An introduction to Gene Sarazen begins with a handshake, and yes, the legendary golfer’s grip remains firm. His eyes twinkle, his voice is strong and he looks like he could shoot his age.
Sarazen turns 96 this month. That’s way above par, which he finds a bit unsettling.
“You don’t know when you wake up in the morning whether you’re going to make it or not,” he says. “I’m looking at 100, and it scares you.”
It’s been more than 75 years since Sarazen won the first of his seven majors at the 1922 U.S. Open. He hit perhaps the most famous shot in golf in 1935, sinking a double eagle with a 4-wood at the Masters as Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen watched. He played against both Harry Vardon and Jack Nicklaus, who won British Open titles 82 years apart.
Arthritis forced Sarazen to give up playing in 1993. But he is happy to reminisce.
Immaculately dressed in a cardigan, knickers and two-tone wingtips, he relaxes in his fifth-story oceanfront condo as he looks back on one of golf’s greatest careers. His story is history.
Sarazen was born Feb. 27, 1902, in Harrison, N.Y., the son of an Italian immigrant carpenter who never understood golf and saw his son play only once.
“It was at the PGA Championship in Pelham, N.Y.,” Sarazen recalls. “From the highway, he watched me play the 10th hole. I had a 40-foot putt and missed it. That night he said, ‘You mean to say they pay you fellows to play that game and you couldn’t put that thing in the hole?’ I said, ‘Did you ever try it?”’
The game wasn’t easy, but Sarazen loved it. He became a caddie at age 8, walking four miles to the nearest club and playing whenever he could. He set his sights on becoming a professional, against all odds.
“In those days, only brokers and bankers played golf,” he says.
He won his first tournament and $20. He made a hole-in-one and the next day his name was in the papers: Eugenio Saraceni.
“I didn’t like the name. It looked too much like a violin player. I changed it to Gene Sarazen.”
It would soon become one of the most famous names in sports.
Sarazen nearly died during the 1918 flu epidemic. After recovering, he bought a $15 steamship ticket from New York to Florida and settled in Sebring, where he unloaded brick in a freight yard while polishing his game.
The president of the U.S. Golf Association thought the youngster showed promise and paid his way to the 1922 U.S. Open in Skokie, Ill. Sarazen won the tournament, then won the PGA Championship the same year.
At age 20, the 5-foot-6 former caddie was suddenly a big deal.
“I was younger than Tiger Woods,” he says. “The only thing is, Tiger has millions in the bank. I had pennies.”
Woods won $2.1 million in prize money last year. Sarazen’s earnings for his seven major titles totaled less than $50,000.
Money isn’t the only difference in the game today, Sarazen says. He credits Woods with rejuvenating golf the same way Bobby Jones did in the 1920s, but he says the sport suffers from overexposure and slow play. He recommends fewer tournaments and faster rounds.
“I still hold the record for the fastest round at the Masters - one hour and 57 minutes,” he says proudly.
That achievement is a mere footnote to Sarazen’s most noteworthy entries in the record book. He became the first player to win a career Grand Slam - the U.S. Open (1922, 1932), the PGA Championship (1922, 1923, 1933), the British Open (1932) and the Masters (1935). Only Nicklaus, Ben Hogan and Gary Player have matched the feat.
Rising from his chair, Sarazen shuffles across the carpet - it’s green, of course - and digs out a photo of himself from the 1920s. In the picture, he has just hit a drive and is smiling, pleased with the shot.
“I miss playing very much,” he says.
Sarazen’s final tournament was the 1973 British Open at Troon, where he sank a hole-in-one at age 71.
Sarazen travels each year to the Masters, where he attends a dinner honoring past champions and joins Byron Nelson and Sam Snead to hit the ceremonial first tee shot. He plans to make the trip again in April.
“Oh, yes,” he says, “if I’m alive.”