Sam Snead doesn’t get the credit he deserves. It’s a curious statement, but true.
Lost tribes in Brazil know Jack Nicklaus won a record 18 major championships, but poll patrons at a PGA Tour event and see how many can tell you of Snead’s record haul of 82 Tour titles.
Snead won seven major championships, but most conversations focus on his four U.S. Open runner-up showings.
He captured three green jackets, yet there are no bridges or architectural features named in his honor at Augusta National.
And when you talk about golf’s greatest swings, it’s Hogan, Hogan, Hogan. Even Byron Nelson has a swing machine named in his honor – Iron Byron – by the U.S. Golf Association.
Ben Hogan is revered for his swing, because he “found it in the dirt.” Hogan worked to perfect his mechanics. Snead was a natural and therefore not worthy of as much praise, or some might think.
It’s true that Snead was gifted athletically. Instructor Jim McLean, who worked with Snead on the video “Sam Snead: Swing for a Lifetime,” once asked NBA legend Jerry West to name the greatest athlete he had ever seen or played with.
“I thought he might say Michael Jordan. Maybe Wilt Chamberlain, since he played with him. Maybe Jim Brown or maybe even himself. He said Sam Snead. He said Sam was the best basketball player, best baseball player, best football player, best at track and field in the state of West Virginia. He could do anything,” McLean relayed.
But to refer to Sam’s ability to hit a golf ball as little more than an innate gift is a discredit to a man who worked diligently to get the most out of what God gave him.
“When he wasn’t playing on Tour, he was back at The Greenbrier practicing. I don’t think he ever went longer than a week or two without playing golf,” said Snead protégé Del Snyder, who worked 19 years for Snead at The Greenbrier, starting in 1955. “He’d hit balls and have someone chase them down. He’d then find someone to play with and go out for 18 holes, and if his swing wasn’t what he wanted it to be, he’d go right back to the range and hit balls again.”
“Sam hated it when you called him a natural,” said William Campbell, a World Golf Hall of Fame member who first met Snead in 1936, “because he worked really hard. You couldn’t last and be competitive for as long as he was without hard work.”
Records give credence to Campbell’s logic. Snead is the oldest player to win on Tour (52 years, 10 months, 8 days). He shot 60, at age 60, in the 1972 PGA. He finished third two years later at 62. He shot his age (67) in the second round of the 1979 Quad Cities Open – then shot 66 in the final round. At age 71, he shot 60 at the Lower Cascades in his home of Hot Springs, Va.
Hogan said, “Sam Snead doesn’t know a thing about hitting a golf ball. He just does it better than anyone else.”
Hogan was right: Snead did do it better than anyone else. And Hogan was wrong: Sam did know what he was doing.
“Sam was very knowledgeable about the golf swing,” McLean said. “He was a player, not a teacher, but if you gave him a little bit of time he would really explain what he was doing.”
“I’ve hit two million practice shots,” Snead once said, “so I ought to know what I’m doing.”
Growing up, Snead would get off the school bus and run directly to the neighboring Homestead resort, where he would assemble hickory-shafted clubs. He’d have to cut each one precisely, making sure that the various clubs had similar flexibility.
“It was hard work, but it helped Sam get a feel for the club,” Campbell said. “As a professional, he was a human testing machine for the Wilson (Sporting Goods) company. Every time they’d come out with a new set of clubs, they’d bring it to Sam to get his feedback.”
Snead relied on feel and didn’t complicate his mechanics. But there’s a difference between ignorance and simplicity. He wrote several instruction books and, according to Jack, pros such as Nick Faldo, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh wanted to work with his father. Faldo even made a trip in the mid-'90s to The Greenbrier, where Sam served in various capacities for roughly 50 years, for some one-on-one time.
“He loved to teach people,” Jack said. “He’d see people hitting balls at The Greenbrier and he’d walk on over and help them out, for hours sometimes. Never charged a thing. Think about that, what a thrill it must have been for someone to have Sam Snead helping them with their game.”
Snead didn’t do everything pro bono, but if you wanted to learn from the best, all you had to do was ask. Unfortunately, few professionals took advantage of his wealth of knowledge.
“I’ve heard from other people that Sam was a little bit disappointed that we – the generation below him – didn’t seek him out for more advice because he had so much to offer,” said Curtis Strange, who met Snead as a 6-year-old, when his father was head pro at The Greenbrier.
“Sam was my hero. Everything I did growing up was related to Sam. ‘Did Sam do this? Did Sam do that?’ You know, with the golf swing. I thought the world of him.”
Fuzzy Zoeller was 14 when he first met Snead. They played several rounds together and spent lots of time in each other’s company on Augusta National grounds after Zoeller won the ’79 Masters.
“The talent that man had to hit the golf ball, to hit all the different shots – little hooks and little cuts. You go and see these kids today, they just whale away and they don’t care where it goes. The art that man had was outstanding,” Zoeller said.
“He was graceful,” said two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, “just incredible to watch.”
Snead’s tempo can be attributed to learning the game by fashioning his first set of clubs from broken buggy whips. Hitting a golf ball with a club head attached to such a flexible shaft, you develop classic timing – or you smash your shin.
“His swing was poetry in motion,” McLean said. “Doing the video, we had some of the legends take part: Nicklaus, Player, Trevino, Watson. And they all talked about the same thing, it was that tempo, that rhythm, the gracefulness of Snead. Jack (Nicklaus) said that he always played better when he played with Sam because his swing would become smoother.”
Jack Snead noted that while his father’s swing produced great power, it centered on a soft touch.
“Let me see your arm,” he said, placing a very delicate grip on my wrist. “Feel how light that is? That’s how Dad gripped the club – you could pull it right out of his hands – and he hit it over 300 yards with persimmon. He would put lead weight on the back of his clubs, too. He wanted the weight of the club to take it back, not his hands.”
Jack also pointed out that his father played a couple of musical instruments, including the trumpet, and “swung with a waltzing tune in his head. Dah dah dah dah – dah dah – dah dah. Three times longer to take it back as it comes down.”
By contrast, Hogan’s swing was a full second quicker. Snead wouldn’t even watch Hogan hit a ball for fear it would disturb his own rhythm.
Tiger Woods once said, “Only two players have ever truly owned their swings: Moe Norman and Ben Hogan.”
But even Hogan knew who owned the sweetest swing.
“Ben once said Sam had the greatest, purest swing he’d ever seen,” said Campbell. “That was high praise.”