Interview: Doug Sanders

NO SAINT, Doug Sanders still has no regrets about the fluffed putt at St Andrews that drove his life in a whole new wild – but far from ‘half-assed’ – direction, writes Aidan Smith

Doug Sanders attempting a short putt across the 'Valley of Sin' at the 18th hole at St Andrews during the 1970 British Open Championship. Picture: Getty

You might have thought that the man regularly dubbed golf’s most famous choker, responsible for 30 inches of epic failure on a blustery St Andrews green 45 years ago, would be a shy and retiring fellow at best and, at worst, not at all receptive to being asked one more time about the fluffed putt before he’s even had breakfast. But it’s remarkably easy to track down Doug Sanders and, once my apology has been accepted for rousing him – this an epic failure of time-difference calculation – it’s pretty straightforward getting him to talk. “First I gotta go running and do my sit-ups – 500 of them every day,” he explains. Sanders, by the way, will celebrate his 82nd birthday as the last of the grandstands for this year’s Open is dismantled.

Full of beans and quick-witted, he has an incredible story to tell, and one which almost ended when he hired a hitman with the target of Sanders himself. He begins, though, with confirmation of his location, delivered in a sing-song voice: “I’m in Texas/Along with all my exes/Maybe I should be movin’ to Tennessee.” Ah, but the man dubbed the “Peacock of the Fairways” is bound for the Boot Hill of Major Dreams. “With God’s blessing I’m going to see another Saint Andrews Open but I think this’ll be my last. Say, can you give me a weather forecast for the tournament? I wanna know how many sweaters to pack…”

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There will be plenty of golf pullovers for sale around the Old Course next week but few players have worn them with the flair of the Houston-based Sanders and no-one has matched them to a complete, coordinated ensemble, right down to glove and underpants. On 12 July, 1970 he was a vision in lavender, possibly in tribute to the thistle, after loving every minute of the Home of Golf experience up until that point.

Doug Sanders drinking from a bottle of champagne at St. Andrews, Scotland, beside his wife Scotty after the British Open Championship. Picture: Getty Images

“Do you know I was the first player to rent a house for the Open?” Sanders will make a few boasts today and who’s to doubt any of them. “This place was owned by a preacher. It didn’t have a refrigerator so I had to buy one. There wasn’t a key for the front door either and when I asked why, the preacher said he hadn’t needed to lock it in 40 years.

“My wife Scotty was with me and my good friend [easy-listening crooner] Buddy Greco.” Sanders, an honorary member of the Rat Pack, will name-drop many times during our rollicking hour. “The Scottish crowds were so knowledgeable and polite, even though there were no fairway ropes back then. They were such nice ladies and gentlemen and coming from the south, down in Georgia, I felt right at home. In Georgia if someone stopped you for a light, that was what the guy would want. Then he’d say: ‘Y’all go to church yesterday? Is your family good? God bless you.’ In other towns I’ve been you might have ended up getting robbed. But Saint Andrews was real friendly and everything was going great.

“I’d play good golf and then at night we’d have big dinners back at the house. A friend sourced me some lovely beef from Denver. He’d supplied the Eisenhower banquet, just one steak from each leg. Scotty worked for an airline and she helped smuggle it through.”

But neither Colorado beef nor Scottish encouragement were quite enough to help Sanders lift the Claret Jug. That two-and-a-half footer on the 18th would have done it. Scotty and Buddy couldn’t look, especially when Sanders got distracted by what he thought was fluff which had blown on to his line to the hole. “There was nothing. It was just that the sun had burnt the grass.” He returned to his ball, only to slightly alter his stance. “Ben Hogan was watching back in Fort Worth and told me later he was screaming at the TV: ‘Walk away, Sanders – walk away!’” But Sanders couldn’t hear him, only some titters from the crowd. “I thought, ‘I’ll bury these laughs’, although the ladies and gentlemen weren’t being malicious. I’d probably made them nervous. And the rest, my friend, is history.”

