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Agony and Ecstasy at the Masters Tournament

It would take a miracle to beat Craig Wood in 1935. Gene Sarazen provided one

Grantland Rice, Gene Sarazen and Craig Wood at the 1935 Augusta National Invitational Tournament. Photo: © Bettmann/CORBIS

There were already whispers that Craig Wood was a bad-luck golfer when, in late March of 1935, he accepted an offer from Bobby Jones to play in his second Augusta National Invitational Tournament in Augusta, Georgia.  Known as the “Blond Bomber,” Wood had literally made a splash at the 1933 British Open at St. Andrews—he had tied Denny Shute for the lead after 72 holes, but lost in a playoff when his booming drive found the famous Swilcan Burn, a thin channel of water that cuts across the first fairway.

At the inaugural “Masters” (as it would later become known), in 1934, Wood had lost to Horton Smith, who inconceivably holed two long putts on the final holes to win by a stroke. Later that year, Wood finished second in the 1934 PGA Championship, losing once again in a playoff to Paul Runyan, who just a few years before had been his assistant pro at Forest Hills Golf Club in White Plains, New York.

Still, Wood, a native of Lake Placid, New York, was a polished and respected player when he arrived in Augusta in April 1935; a reporter described him as someone “who has so often had the door to opportunity slammed in his face.” By the end of the 1935 Augusta National Invitational, however, Craig Wood would be known as the most jinxed golfer the game had ever known. It would happen in a matter of seconds during the final round, when Eugenio Saraceni, the son of an immigrant carpenter and better known as Gene Sarazen, reached into his pocket for a lucky ring, then reached into his bag on the 15th fairway and made a swing for the ages—the “shot heard ’round the world”—and paved the way to another playoff.

Bobby Jones was already a legend: he had retired from competition in 1930, at the age of 28, having dominated the game like no other American for nearly a decade. But after founding the Augusta National Golf Club in his native Georgia, Jones came out of retirement in 1934 to help boost the new Augusta National Invitational, and he would continue to play the tournament on an exhibition basis for years to come. He was not only the biggest star in golf, but also the biggest and most beloved star in all of sports at the time—the only athlete to receive two ticker-tape parades down Broadway in New York City. Perhaps on the strength of his competitive reputation alone, Bobby Jones was the bookie favorite to win the 1935 Masters.

Sarazen in 1939. Photo: Wikipedia

Wood was among the favorites as well, but the smart money was on Sarazen, who was at the top of his game. Although he was just 33, he was considered a crafty veteran, having already won six major tournaments. He also preferred to wear the traditional plus-fours (so called because they’re four inches longer than traditional knickers) when most golfers had opted, he said, for “sloppy slacks.” Sportswriter Grantland Rice played a practice round with the golfer nicknamed “the Squire” and wrote that he’d “never seen him hit the ball any better.” His 65 in a friendly round tied Bobby Jones’ course record.

In the days leading up to the tournament, Sarazen told Rice that the stars seemed to be lining up for him, even though he’d only just played the new course for the first time. “When I came here, I had three cows at home,” he told Rice. “Now I have three cows and two calves. That’s a hunch, and you know how I like hunches. I’m keen about the course, and I never saw any golf battlefield in better shape. I honestly think I can step along here.”

If Sarazen had dreams of victory the night before the tournament, they were interrupted at 4 a.m. by the sound of his hotel room door opening and the sight of a woman’s silhouette in the door frame. He jumped out of bed, picked up his driver and chased her down the corridor until she disappeared into another room. (“I was thinking of the forty dollars I had left on my dresser,” he said. “These are tough days. I can use that forty dollars to feed my four cows.”)

The episode had little effect on his game; he shot a 68 in the opening round, and it could have been lower had a few close putts dropped. Tommy Armour, who was paired with him, told reporters his partner played “one of the greatest rounds of golf I have ever seen. It matched the greatest golf I have ever seen Harry Vardon or Bobby Jones play. It was a masterpiece of golf art. Gene could have used his foot and kicked the ball in for a 65 or 66. I was hitting the ball quite well. I was only one over par, and yet in this round I felt like a hacker.”

By the end of the first round, the “par-wrecking field” saw Sarazen near the top with a 68 and Wood just one stroke behind. Henry “the Hershey Hurricane” Picard led the field with a 67, but Jones posted a 74, seven strokes off the lead.

Following round three on a stormy Saturday, April 6, Wood had taken the lead at seven under par, followed by Olin Dutra, Picard and Sarazen in fourth place, three strokes back. Wood had played spectacular golf in difficult conditions. Sportswriters marveled at his score, considering that he’d hit into a ditch and a water hazard, and missed a four-foot putt on the ninth. Sarazen had managed only a 73, and Jones could not get into contention. As the players teed off on a cold and rain-soaked course for Sunday’s final round, Wood found himself paired with Picard, while Sarazen played with his friend and rival Walter Hagen, who was out of contention and would spend the round reminiscing about old times and “his women,” Sarazen recalled.

