Gene Sarazen (1 Open, 2 US Open, 1 Masters, 3 USPGA's, 6 Ryder Cup's)

1902 - 1999

Gene Sarazen  February 27, 1902 – May 13, 1999) was an American professional golfer, one of the world's top players in the 1920s and 1930s. He is one of five golfers (along with Ben HoganGary PlayerJack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods) to win all the current major championships in his career, the Career Grand SlamU.S. Open in 1922, 1932, PGA Championship in 1922, 1923, 1933, The Open Championship in 1932,[2] and Masters Tournament in 1935.

Sarazen was born in Harrison, New York as Eugenio Saraceni[3] to a poor family of Sicilian immigrants.[4] Sarazen began caddying at age ten at local golf clubs, took up golf himself, and gradually developed his skills; he was essentially self-taught. He used the somewhat unusual, at the time, interlocking grip to hold the club.

Sarazen took a series of club professional jobs in the New York area from his mid-teens, and worked hard on his game. Sarazen won his first major championships – the 1922 U.S. Open and PGA Championship – at age 20. He was a contemporary and great rival of Bobby Jones, who was born in the same year; Sarazen also had many great battles with Walter Hagen, who was about ten years older. Sarazen, Jones, and Hagen were the world's dominant players during the 1920s. Rivalries among the three great champions significantly expanded interest in golf around the world during this period, and made the United States the world's dominant golf power for the first time, taking over this position from Great Britain.

The winner of 39 PGA tournaments, Sarazen was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974. He was the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year in 1932, and won the PGA Tour's first Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996. He played on six U.S. Ryder Cup teams: 1927, 1929, 1931, 1933, 1935, and 1937.

Sarazen invented the modern sand wedge,[5] and debuted the club (while keeping it secret during preliminary practice rounds) at The Open Championship at Prince's Golf Club in 1932 (which he won). He called it the sand iron, and his original club is no longer on display at Prince's as it is worth too much for the insurers to cover. Sarazen had previously struggled with his sand play. There had been earlier sand-specific clubs. But Bobby Jones's sand club, for example, had a concave face, which actually contacted the ball twice during a swing; this design was later banned. Sarazen's innovation was to weld solder onto the lower back of the club, building up the flange so that it sat lower than the leading edge when soled. The flange, not the leading edge, would contact the sand first, and explode sand as the shot was played. The additional weight provided punch to power through the thick sand. Sarazen's newly developed technique with the new club was to contact the sand a couple of inches behind the ball, not actually contacting the ball at all on most sand shots. Every top-class golfer since has utilized this wedge design and technique, and the same club design and method are also used by amateur players around the world. The sand wedge also began to be used by top players for shots from grass, shortly after Sarazen introduced it, and this led to a revolution in short-game techniques, along with lower scoring by players who mastered the skills.

Sarazen hit "the shot heard 'round the world" in the 1935 Masters Tournament. It was a final round 235-yard 4-wood on the par-5 15th hole that went in, giving him a very rare double eagle 2 on the hole, only one of four people to ever achieve such a feat on any hole at the Masters. He trailed the leader by three shots at the time, and made them up all at once. It led to his later winning the tournament in a 36-hole playoff over Craig Wood the next day. At the time of his second shot a check for $1,500, the winning prize, had already been written to Craig Wood, who had finished his round. Wood would have to wait another six years before finally winning his Masters title. The Sarazen Bridge at the Augusta National Golf Club is named to commemorate the 20th anniversary of this feat.[6] It remains one of the most famous shots in golf history.

In spite of his height – he only stood 5 feet 5.5 inches (1.66 m) tall[7] – Sarazen could hit the ball a very long way, even when compared with larger, stronger players. Sarazen played several lengthy exhibition tours around the world, promoting his skills and the sport of golf, and earned a very good living from golf. As a multiple past champion, he was eligible to continue competing after his best years were past, and occasionally did so in the top events, well into the 1960s, and occasionally into the 1970s. Throughout his life, Sarazen competed wearing knickers or plus-fours, which were the fashion when he broke into the top level.

For many years after his retirement, Sarazen was a familiar figure as an honorary starter at the Masters. From 1981–1999, he joined Byron Nelson and Sam Snead in hitting a ceremonial tee shot before each Masters tournament. He also popularized the sport with his role as a commentator on the Wonderful World of Golf television show, and was an early TV broadcaster at important events.

At the age of 71, Sarazen made a hole-in-one at the 1973 Open Championship. In 1992, he was voted the Bob Jones Award, the highest honor given by the United States Golf Association in recognition of distinguished sportsmanship in golf.

Sarazen had what is still the longest-running endorsement contract in professional sports – with Wilson Sporting Goods from 1923 until his death, a total of 75 years.[8]

He received an honorary degree in 1978 from Siena College, in Loudonville, New York. In 1998, shortly before his death, the Sarazen Student Union was named in his honor. He also established an endowed scholarship fund at the college, The Gene and Mary Sarazen Scholarship, which is awarded annually to students reflecting the high personal, athletic, and intellectual ideals of Dr. Sarazen. For many years, kitted in his plus-fours, he hit the first ball in an annual golf tournament, held to raise funds for the scholarship.[9]

Sarazen died in Naples, Florida in 1999 from complications of pneumonia, aged 97. He is interred at Marco Island Cemetery, Marco, Florida. His wife died in 1986.[10]

In 2000, Sarazen was ranked as the 11th greatest golfer of all time by Golf Digest magazine.[11]