Jack Nicklaus won the play-off the following day. “I never gave up but I did think: how stupid was I? Listen, I’ve never really said too much about this but I reckoned I’d already won the Open, the greatest event in golf, and I wanted to entertain the folks. Not showing off as such, but coming up the last fairway I walked out front smiling away. You don’t get given a tournament, though, you have to win it. I kind of 
forgot you have to play 72 holes, not 71. I was just trying to be a nice old Georgia boy, only it didn’t work out.

“Jack was very sweet. ‘This should have been yours,’ he said. He’s always been a gentleman, a true guy. And of course the part that miss has played in my life has been unbelievable. Winning the Open would have meant hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe millions. I could have run my own plane. I might have become a golf course designer. But, you know, I don’t measure life in dollars. A private jet is not what makes a person. I don’t think there’s anyone anywhere in the world who’s lived a better life than I’ve done.”

By “better” Sanders doesn’t mean blameless or in any way saint-like. In fact he probably means the exact opposite – wilder, more outrageous. We’ll come to all of that, but let’s find out how he got as close as 30 inches from glory because at one time that seemed as improbable as the Peacock matching plum slacks with a mustard shirt.

He was born in 1933 in Cedartown, Georgia in the middle of the Great Depression. On the free enterprise route were the panhandlers, moonshiners and gamblers. Sanders’ father Luke elected to walk the ten miles to and from the cottonfields for 50 cents a day and then his mother Pauline got a job paying 20 cents before Sanders joined the crews aged seven.

“We were so poor I didn’t own a pair of shoes ’til I was 12 but don’t feel sorry for me,” he says. “My brother Ernest was blind at four from playing with a dynamite cap which also took his fingertips off, and my other brother James was caught by a grenade in Korea and lost an arm.”

At first for Sanders, golf was a means to earn a little extra money. New balls were scarce around Cedartown so he’d hunt down lost ones for nickels and dimes. Then at ten he started caddying but would blow his earnings in chipping and putting games.

“When I walked the two and a half miles home – broke – the lightning bugs on the road were like ghosts. I went away and practised – chip, putt, chip, putt. Then one day the other caddies said: ‘Come on, sucker, we ain’t had any of your money for a while’. I beat them that day, and most days after that, and with five dollar bills in my pocket those lightning bugs suddenly looked like stars.”

A yarn often told, no doubt, but a good one. He’ll talk about anything, including how he lost his virginity at the age of 11 in a ditch. “It was on the way back from the course and she was the pro. What can I tell ya? I enjoyed it and just kept doing it.”

Sanders was now hooked on golf, not least when bearing witness to what he reckons was the greatest shot of all time: “I was caddying in a big money game at Cedartown and this guy Dallas Weaver – I’ll never forget his name – got stuck behind a tree.

“We all thought he was dead but there were railtracks running by our course and just as a freight train came through he turned sideways, took some kind of low iron and banked his ball off the side of one of the cars and almost on to the green.”

Sanders stresses again how he doesn’t need pity for such a tough upbringing because it was the making of him. “I tell parents now: set your kids hard but achievable targets, like when they get their first par give them a pullover or something. For me back then, a big goal was saving up $10.50 for a bicycle – a girl’s bike, mind you – so I didn’t have to walk home anymore.”

Both Sanders’ swing and swinging dress-sense owe a lot to his modest beginnings. “Because of always having to wear hand-me-downs I noticed nice clothes. Even the first time the laundrette put a crease down the front of my blue jeans was pretty exciting. So I was the first golfer to colour-coordinate, buy some dye and make my shoes the same as my slacks.” The swing started out quick and flat to avoid detection and stayed that way. “Caddies weren’t allowed to play the course but, when the pro went home for lunch, we’d sneak a few holes at top speed. It was also a short swing so I could keep control, not lose any balls, not have to buy new ones. Really, I had the perfect swing for a weekend golfer – the guy who’ll hit a great shot, doesn’t know how he did it and can’t replicate, and when he hits a lousy shot can’t think what the hell to do next. I’m still playing and still hitting the ball damn straight. I tell ya: the only time I ever left the fairway during my career was to get the telephone number of some good-looking girl in the galleries.”