Wood put together another solid round. Picard and Dutra faded, and Jones’ erratic putting (he missed a one-footer) kept him from mounting any challenge. When Wood birdied the 14th, 15th and 18th holes for a 73, he went into the clubhouse at six under par with a three-stroke lead over Sarazen—the only player still on the course who had a chance. (Final-round pairings were not based on scores then, so Wood, despite being the third-round leader, had teed off several groups ahead of Sarazen.)

Sarazen could hear the roar that greeted Wood’s final birdie, and as he approached the 15th tee, he turned to his caddie, Thor “Stovepipe” Nordwall, and asked what he needed to win.

“What do you mean, boss, to beat Craig Wood?” Nordwall asked.

Sarazen nodded. Standing on the tee, Hagen began to titter at the thought of a late round charge.

“Oooh,” the caddie mused, looking at the scorecard. “You need four threes, Mister Gene. Three, three, three, three.”

That would be an eagle, par, birdie and birdie. Picturing the four holes ahead, Sarazen didn’t think much of his chances. Back in the clubhouse, Wood was feeling confident. “I knew then the odds were 1000 to 1 in my favor,” he told a reporter later that night.  “I felt the tournament was over.”

Sarazen blasted his tee shot down the 15th fairway—but “received a sudden jolt when I saw my lie” on the par-five hole, he would say. “It was none too good.” Most of the fans had been following Wood, so the gallery around Sarazen was sparse. Nordwall suggested a three-wood for the second shot into the green. There would be no laying up—not with Wood in the clubhouse, up by three strokes. Sarazen judged the lie to be “sitting down” and he thought he couldn’t lift the ball with a three-wood, so he “went to the bottom of his leather quiver” and grabbed his four-wood—a new model, the Wilson TurfRider.

Bobby Jones, pictured here in 1930, was one of the few people to witness  Sarazen’s “shot heard round the world.” Photo: Wikipedia

Knowing he’d need to carry the ball 235 yards to the pin to give himself a chance at an eagle, he remembered a “lucky ring” that his friend Bob Davis had given him the night before. Davis told Sarazen that the ring had belonged to former Mexican president Benito Juarez. Sarazen thought the gaudy ring was too cumbersome to wear during a round of golf, but the Squire was also superstitious, so he had stuffed the bauble into his pocket that morning. (Davis later confessed that it wasn’t Juarez’s ring; he’d simply bought the trinket in Mexico.)

Now he pulled the ring out of his pocket and walked over to his caddie and began rubbing it on Nordwall’s head for luck. Hagen, who liked to play fast, was eager to finish the round. “Hurry up, will ya?  I’ve got a date tonight,” he said.

Inside the clubhouse, Wood’s name had already been inscribed on the winner’s check, and his wife, Jacqueline, was standing by her husband, accepting congratulations. Wood’s lead looked “safer than a dozen Gibraltars,” one reporter observed. It was the couple’s first wedding anniversary, and Wood was hoping to make a “husbandly effort to present this title to his wife,” as well as the winner’s check for $1,500. (The traditional awarding of the green jacket to the Masters champion did not begin until 1949.)

At the same time, Sarazen, described in newspapers afterward as the “swaggering little Roman,” stepped up to address his ball. He slowly began his backswing, then powered down through the ball, which, one reporter noted, “left the face of the spoon like a rifle shot.”

The shot landed on the front of the green. A cheer went up from the spectators—and then a roar as the ball began to roll, tracking slowly toward the pin. Ever so deliberately, it “spun along its way and finally disappeared in the cup for a double-eagle two,” one reporter wrote. “A two on a 485-yard hold where even an eagle three wouldn’t have helped.”

Jones, who had finished his round, saw Sarazen’s miraculous second shot from the fairway. “That was one golf shot that was beyond all imagining, and golf is largely imagination,” Jones said. “From duffer to star we all dream of impossible shots that might come off. This one was beyond the limit of all dreams when you consider all the surrounding circumstances. I still don’t believe what I saw.”

Another reporter observed, “Had anyone other than Sarazen holed a 230-yard for a deuce on a 485-yard hole, it could easily be set down as a miracle, but coming from the fighting little Italian, it was a manifestation of superb competitive courage, garnished, of course, with a smattering of luck.”

Later that night, Sarazen told Rice he had been “afraid of the lie I had.” When he saw the ball sailing toward the green, he hoped he’d have a short eagle putt. Then he heard the roar of the crowd and discovered he’d made a double eagle. “Nothing else could have saved me,” he said. “When that wild howl went up, I felt, for just a second, like crying.”

