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The Front Nine
Golf's All-Time Greatest Shots
By Barry LeBrock
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2008 Barry LeBrock
All rights reserved.
1935: He Got a What?!?
March 9, 1902
The rhythmic, metallic click and clack of the wheels on a turn-of-the-century locomotive banged out a distant beat as the door opened and a chilling winter breeze blew through a small, rundown house shared by two families in Harrison, New York.
Upstairs, a 10-day-old infant was bundled up, sleeping next to a rickety furnace, blissfully unaware of the poverty around him. His name was Eugenio Saraceni. He was the second child and only son of an Italian immigrant named Federico Saraceni who barely made ends meet working as a carpenter. The child's mother, Adela, was a loving, supportive woman and a great cook who could work a kitchen for all it was worth.
It was standard operating procedure in the neighborhood, and in the era, for children to help their families supplement their modest incomes. As a youngster, Eugenio kicked in his share, earning money before he could even grasp its value. By the time he entered third grade, his résumé was both long and diverse. He had already worked several jobs, including selling magazines, picking fruit, scavenging scrap metal, and cleaning a woodshop, to name a few.
The extra money helped, and working the odd jobs was good experience, but his father saw one, and only one, true occupation for his son — carpentry — and the boy wanted nothing to do with it.
Eugenio first heard about golf at the age of eight. One summer night in 1910, his mother told him about the son of a neighbor who was making good money working for "the rich people who play that game with the ball and sticks." Always interested in a new way to make money, young Saraceni knocked on that neighbor's door, hooked himself up, and was soon working as a caddy at the Larchmont Country Club, a 40-minute trolley ride from Harrison. He began to literally and figuratively get a view of life on the other side of the tracks.
The lifestyle of the men who played and that certain camaraderie shared by a foursome were both very appealing aspects of golf, but it was the game itself that tugged at Eugenio's very being. From the moment he hit the first shot of his life, something just felt right about the sport, and despite all obstacles — financial and otherwise — he was determined to play. But his father, a stern and frustrated man who spoke broken English and could find little use in America for his elegant command of the Italian language, was wholly determined that his son would be a carpenter. By the time Eugenio was a teenager, most of his working hours were spent in a woodshop, learning the craft. But his mind invariably wandered, transporting him to Larchmont Country Club, where he soaked in sunshine under brilliant blue skies — systematically working every hole, strategically executing imagined shots, reading each break in every grain of the familiar greens, dropping unlikely birdies, even beating the best regulars.
In 1917, with the Great War raging, there was no work to be found in Harrison, so the Saraceni family moved to nearby Bridgeport, Connecticut, where Federico had found a job in the British Artillery Works. With his family desperate financially, Eugenio was forced to drop out of school and, with his father's guidance, began searching for full-time work. His carpentry training led him to a war-related job at a company called Remington Arms, drilling holes in the wooden racks in which ammunition shells were sent to Russia.
The next January, he caught a cold that got increasingly worse. Within a couple of weeks, he was in the hospital, unconscious for three days with a temperature of 105° F. When he awakened, there was a priest standing over his bed administering last rites.
The cold led to pneumonia, which led to pleurisy, which led to an operation in which tubes were inserted below his shoulder blades and through his rib cage to drain fluid from his lungs. For three weeks, Eugenio lay on his side with tubes protruding from his back. The operation was ultimately successful, and as he regained his strength, his discharge came with a condition. The doctor who signed his release papers insisted the young man not return to the war plant, or for that matter, any indoor job. The recipe for a complete recovery, he said, was simple: six weeks of rest followed by a life lived, in large part, outdoors in the fresh air and sunshine. Any subsequent mention by his father of a job involving carpentry was answered briefly and rather happily. Eugenio simply replied with the words, "Doctor's orders," which put an end to all conversation.
Now 16 years old, fully healthy, and sporting the reluctant carpenter's equivalent of a get-out-of-jail-free card, Saraceni was all about golf. In his earlier years, he had dreamt about a lifetime of work as a caddy, but recently that had all changed. Seeing the success of players like 1913 U.S. Open champion Francis Ouimet and the following year's winner, Walter Hagen, he realized the son of a poor man could succeed in a rich man's game. Without the funds or the connections to play any of Bridgeport's elite courses, he began hanging out at a small and simple nine-hole public course called Beardsley Park. There he approached the course pro, Al Ciuci, introducing himself and asking whether he could hit some chip shots and practice his putting. The pair quickly built a rapport and before long, Ciuci was allowing Eugenio to use empty parts of the course and encouraging him as he hit balls, one after another after another.