There’s a knockabout novel about golf called Dead Solid Perfect which was turned into a film starring Randy Quaid, and Sanders reckons he was the inspiration for the hero, a PGA Tour-man trying to overcome the chaos of having three wives, two former and one current, to triumph in the US Open. Sanders announced his arrival as the first amateur winner of the Canadian Open in 1956. Then, with money in his pocket, he put the Depression firmly behind him to live the high life. He had a phone in his car in 1959 – “There were only three in the whole of Houston” – by which point he’d already been divorced twice.

“Life was a party and I don’t know two people who did it their way more than me and my good friend Frank Sinatra,” he says with a chuckle. Jack Lemmon was a drinking buddy and Sanders also hung out with Andy Williams and Gene Kelly and played gin rummy with Evel Knievel. He almost killed Dean 
Martin, pictured top, with his moonshine. “It was 190 proof and I told Dino to take only tiny sips. I didn’t know he was gargling a big mouthful as I was about to light a cigarette. ‘Careful, Doug,’ he said, ‘or we’ll both explode’.”

Bob Hope was another mate and he regularly turned out in the comedian’s Desert Classic. “One time [US Vice-President] Spiro Agnew played, which was unusual for someone from the upper echelons, and there must have been 300 of a security detail who were so jittery they were drawing their guns whenever a Coke popped. Spiro was notorious for hitting people with his shots and I was walking down the fairway with [I Dream of Jeannie actress] Barbara Eden when he got me on the side of the head. He ran over to apologise. I told him I wasn’t really political but that the next 17 and a half holes I’d definitely be voting Republican if he’d just lay off me.” That was Hope’s cue for a gag: “The Vice-President hit an eagle today, plus a moose, an elk, a bear… ”

Sanders was voted one of the “Top Ten Best-Dressed Jocks” by Esquire magazine. Sports Illustrated dubbed him “a pop artist’s dream”. Colour TV, by then experimenting with flower power-inspired day-glo sets on shows like The Monkees and Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, was made for him. “Oh, my clothes were beautiful,” he says. “I went to great lengths to blend the colours. I studied the different-toned capsules in pharmacies and chose the ones I liked. I ordered up my shoes eventually. The shades were so unique the factory had to buy in enough leather for 600 in order to make one pair for me.”

Sanders admits he never did anything “half-assed” – not shoes nor drinking nor wives. “Scotty and I didn’t last. I was living in this big, fun world where all those pretty women wanted to be around Frank and Dino with this good-looking golfer tagging along. It was hard running with the Rat Pack and not do what these guys did: ‘Blondes tonight? No, we had blondes last night – let’s go for redheads.’ I was a bad boy, for which I’m truly sorry. But let me tell ya: I speak to Scotty almost every day. She’s the best friend I’ll ever have, the most wonderful lady.”

The split happened two decades ago, a violently rocky period in his life when there were insinuations that the main beneficiary of the Doug Sanders Celebrity Classic was in fact Sanders himself. These were unproven but he was to fall victim to torticollis, a neck condition which caused uncontrollable twitching. “It was terrible. I’d go to kiss my date and my head would move the other way. When I played golf I had to bite on my collar to keep it steady. One time, President Ford came up to me in tears. He said: ‘This is your tournament today, Doug, so I know you won’t quit, but I just hurt so bad for you.’”

Sanders contemplated drastic action. “I couldn’t go on, it didn’t seem like any kind of life. My doctor said he could operate, although the chances of success were only 50-50. I’d been around a lot of guys and I sent a message to somebody to get a hitman to call me. We sorted out a deal over dinner for him to put a bullet in my head. Then I had the operation, where my heart actually stopped and I was in a coma for ten days, but it worked. I stood Tony down, gave up drinking and found God.”

He wasn’t half-assed about coming second either, also finishing runner-up in the US Open and US PGA as well as the Muirfield Open of ’66, but St Andrews was his biggest near-miss. “So I never won a major – too bad,” he says with a cackle. “But I did get to play with ten Presidents, a king, some astronauts and a few other guys you might know. I certainly don’t hold a grudge against Saint Andrews – what a wonderful place. Hey, did you know I’m starting a new clothing line? I’ll tell y’all about it when I come over… ”