Doug Sanders: The extraordinary life of golf's original playboy

Doug Sanders Main

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.

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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.

“Mis-hit!” exclaimed Henry Longhurst, commentating for the BBC. “There but for the grace of God.”

Sanders tapped in for bogey and came back the next day for an 18-hole play-off with Jack Nicklaus. The ‘Golden Bear’ shot a 72. Sanders fared one worse. It was the second of Nicklaus’ three Open victories and the eighth of his 18 major wins. For Sanders, it was the closest of the close calls that dogged his career.

“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about it,” he admits. “I’ve thought about it most days ever since. But look, I had a good career. I won twenty times on the PGA Tour. Only four guys in the last forty years have won more than that.”

Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Davis Love III, in case you’re wondering.

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He goes on: “My life might have been a lot different if I’d made that putt. I might have made $200m more. I could have designed golf courses or got other endorsement deals. I could have been a very rich man. But listen. I’m rich in other ways. I’ve got lots of incredible memories and I’ve lived a blessed life. A very, very blessed life.

“Do I regret not making that putt? Sure I do. But that’s not what’s important to me. What’s important is that I can walk into my bathroom in the morning, look at the mirror on the wall, point at the guy staring back and be able to say, ‘Hey - I like you’. That’s what’s important. As long as you’ve got that, you’re a rich man.”

• • •

George Douglas Sanders was born on July 24, 1933, in Cedertown, a small city in north-west Georgia. Like so many families at the time, his suffered through the Great Depression, the deepest and longest-lasting economic downturn in western history.

2016 06 Sanders4

Doug’s father, Luke, walked ten miles to and from the cotton fields every day, making a mere 50 cents for a day of back-breaking work. At the age of seven, Doug joined him.

With little money coming in, the  family had next-to-no food and zero medical care. Compounding matters, Sanders’ brother Ernest was blinded at the age of four from playing with a dynamite blasting cap, which also took his fingertips off. .

“We were so poor, we all wore hand-me-down clothes,” explains Sanders. “I didn’t have my own pair of shoes until I was 12.”

A year earlier, he lost his virginity in a ditch - the start of many wild encounters with the opposite sex. Indeed, a penchant for the ladies explains why he has been divorced three times. “I wasn’t a very good husband,” he has previously admitted.

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His introduction to golf came when, at the age of ten, he traded cotton picking for caddying at a local nine-hole course. It was at the same time that he discovered gambling, invariably losing the little money he earned playing chipping games with other, older golfers.

One day, however, his luck changed. From having been regularly on the wrong end of defeats in these games, suddenly, from nowhere, he finally took their money. “It was only $20 but it was the start,” he recalls.

He continued to improve as he got older, so much so that he ending up having, as he puts it, every top university golf team tracking him. He finally settled on the University of Florida, helping the ‘Gators’ to a sixth-place finish at the NCAA championship tournament - their best performance in a national championship up to that point. That was 1955.

He turned professional the following year, but not before becoming the first amateur to win the Canadian Open in the first year that the tournament was televised.

Doug Sanders Portrait

“It was a fun time,” he recalls. “But, really, it was only the beginning.”

Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jnr - Doug Sanders played golf and partied with them all. He laughs as he recalls coming home early from a tournament one time to find ‘Sam’ sitting playing his piano. “That’s the way it was,” he recalls. “There were always people in the house.”

Sanders met ‘The Rat Pack’ in Las Vegas, where the tour used to play its Tournament of Champions event. Today, that tournament takes place every January in Hawaii but it was staged in ‘Sin City’ from its inauguration in 1953 until 1968.

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For Sanders, that particular event was the highlight of his year. “I loved it,” he says. You can hear his smile in his voice as he remembers those days. “A poor Georgia kid like me getting to go play for big bucks in Las Vegas - it was a dream come true.”

Sinatra and Martin, he says, took a shine to him immediately and took him under their wing, making him an honorary member of the Rat Pack. “I don’t know what they liked about me,” he says. “Whatever it was, they enjoyed my company and I sure enjoyed theirs. I remember the first night we met. Sinatra said he was going to take me to New York the next weekend. Dean said, ‘No, Frank, I’m taking him to Chicago.’ We had a lot of great times together.”

Sanders talks with a particular fondness for Sinatra. Even now, at the age of 82 and almost two decades on from the legendary singer’s death, you get the feeling that he is still a little dumbstruck that he was ever able to forge a friendship with such a major celebrity and cultural icon.

“Ah, ‘Old Blue Eyes’. That’s what they all called him - Old Blue Eyes. To me, though, he was always ‘Francis Albert’. He was a wonderful man, but only if he liked you. If he did, he was very friendly, very generous and loyal. But if he didn’t warm to quickly, he wouldn’t give you the time of day.”

He pauses for a few seconds, clearly lost in a memory.

“Yeah, we had a lot of fun back then. I met all the big names: Willie Nelson, Buddy Greco, Evel Knievel, Bob Hope, lots of presidents. I was in my element. It was a great time.”

If Gary Player was ahead of the curve when it came to physical conditioning, Doug Sanders was was a pioneer of golf fashion. The self-styled ‘Peacock of the Fairways’, he found fame for his colour-coordinated outfits.

“People used to place bets on which colour I’d wear,” he laughs. “They would even offer me money to tell them.”

He admits going to ‘extraordinary lengths’ to get his outfits right. He even went in to pharmacies where he would pick the colourful medicine capsules he liked best and have the pharmacist empty the medicine from them, so he could send them to the factory where his clothes were made to have his outfits colour-matched.

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“Everything was coordinated,” he says. “My shirts, my slacks, my shoes, my socks, even my underwear. I had six suitcases of clothes that I took to every tournament with me. The better I felt I looked, the better I felt I’d play.”

I ask if his penchant for fashion was the result of a childhood spent wearing other kids’ used clothes. “I don’t know,” he says. “All I know is that I liked to look good. I still do.”

Regrets? Yeah, Sanders has had a few but he’s not prepared to dwell on them.

“This game has been so good to me,” he notes. “It has given me everything and more. The things I’ve done, the people I’ve met, the places I’ve been, the friends I’ve made – I wouldn’t trade any of it. People want to talk about the chances I had that I didn’t take and that’s fine. 

"Way I see it, it’s better to have had those chances than not. It doesn’t bother me. Truly, it doesn’t. 

"Like I told you earlier, I’ve been very blessed.”

Now, there are no elephants. Not anymore.

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