“Winning The Open would have meant hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe millions. But, you know, I don’t measure life in dollars. I don’t think there’s anyone anywhere in the world who’s lived a better life than I’ve done.”
There is a small but significant part of Doug Sanders’ story that everyone knows. With a one-shot lead in The 99th Open, he just needed to par St Andrews’ 18th to claim his first major title but, standing just three feet from the hole, he stabbed at the ball and watched as it agonisingly missed to the right.
Inevitably, he lost an 18-hole play-off to Jack Nicklaus and the moment went down in sporting folklore as the putt that lost The Open.
What happened in that split-second followed Sanders the rest of his life. He later said: “You know, I go back there and sometimes they say ‘Doug, do you ever think about that putt and I say: ‘Oh, sometimes I go as high as five minutes when I ain’t thinking about it.”
Yet there is so much more to this colourful player from America’s Deep South, who won 20 PGA Tour titles, finished runner-up in four majors and counted the Rat Pack and Evel Knievel among his friends.
Off the course, Sanders led a full life. He was married and divorced three times and was nicknamed the 'Peacock of the Fairways' due to his colourful clothes, for which he was well known.
But on the course, he was a fighter, a mindset he traces to his humble beginnings in Great Depression-era rural Georgia. “My mum and dad had to pick 100lbs of cotton a day for a dollar … and I didn’t have my own shoes til I was about 12,” he once said.
Unable to afford golf lessons, Sanders was first a caddie at a nine-hole course near where he grew up and practised his swing when the players weren’t watching.
He lacked Nicklaus’ power or Player’s creativity but he made up for it with a heart the size of the famous Road Hole bunker, where he played perhaps his greatest ever shot.
Just 10 minutes before his infamous putt in the final round of the 1970 Championship, Sanders was in deep trouble on the 17th – and deep in one of golf’s most famous sandpits. With Nicklaus – at that point a seven-time major winner and at the peak of his irresistible powers – breathing down his neck, Sanders’ throat must have been dry.
Yet, his connection was sweet and the end result even sweeter as the ball zipped out of the bunker, spinning like a Shane Warne leg-break, landed softly on the green and meandered to within a foot of the hole.
“If I had two-putted the last hole, that bunker shot I hit at 17 would have been one of the greatest shots,” he later said in The Open Championship: A Cruel Game (The Nearly Men) documentary.
“It lost its fame and notoriety. That would have been the only shot they would have put down – that’s what won Sanders The Open. Jack Nicklaus said that’s the greatest bunker shot he’s ever seen in a major Championship.”
In commentary, Henry Longhurst could hardly contain his excitement.
“He played that miraculous shot which nobody who saw it will ever forget,” he said.
“He might be in the road now, still hacking about there, instead of that absolutely stone dead. A tremendous shot at such a moment.”
And so to the 18th and another hidden story from Sanders’ past. As he reached the tee box, Lee Trevino’s caddie handed him a white tee and told him to “Hit this for Tony.”
The 1964 Champion Golfer of the Year, Tony Lema, was the man who last held the Claret Jug aloft at St Andrews but two years later, following the PGA Championship, Lema and his wife chartered a plane to take them to Chicago. It ran out of fuel en route and crashed in, of all places, a golf course, killing Lema, his wife Betty and two others. Sanders later revealed he was also supposed to be on the plane.
“Well, a white tee always represents five to me,” he said. “I don’t use white tees.” Yet, on this day, he did.
Decked out in a purple sweater, the then-36-year-old was one of the most popular players on tour. His outfits were loud and so was his lifestyle, with money from sponsors keen to endorse him and advertising agencies keen to tap into his brand, in addition to the prize money he won.
He had money to spend on cars, women, clothes and nights out with Sinatra and friends. “I could live off the money I spend,” he once said. Living up to his reputation, he was known to strategically place women around the course on practise days, ready to hand him a vodka and tonic.
He may have been unable to win a major but he was an established veteran of the PGA Tour in the 60s. His first win came at the 1956 Canadian Open and to this day, he remains the only amateur to have won in its 118-year history.
In 1959, he finished second in a major for the first time, missing out on the PGA Championship by just one stroke to Bob Rosburg, while in 1961 he was at the top of his game, finished second at the U.S Open and won five PGA Tour titles. A major seemed inevitable.
In 1963, he made his Open debut and missed the cut but within three years he had got the hang of links golf and went close to becoming Champion Golfer of the Year, missing out by just one stroke to – yep, you guessed it – Jack Nicklaus at Muirfield.
That season, he finished in the top 10 at all four majors, increasing the belief that one day he would win one himself and, on the PGA Tour, he remained a consistent winner, racking up 17 titles by his 33rd birthday.
Yet when he planted that white tee in the ground and drove the ball down the 18th fairway at the oldest golf course in the world, he was still chasing his dream.
“I was never nervous,” he said.
“I never thought about anything bad happening. I was thinking hey, just wave to the crowd, you know, walk on up, knock it on the green, knock it in there and then wave and jump up and down. But it didn’t quite turn out that way.”
Sanders was safely on the green in two and had two putts to win. He hit his first putt so sweetly he thought it was in and was a little miffed to see it stop 30 inches short.
“Oh, Lord. Well that’s not one that I would like to have,” said Longhurst. “And they clap, little knowing what is to come for Sanders.”
Meanwhile, Nicklaus had driven his ball all the way to the edge of the 18th green but overhit his first putt way past the hole, and then missed the return as well.
Sanders was three feet from glory, three feet from realising the dream he had held for 36 years. He approached his putt, paused to remove a burnt piece of grass on his line, and then addressed his ball again. He stood so still for 12 full seconds that those watching on TV would have wondered if their screen had frozen, before jabbing at the ball.
“Now Kenny Steele said he was sitting with [Ben] Hogan, and Hogan says: ‘Back away, Doug. Back away, Doug.
“And of course, I didn’t back away. And then I’m saying to myself, well you’re over it too long, Doug. What are you doing? Why don’t you mark it? I wasn’t choking – I wasn’t even thinking about that.”
Nicklaus made par and the pair went back to their rooms to contemplate an 18-hole play-off the following day. Sanders, despite the pain he must have felt, played well and got round in 72. Nicklaus beat him by one.
“If I was a master of the English language, I don’t think I could find the adjectives to describe how I felt when I missed that short one. But that’s golf, and that’s the fascination of the game,” he said.
Sanders recorded two more top-10 Open finishes, including a fourth place in 1972, and continued to live a colourful life.
He will forever he known for that three-foot putt on the Road Hole. But that’s golf and that’s the fascination of Doug Sanders.