Al Barkow has been writing about golf for some 55 years including his tenure as former editor-in-chief of Golf and Golf Illustrated magazines. Al’s book Gettin’ to the Dance Floor: an Oral History of American Golf, won the first USGA International Golf Book of the Year award, in 1986.
1. What made you want to write about Sam Snead?
Sam was one of the greatest golfers in the game’s history, but had been ignored as a personality. He was taken to be just an uncommonly gifted athlete who didn’t know what he was doing but just did it, and otherwise, was a cranky, simple-minded rube from the hills. From a long interview I had with Sam for my book, Gettin’ to the Dance Floor, an Oral History of American Golf, I found that there was much more to the man. For one thing, while he was given a marvelous athletic talent, he worked very hard to make it better and contrary to what Ben Hogan and others said, he knew exactly what he was doing with a golf club. For another, beneath the story-telling and profanity, and womanizing, there was a person with strong, even sentimental feelings about family and friends. I felt people should know more about Snead, and that there was a lot more to know.
2. What separated Snead from other prominent tour players during that era?
What separated Sam from the others, or most of the others of his era was his remarkable ability at the game, and the incredible grace of his action. Every time he swung a club we saw a bit of ballet. He was longer off the tee, had a wonderful touch for the short game, and was a better putter than he was given credit for.
Discoveries? He had trouble clubbing himself. He needed a good caddie to put the right club in his hand. I don’t think it was his vision, it was some lack of confidence, which sounds odd but I think was the case. He would look in the bag of 20 handicap golfers to see what they were hitting for a shot from the same distance he had.
For another, he was far more generous with his money than the stories had it. He was always pictured as cheap, someone who hid his money in cans he buried in his backyard and so on. It was not at all the case. Many pros went to Sam for loans when they were down on their luck. However, if any of them did not remember the debt he would never lend them money again. Even if they never paid it back, as long as they acknowledge to Sam that he was owed everything was o.k.
He did have some chicanery about him. He played a lot of golf with amateur golfers – something Ben Hogan and others would never do – and for money. He would ask a golfer for his handicap, when there was time check it out with a phone call to his home course, or simply accept it and go from there. However, Sam always played as a scratch golfer, which meant he didn’t give as many strokes as he should have. He was really a plus six or so, but people didn’t know much about plus handicaps in those days. However, because so many amateurs he played were sandbagging their handicap it all came out about even.
4. If you had to describe Snead in three words (traits) what would they be?
Three words for Sam’s traits: Fun-loving, loyal, proud.
5. Might there be a favorite chapter?
The first chapter is one of my favorites, because it lays out the background from which he came and which shaped his personality.
6. Any plans for another golf-related book?
I am now working on a book on the Ben Hogan, Jack Fleck playoff (1955 US Open). I will also be publishing a book next Spring called Golf”s All-Time Firsts, Mosts, Leasts, and a Few Intriguing Nevers. It is a book of statistics and trivia, with a lot of golf history weaved into it.
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Author’s photo credit: Chris Felver