snead my friend.”
Campbell: “He was a physical phenomenon with a lot of country smarts about him. I was very, very lucky to have Sam Snead as a friend and mentor.”
Jack Snead: “He didn’t think he was a big shot and he didn’t get impressed by big shots. Didn’t have a two-faced bone in his body. Never said a bad word about anybody – none of the other pros.
“He was who he was and didn’t try to be anyone else, that simple.”