A few months later, Ciuci invited Eugenio to play in a foursome, which included Ciuci's brother, Joe, and a man named Art DeMane. The players stepped up to the first tee, a 145-yard par-3. Joe Ciuci hit first and stuck a short iron, at the time referred to as a mashie, about a foot from the pin. DeMane then ripped one even closer: about eight inches from the hole. It was then the kid's turn. He took his stance, made a compact, steady pass at the ball in prefect tempo, and sent it soaring, straight and true, headed for the green. The ball took two hops and disappeared into the cup for an ace.
The scene was almost surreal; it was as if the cup were a giant magnet and the golf balls were filled with metal. As the group celebrated Saraceni's hole in one, Al Ciuci stepped to the tee and, against all odds, dropped his ball on top of the one sitting in the cup for an ace of his own. Incredibly, the foursome had hit four golf balls from a combined total of 580 yards away and they were sitting a collective 20 inches from the hole.
The remaining eight holes were played in a far less spectacular fashion, but the talk throughout the round was of the incredible start. Returning to his pro shop, Ciuci called a friend who was a newspaper reporter and relayed the tale. The next day, in the local paper, there it was in black and white: yesterday afternoon, Al Ciuci and Eugene Saraceni scored holes in one playing together at the Beardsley Park Public Golf Course.
For Eugenio, seeing his name in the newspaper was even a bigger thrill than dropping that ace. Thirty-three years later, he would write a book about his life, which relates what happened next.
I read the write-up over and over again, sometimes to myself, sometimes out loud for a change of pace and thrill. There was only one thing wrong: I didn't likethe way my name looked in print nor the way it sounded. Eugene Saraceni didn't sound at all like a golfer's name. It wasn't crisp enough. It didn't come off the tongue like Chick Evans, or Jim Barnes, or Walter Hagen. Eugene — not a bad name for a violin player or a schoolteacher, but a rotten name for an athlete. Saraceni — it was too long and everyone used to irritate me by mispronouncing it. I wanted a name that suited me and golf. A name has to be right. It's a persons trademark.
We had a small blackboard at home and at night I would sit before it chalking variations of Saraceni, experimenting with all kinds of letter substitutions. One night I added the letter z-e-n to the S-a-r-a. I tried it out several times aloud. I liked the way it sounded, rhythmic and definite. I checked the Bridgeport telephone directory. Finding no Sarazens listed, I concluded that I had invented a new name. I tried it with Gene instead of Eugene. No question about it, that was what I was looking for. From that night on I was Gene Sarazen.
With a new name and his old passion for the game, Gene Sarazen built a life and career in golf. For the next three years, he traveled through the eastern half of the United States working at golf courses and playing in tournaments. The tour card had yet to be invented, and events were mostly "opens," allowing anybody to enter.
In 1922, to avoid the feast-or-famine lifestyle of a professional golfer, Sarazen received and accepted an invitation to participate in what was known as a syndicate with several other tournament players. Any prize money won by any of themwould be split equally. His first tournament after joining was the San Antonio Open, and despite finishing out of the money, he did get paid due to the success of a fellow member of his syndicate. He thought his participation in the group was a brilliant decision. The following week, he finished second at the Shreveport Open in Louisiana. As the only player in the recently formed group to collect a paycheck, he had to give up about 80 percent of his winnings and began to think the whole syndicate thing might not have been such a great idea.
The following week, the touring pros gathered at the New Orleans Country Club for the Southern Open, the most important and prestigious event on the winter circuit. In the first round of the match-play event, Sarazen was pitted against reigning U.S. Open champion Jim Barnes, an Englishman who six years earlier had won the first-ever PGA Championship. They made a strange pair; Sarazen, strong and stocky at just 5'5", 145 pounds, and Barnes, a lanky 6'4". Sarazen played a nearly flawless front nine, going out in 32. Barnes struggled to a less-than-stellar 38. Gene thought it would be a nice gesture to offer a word of encouragement, saying, "You'll do better coming in, Mr. Barnes. You'll probably get the 32 on this side."
Barnes, 16 years Sarazen's elder, did not take kindly to the comment. He stared coldly at the smaller man saying, "Listen, kid, you just play your own game. I'll take care of myself."
Sarazen learned a lesson, finished off Barnes, and went on to win the tournament, his first championship. The 1922 Southern Open paid a $1,000 first-place prize, but again Sarazen had to pay his partners. He walked away with a mere 200 bucks and promptly removed himself from the syndicate. Any future earnings would not go to others. Instead, they'd be deposited to their rightful owner, straight into the First National Bank of Sarazen.
A week later, the 20-year-old star-in-the-making fired his way to a second-place finish at the tour stop in Mobile, Alabama. With his entire chunk of prize money all in his own pocket, he walked excitedly into the tailor shop in the lobby of his hotel and was fitted for the first suit he ever bought.
A career was taking shape. Sarazen became a force among the pros and solidified his standing as one of the best golfers alive by winning two more tournaments in 1922. And they were significantly more noteworthy than the Southern Open.
