There is an elephant in the room. One presumes there always is when you speak to Doug Sanders for the first time.
He is waxing lyrical about his wild nights in Las Vegas with the Rat Pack - more of which later - and I’m wondering how seamlessly I can bring the conversation round to the 30-inch putt he missed on the 72nd hole of the 1970 Open at St Andrews; a putt that ultimately cost him his best shot at major glory.
As it turns out, there is no obvious leap from Frank Sinatra to arguably the most infamous choke in golf history, so I dive right in. “I’m sorry to bring this up,” I begin, hoping that, somehow, I’ll frame the issue sensitively enough that the 82-year-old will indulge my curiosity and talk about it.
That’s as far as I get when he interrupts. “St Andrews?” he asks in his slow, southern drawl. Crap. “I’m afraid so,” I reply, somewhat apologetically. “Don’t be sorry about it,” he replies. “I ain’t.” Over the next ten to fifteen minutes, Sanders explains in candid detail how he has made peace with that moment. But first, some context. Sanders was one of the PGA Tour’s main men during the fifties and sixties. He had won 18 times by the time he turned up in St Andrews for the 99th Open Championship.
He was also, by that point, one of the finest golfers never to win a major. It wasn’t for the lack of trying. He had played in 37 of them as he arrived in Scotland that year, with nine top tens to his name. He had finished second in the 1959 PGA Championship, the 1961 US Open and the 1966 Open.
Consequently, when he found himself holding a one-shot lead on the 18th tee on the final day, most onlookers assumed this was his moment. It wasn’t.
He pulled his tee shot way to the left - not the worst result on the 18th at St Andrews and certainly better than a push - but then over-hit his approach, the ball finally coming to rest 30 feet from the flag. He left his treacherous, downhill birdie putt around three feet short, or as The Observer’s Peter Dobereiner so brilliantly put it, “Just longer than a formality”.
Still, he was in the box seat. Sink the putt and he’d be a major winner at last. He stood behind the ball, took his putter back and through... and missed. The ball never even grazed the hole, missing to the right.