On April 12, 2020, Doug Sanders, an estimable American tour pro, died at the age of 86. He won 20 times on the PGA Tour and three times finished second in a major championship, one agonising shot behind the winner – at the USPGA Championship in 1959, the US Open in 1961 and the Open Championship in 1966.
On July 12, 1970, Sanders lost a playoff for the Open Championship over the Old Course at St Andrews, denied by the man who had beaten him at Muirfield four years before – Jack Nicklaus. By 1970, the Golden Bear had won seven majors since turning pro in 1962 but none for over three years. He was losing his lustre and he should have lost this, too – the 99th playing of golf’s oldest championship. He didn’t because of probably the most famous missed putt in golfing lore.
First let us not forget that on the 17th hole of the final round, Sanders played a sensational sand shot from the Road Hole bunker. Facing a likely bogey or worse, he hit the ball to within a foot of the stick and saved his par. He and his playing partner, Lee Trevino, embraced. Sanders, a flamboyantly colourful dresser who was nicknamed the “Peacock of the Fairways’, only needed a par-four on the 18th, perhaps the easiest hole in championship golf. He had surely won this now.
His drive left him 74 yards from the flag. The approach-shot strategy was obvious on a hole devoid of sand (or water): a pitch-and-run, which Sanders had played with aplomb all week. Instead he pulled out his wedge. “Why the hell pitch from there?” Arnold Palmer asked him later. Sanders hit the shot 35 feet past the cup. His first putt down the hill left him three feet short of the hole. He studied the line for an eternity before bending over to pick up a piece of loose grass, real or imagined one cannot say. Watching on television back home in Texas, Ben Hogan implored: “Stand away from the ball”, meaning for him to readdress it properly. He didn’t. It was a horrible left-to-right breaker and it was a horrible stroke. The ball missed feebly on the low side. It didn’t come close to going in.
In the 18-hole playoff on the Sunday, Sanders rallied from being four shots behind with five holes to play but he lost, victory sealed with a Nicklaus birdie after he drove through the 18th green with his final tee shot. For ever after, Sanders would say: “People ask me if I still think about that putt. I tell them that sometimes it doesn’t cross my mind for five minutes.”
Two years later, back at Muirfield, Sanders led by two shots after 35 holes. He then took a triple-bogey seven at the last and the weekend became all about Trevino and Tony Jacklin, with the former chipping his way to the title. Sanders never came close again. Thirty-odd years later, he met Paul McGinley, the Irishman who holed the putt that secured the Ryder Cup for Europe in 2002. Sanders told him: “We’re both famous for putts – me for missing and you for making”
A kind thing to say even though it must (still, after all those years) have hurt him to say it.
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