That year's U.S. Open, or the "National Open" as it was called in the day, was to be played at the Skokie Country Club in Illinois. Sarazen arrived about a week before it started and developed a practice schedule that he would use throughout his career. After playing a round on the course, he would return to the driving range and devote most of his attention to the club he was hitting worst. Then he would spend hours on the putting green. Not the practice green; the actual putting greens, getting to know every element of the grain and the subtle slopes of each surface.
Sarazen would later write, "Most practice greens are a hindrance rather than a help. There are very few courses where the practice green resembles in speed, texture, and undulation the greens the player will find on the course. It is very important to get off on the right foot, and to have the first three or four greens perfectly memorized can often rescue you from bad-start jitters."
He played 36 holes of steady golf the first two days of the tournament, and after a shaky third round of 5-over-par 75, Sarazen entered play on the final day four strokes behind co-leaders Bobby Jones and Bill Mehlhorn. He turned in his best nine to start round four, going out in 33. After a bogey on the 10 hole, Sarazen birdied the 11, banged out six straight pars,then birdied the par-5 18 for a final-round total of 2-under-par 68 and a tournament total of 288. The groups behind him made their way to 18, and news of their scores trickled in via the unofficial on-course grapevine. One-by-one, players were eliminated, either finishing with a higher score than Sarazen or still hacking away on the course out of contention. The final two players with a legitimate shot were John Black, a 43-year-old Scotsman out of California, and Bobby Jones, on his way to becoming the most revered golfer of his time, and perhaps any other. The 17 hole was the undoing of both. Jones, who needed to make up a stroke on the final two holes to tie Sarazen, bogeyed 17 after hitting his tee shot into the rough. Black needed two pars for a tie, but hooked his drive out of bounds and took a double bogey 6. Minutes later, the Open was officially closed, and the winner was a 20-year-old relative unknown, a former caddy from Harrison, New York.
Unknown no longer, about a month later, Sarazen took his improving skills and growing confidence to the PGA Championship at the Oakmont Country Club in Pennsylvania. The PGA, always considered a major tournament, was held in a match-play format from its inception in 1916 until 1957. Players would go head-to-head for 18 holes in the morning, break for lunch, then play another 18 in the afternoon. The winner of the most holes in each 36-hole match would advance to play again. From the opening day, tournament organizers paired them up, and Sarazen knocked them down. He dispatched his first three opponents handily, muscled by the next two in tight matches, and moved into the finals, where he was set to face a friendly acquaintance named Emmet French, who had survived five opponents as well.
On the final Sunday, Sarazen's game from tee to green was no more than adequate, but once on the putting surface, he was golden. In his autobiography, Sarazen recalled, "I had one of those days when the line to the hole stood out as clearly as if it had been chalked on the grass." He closed out French on the 33 hole, winning the match 4-and-3.
Still just 20 years old, he was the youngest man to win the PGA Championship in the tournament's young history and the first player ever to win the U.S. Open and the PGA in the same season. The following year, he repeated as PGA champion, going 38 holes before finishing off one of his past heroes and future friends, Walter Hagen. Sarazen prevailed on the 2 hole of sudden death on the strength of a miraculous approach shot from the rough to within two feet of the cup, which he dropped for a tournament-winning birdie.
While 1922 was the year Gene Sarazen established himself as a force in the golf world, it was, in retrospect, simply a good start to a great career. Over the next decade, he would become known throughout the world, winning 26 tournaments, including an astounding eight in 1930. In 1932, he flexed his championship muscle on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, winning the U.S. and British Opens. At that U.S. Open, played in Flushing, New York, he made a finishing charge for the ages to take the title going away. The final day was a 36-hole mental marathon, in which Sarazen, after shooting par on the front nine, ripped through the morning back nine with a 3-under-par 32. In the afternoon, he put up a sizzling 4- under-par 66. All told, he shot 7-under-par on the final 27 holes on a course so difficult that his winning score was 6 over par. No less an authority than Bobby Jones would later say of Sarazen's spectacular Sunday, "It was the finest competitive round ever played."
National championships are like keys: used properly, they can open all kinds of doors. As the owner of the two prestigious titles simultaneously, Sarazen was receiving offers from allcorners of the globe. The poor kid from the small town was suddenly traveling the world, playing exhibition matches, and getting paid handsomely to do it. And so it was that in the spring of 1934, he was playing in South America while most of the other pros cut the ribbon on a new tournament that had been formed stateside. The event was to be held in a small town in Georgia on land that was formerly a nursery used to grow imported trees. He missed that inaugural gathering, but in due time, Eugenio Saraceni would make his mark at the annual gathering played in a city known as Augusta.
Excerpted from The Front Nine by Barry LeBrock. Copyright © 2008 Barry LeBrock. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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