Gene Sarazen, née Saraceni, a first-generation American and son of an immigrant Italian carpenter, was born in 1902 in Harrison, New York. Like all would-be golfers of the working class, Sarazen got into golf as a caddie, at the age of 10.
"I walked to the course where I caddied (Apawamis G.C.) and made up nine holes along the way in empty lots," he said. He played them on the way to the course, and on the way home.
"But nobody gave me lessons," he said. "I used to watch the players in tournaments. My favorite was Walter Hagen. I admired his ways, his technique, the way he would slash at the ball. And the way he dressed. He was my hero."
At 14, Sarazen came down with empyema, a lung ailment, and nearly died.
"I remember lying in the hospital and the priests coming in and pulling the curtain around me," he said. "They figured I was going to go, and were preparing the last rites. That was in 1916, and in 1920 I was still so weak I could hardly break 80."
Two years later, he won the New Orleans Open, his first professional victory, and then surprised everyone (but himself) by becoming the winner of the U.S. Open.
He won the '22 Open with the kind of verve, nerve, and brass that characterized his personality and golf game for the next 30 years. Four shots off the lead with one round to play at the Skokie C.C., he caught fire. On the last hole, he was deep in contention and had a crucial decision to make.
"I hit a good drive," he said, "and for my second there was water to the left and out-of-bounds on the right. My caddie wanted me to play safe, but I heard somebody say [Bobby] Jones and [Bill] Mehlhorn [playing a few holes back] were doing well. So I said, 'Oh hell, give me that brassie.' I shot right for the green and put it about 12 feet from the cup. I made the putt for a birdie. On the 17th, Jones hit it out of bounds, and I won by a stroke."
He won with a 68, which tied the lowest final-round score ever made in the Open. Later in 1922, Sarazen won the PGA Championship. Two majors for a 20-year-old? Sarazen was indeed on his way. The next year, he successfully defended the PGA crown with a victory in the finals over his hero, Hagen.
At that time, the infant American pro tournament circuit offered very small purses, and Sarazen, who like Hagen was not interested in holding down a club job, made most of his income playing exhibitions. He put on a good show with his compact but powerful swing, and he was otherwise an innovative man who always found ways to promote himself and improve his game.
He got much press when he insured his hands for well over $100,000. Putting poorly, he campaigned for a bigger hole--eight inches in diameter instead of 41/4. It was tried. It only made the good putters better, but Sarazen got plenty of "ink" for his idea. He would have another, more legitimate idea that everyone would adopt.
Like everyone of his generation, Sarazen was a poor sand bunker player because of the thin-bladed niblick (9-iron) that was used. Looking for an edge, Sarazen devised an angled flange for the back of the niblick so the club wouldn't dig into the sand so sharply. It was the first "sand wedge," as we have come to know it. Sarazen used it for the first time to capture the 1932 British Open. The club was revolutionary in its impact on the playing of golf.
Sarazen won 38 tournaments in his time, 22 of them from 1925-31, and is one of only four players in history to win all four major championships. He managed to keep his game intact through 1940, when he lost in a playoff to Lawson Little for the U.S. Open, but after 1941 he was never again a contender.
However, he always had a knack for the spectacular. On the par-5 15th hole in the last round of the 1935 Masters, Sarazen holed his 4-wood second shot. The double eagle got him into a tie with Craig Wood, and Sarazen wound up the victor. The spectacular shot is often credited with getting the Masters on its way as a major championship.
In 1960, Sarazen was "rescued" from the obscurity of the record books when he was signed to host a television series, Shell's Wonderful World of Golf, which was extremely popular and ran for 10 years on network television. It stimulated even more interest in the game and made everyone once again conscious of Gene Sarazen.
But just to make sure, in making a farewell appearance in the 1973 British Open at the age of 71, Sarazen made a hole-in-one on the famed "Postage Stamp" par-3 at Royal Troon. The next day, with the television cameras now following his every move, he holed a bunker shot for a birdie on the very same hole. Sarazen went out with a flair, just as he had come in.
For more information about golf, see:
- The Best Golfers of All Time
- How Golf Clubs Work