By Ken Willis/Daytona Beach News-Journal
DAYTONA BEACH — The subject of the yips arises occasionally and sometimes there’s a non-golfer nearby who wonders what you’re talking about and why everyone suddenly looks pale and hollow-eyed.
Go to YouTube and show them the 3-footer that cost Doug Sanders the 1970 British Open. He was never the same golfer after that. The yips are golf’s terminal illness.
Golf isn’t just cruel in the small frames, but in the broader scope, too. If Sanders had put any sort of putting stroke on that par putt he would’ve won the moment, to say the least — a one-shot Open victory, at St. Andrews no less, over the great Jack Nicklaus.
And he would’ve won the eternal satisfaction and glories that come with making the World Golf Hall of Fame. As it is, his 20 career PGA Tour victories, without a major championship, sent him to the grave last week without the honor of seeing his face bronzed alongside the giants.
In 1992, Fred Couples won the Masters, largely because his tee shot on the dastardly par-3 12th didn’t roll back into Rae’s Creek on Sunday. From the tee he came up short, as many do while gauging the wind’s whims, and a ball that absolutely should’ve drowned — 99 of 100 times, without exaggeration — somehow hung up on the bank and allowed him to chip and putt for par.
Couples, with five fewer career wins than Sanders but that one major, is a Hall of Famer. Golf being golf, there are plenty of stories like that.
But in the end, Sanders still wrote his own well-read chapter in golf’s history — known more for his sartorial splendor and personality than any numbers he put on the board or in the record book.
(Also known for running with fast company, including Frank Sinatra, Sanders would say, “I could live off the money I spend.”)
There, too, was quite a contrast. Sanders, as all the obits told us, was known as the “Peacock of the Fairways” due to his colorful wardrobe. Maybe better, Tommy Bolt once saw Sanders in a newly dreamt-up combo of pastels and suggested he looked like a jukebox with legs.
But in the black-and-white of a golf swing, there was nothing stylish about it. A generation later, Payne Stewart built an image on his wardrobe (and yes, three majors) but if you cared to look beyond that, you’d see one of the most aesthetically beautiful golf swings ever.
Doug Sanders looked like he learned to swing golf clubs in a phone booth. You’d take longer backswings to kill a mosquito. It worked. He hit it straighter than you can point and along with those 20 wins, there were four runner-up finishes in majors (all by a shot, by the way).
Quite a haul and quite a life for a guy who came from absolutely nothing in the northwest Georgia town of Cedartown. He played one year at the University of Florida in the mid-’50s, and along the way met another brief Gator named Joe Eubank, son of longtime Daytona Beach mayor Owen Eubank and also a quality golfer (then and now, at 83).
“He stayed at my folks’ house for a few years back in the mid-’50s, along with two or three other guys, to play in the old Oceanic golf tournament at Daytona Golf Club,” recalls Eubank. “He was about as country as you can get.
Forget the car and the girl, imagine being able to say you once loaned clothes to Doug Sanders.
Sometime during that time frame, Sanders and Eubank played an exhibition match at the Daytona municipal course (the current South Course was the only 18 holes at that time) against PGA Tour pro Bob Toski and Orlando golfer Don Blispinghoff, a member of the U.S. Walker Cup team. Eubank, though suggesting Sanders carried the day, recalls making a putt of about 15 feet on the 18th to win the match.
Fast-forward to 1970 and Doug Sanders nervously standing over that 3-footer to put a big fancy ornament on an already good career.
“He’s got that putt on 18 and I’m thinking of our conversation in the car,” Eubank says. “And, of course, he misses the damn thing. I had to be hurting more than anybody in the world except Sanders himself.”
Sanders was also here for the official 1968 grand opening of the North Course at Daytona, playing an 18-hole exhibition with none other than Nicklaus, the man he’d fail to close out for the Open two years later before losing the next day’s 18-hole playoff — yes, by one shot.
There’s the classic photo of Nicklaus at the end of the Open playoff, in a very odd burst of excitement from him, tossing his putter skyward after making his own championship-winning putt on 18. The putter nearly came down on Sanders’ head, which would’ve likely hurt less than everything that was already going on inside there.
Over the years, Sanders had a stock answer when asked if that yipped putt haunts him.
“Sometimes,” he’d say, “it doesn’t cross my mind for a full five minutes.”
Reach Ken Willis at firstname.lastname@example.org