Back in the clubhouse, Jacqueline Wood felt like doing the same. She was spotted standing “anxious, trembling and miserable.” As word of Sarazen’s double eagle spread and electrified the grounds, one of the players’ wives approached her and said, “You’ll get used to this, dear.”

With one swing, Sarazen had made up three strokes on Wood. He parred the last three holes, which left him tied for the lead after four rounds. A 36-hole playoff loomed on Monday—another raw day. A reporter wrote that Wood would try to “beat back destiny,” but the end of the 1935 Augusta National Invitational would be anticlimactic. Wood was “hitting perfect figures all the way, while Sarazen was curing two mistakes with as many birdies,” in one reporter’s account. Sarazen won by five strokes.

Wood didn’t express any bitterness about the defeat. He recalled losing the inaugural tournament to Horton Smith, but said, “It never occurred to me that anyone was going to hole a shot of 230 yards to stop me again.”

He eventually became the first golfer to lose all four major championships in extra holes—a distinction that lasted until Greg Norman came along. Unlike Norman, however, Wood rebounded from his defeats in Augusta; in 1941 he won the tournament in wire-to-wire fashion. He then removed the “jinx” label by winning the very next major—the 45th U.S. Open—in what is widely considered one of the greatest years any golfer has ever had.

Sarazen didn’t win much after the 1935 Augusta National Invitational, but he could be counted on to return to Augusta to hit the ceremonial opening shot, along with Byron Nelson and Sam Snead, right up until his death, at age 97, in 1999. In 1955, the Augusta National Golf Club built the Sarazen Bridge at the edge of the pond in front of the 15th hole in honor of the Squire and his double eagle. “It was the greatest thrill I’ve ever known in golf,” he said just after his 1935 feat, “or ever expect to again.”

Sources

Books: Gene Sarazen and Herbert Warren Wind, Thirty Years of Championship Golf, Prentice-Hall, Inc, 1950. David Owen, The Making of the Masters: Clifford Roberts, Augusta National, and Golf’s Most Prestigious Tournament, Simon & Schuster, 1999. Ken Janke, Firsts, Facts, Feats, & Failures In the World of Golf, John Wiley & Sons, 2007. Robert McCord, Golf Book of Days: Fascinating Facts and Stories for Every Day of the Year, Citadel Press Books, 1995.  Matthew E. Adams, In the Spirit of the Game: Golf’s Greatest Stories, Globe Pequot Press, 2008.  Tim Glover and Peter Higgs, Fairway to Heaven: Victors and Victims of Golf’s Choking Game, Mainstream Publishing Company (Edinburgh) Ltd., 1999. Tom Clavin, One for the Ages: Jack Nicklaus and the 1986 Masters, Chicago Review Press, 2011.  Julian I. Graubart, Golf’s Greatest Championship: The 1960 U. S. Open, Taylor Trade Publications, 2009.  Robert Sommers, Golf Anecdotes: From the Links of Scotland to Tiger Woods, Oxford University Press, 2004.

Articles: “Amazing Accuracy Brings Sarazen Victory Over Wood in Playoff of Masters’ Golf Tournament,” Boston Globe, April 9, 1935. “Sarazen’s 144 Wins Masters Golf Playoff,” by Charles Bartlett, Chicago Daily Tribune, April 9, 1935. “Sarazen Ties Wood for Masters’ Title,” Chicago Daily Tribune, April 8, 1935. “Wood Cards 68 to Top Golfers,” Washington Post, April 7, 1935. “Craig Wood Conquers Elements and Par to Snatch Lead in Augusta Open Golf,” by Grantland Rice, Hartford Courant, April 7, 1935. “Wood Cards 68; Leads Masters’ Tourney,” by Charles Bartlett, Chicago Daily Tribune, April 7, 1935. “Henry Picard Shoots 67 to Lead Par-Wrecking Field in Augusta National Golf,” by Grantland Rice, Hartford Courant, April 5, 1935. “Still Feared by Golf’s Greatest,” by Grantland Rice, Daily Boston Globe, April 3, 1935.  “Jones Prince or Hosts, but Stars Fear Sarazen,” Chicago Daily Tribune, April 3, 1935. “Gene Sarazen Ready to Recreate Famous Double Eagle at Masters,” by Jim Achenbach, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, April 11, 1984. “Mystery Man was a Champ,” by Garry Smits, The Florida Times Union, November 10, 2008.  “Early Decision Set the Stage for Drama,” by John Boyette, The Augusta Chronicle, February 9, 2012.  “Golf Dress Sloppy, Says Gene Sarazen,” by Oscar Fraley, The Tuscaloosa News, February 11, 1965.

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