In this edition of stories in golf we will focus upon three interesting characters from the history of the Professional game and delve into the tale behind the headlines.
Lee Elder – The pioneer
Lee Elder made history when he became the first African-American to play in the Masters in 1975.
Born in Dallas in 1934, Elder grew up in poverty and under difficult circumstances when his father was killed in the army when he was just nine years old with his mother passing away just six months later seemingly due to a broken heart.
Rescued by his aunt and taken with her to Los Angeles, Elder found his passion for golf by caddying at local Country Clubs.
‘Before I turned Pro, I made my living hustling. I once shot 38 playing on one leg. Another time I shot 41 playing on my knees. I won money cross-handed. The match conditions often were unusual.’
Elders money matches stepped up another level when he teamed up with the legendary hustler Titanic Thompson.
‘Ti and I would go into the Clubs with me posing as his caddie. Ti’s pattern was to lose a little for a day or two. Then he would say – I am not having much luck playing by myself. Tell you what – how about I take my caddie as partner and raise the stakes? And the oil men would assume I barely even played golf and take him up on it. And then Ti and I would just clean up – often five figure sums back when that kind of dough meant something’
In 1961, Elder joined the all-black United Golf Association Tour, winning five UGA National Championships. In 1967, he graduated to the PGA Tour, earning his invitation to the Masters by winning the 1974 Monsanto Open. He recalls his experience at Augusta:
Nothing could of prepared me for that week at the Masters. On Monday there were so many reporters, photographers and TV people, I only squeezed in six holes. It reinforced that I was representing an entire race of people. It was overwhelming.
I chose my outfits carefully – wanting to look my best. I wore an orange outfit on Tuesday and all red for Wednesday. I went for a green ensemble for the opening round and lavender on Friday. I had some cool stuff lined up for the week-end but did not make it that far – shooting 74-78 to miss the cut by four.
At every green, both days, the receptions were incredible. The display from the employees from Augusta National was especially moving. Most of the staff was black and on the Friday, they left their positions to line the 18th fairway for me. I couldn’t hold back the tears.
Doug Sanders – The Playboy
Doug Sanders won twenty tournaments on the PGA Tour between 1956 and 1972, but he was perhaps best known for a well deserved reputation as a playboy, partygoer and fashion plate, whose social circle included Frank Sinatra and Evil Knievel.
Sanders blended the colours of his golfing clothes, in shades of chartreuse and mauve, by matching them to medicine bottles, and dyed his underwear to match. In 1973, Esquire Magazine named him one of the ten best Jocks in America, alongside a photograph of Sanders between two beautiful women and stood above his 50 pairs of leather golf shoes in every colour of the rainbow.
Sanders had a famously short, flat swing plane, the sort you could fit into a telephone box. He attributed this technique to a very painful neck condition but felt that it gave him an advantage under pressure, where there was less to go wrong.
He finished runner-up four times in Major Championships, but none was more painful or career defining as the 1970 Open Championships at St Andrews. Sanders was the tournament leader by a few strokes and paired with Jack Nicklaus in the Final Round. Jack had made a charge on the back nine and Sanders lead had been trimmed to one stroke. On the final hole Sanders needed to make a 2 foot putt for the Open Championship, writing his name in immorality.
With the world watching, the gambling man with ice water in his veins lined up his near gimme putt. Then suddenly a flash of uncertainty in his mind caused Sanders to back away. He settled in over his winning putt, but every golf fan watching knew he was going to miss. “You never back away from a putt!” His feeble attempt never reached the hole creating an 18-hole playoff the following day which Nicklaus won.
Jan Stephenson – The Face of the LPGA
As she prepares to be inducted into the LPGA Hall of Fame, Australian Jan Stephenson can reflect on a life and career well lived.
With the LPGA Tour struggling for sponsors,purses and stories, then commisioner Ray Volpe approached Stephenson, who was already an established name with two Tour victories, to be the fresh face of the circuit.
An article was arranged with Sport Magazine in 1977 as part of this new marketing campaign. It is the stuff of legend that as Stephenson was between wardrobe changes she slipped on a pink blouse and the photographer convinced her to complete a couple of shots. In the modern world, the results would have broken the internet.
The resulting exposure attracted a great deal of attention including from a young Donald Trump.
‘Donald was good looking, charming, very accomplished and wealthy. He always had a lot of beautiful women that wanted to go out with him. He was not the Donald you see today.’
Things got so serious that Trump gave Stephenson an ultimatum – him or her golf career.
‘He sent a private jet to collect me in New York full of red roses and an invitation for dinner in Paris. I thought – well I can’t do that I have a tournament to play tomorrow so I said thanks but no thanks.’
Stephenson moved on and the LPGA would never be the same again. Within weeks of the publication of the magazine, she was one of the most famous female sports stars in the world.
She backed up the coverage with some stellar golf, backing up her first Major victory in the Canadian Open in 1981 with further triumphs in the 1982 PGA and 1983 US Open to total 3 Major victories.
Stephenson continued to take criticism for using her sex appeal including a naked photo-shoot in a bathtub full of golf balls – but, alongside her golfing achievements it is her unshakable self-confidence that will form her legacy, encouraging a generation of women to project the kind of strong, independent self-image that they can be proud of.