10 Feb 2021 | Industry news | Feature stories |

The day Thommo tangled with Snead

by Contributor

Thomson and Snead spliced image
Peter Thomson (left) and Sam Snead duelled at Yarra Yarra. Photos: Getty

By John Trevorrow

Peter Thomson once described American pro Sam Snead as his golfing idol, and "the most gifted natural golfing athlete that ever lived". Coming from a five-time British Open champion, that’s high praise. But Samuel Jackson Snead, who won seven majors and 82 tournaments spanning 38 years on the PGA tour, earned the admiration. The two men were professional rivals and good friends, and on a memorable spring afternoon in 1973, thousands of Melbourne golf fans thronged to Yarra Yarra to see these two stars play an exhibition match over 18 holes on Melbourne’s esteemed sandbelt. It was just the second trip to Australia since the 1959 Canada Cup at Royal Melbourne for Snead, winner of the 1946 Open championship at St Andrews, three US Masters and three US PGA crowns. By October of 1973, Snead was 61 but far from over the hill. Four months earlier at Oakmont in Pennsylvania he had become the oldest player ever to make the cut in a US Open. And he still holds that honour. The exhibition match at Yarra Yarra was the brainchild of Melbourne promoter Jim Carter. He contacted Snead’s US manager when he read that the star golfer was coming to Sydney to compete in the Chrysler Classic at The Lakes in early November. Carter then spoke to Thomson, who readily agreed to play a match against his friend of two decades. Snead and Thomson had met on the US tour, where the American asked the aspiring young Aussie to share hotel rooms when accommodation was scarce on tour in the early 1950s. Thomson said Snead liked the fact that both were non-smokers, drank very little, liked early nights and shared the same wry sense of humor. Carter then had to find a sponsor to guarantee Snead’s fee. He asked Ranald Macdonald, managing director of David Syme, publisher of The Age, to back his planned big event. The Age was then sponsoring the Vic Open, so the deal was done. Only a handful of people know that the Snead-Thomson match was originally arranged to be played at Huntingdale. Carter says The Age’s then promotions manager, Tony Charlton, switched the venue to Yarra Yarra — to the anger of Huntingdale’s committee — because he thought the paying crowd would be excited to see the two champions reach Yarra’s shorter par fives in two. The match was set for Tuesday afternoon, 48 hours before the Chrysler Classic. Organisers were surprised when a crowd variously estimated at 7000 to 10,000 poured in for the rare chance to see the two greats in action. (There was no official head count at the gate). Two of Yarra’s best players caddied. Don Reiter, who won 10 club championships and was runner-up eight times, remembers he took the afternoon off work as an assistant engineer at Springvale City Council to carry Thomson’s bag. He had caddied for Thomson several times at Metropolitan, including matches involving Thomson, Governor Sir Dallas Brooks and Tom Crow. Michael Cahill, another multiple club champion who went on to win three straight Victorian amateur titles and the 1977 Australian PGA, caddied for Snead. Snead was famously fit and agile. Reiter and Cahill both say they remember being astonished in the locker room before the match when Snead effortlessly kicked up one leg and put his heel on the top of a door frame 2.1 metres high. Snead was renowned as the longest hitter on the US tour in his heyday, earning the nickname “Slamming Sammy”. But his power was also matched with rhythm and grace, and he and Thomson possessed two of the most envied swings in the world. The crowd was treated to an exhibition of brilliant shot-making. And also to the strange sight of Snead putting side-saddle, facing the hole with his feet together and his right hand guiding the club halfway down the shaft. Snead had long been crippled by the yips. He had tried putting croquet-style with his feet straddling the line, but the USGA banned that in 1968. On the 483-metre par-five ninth, Snead smacked his second with his persimmon driver off the fairway to within a foot of the green — then topped his long approach putt 10 feet short, taking another two putts to make his par. He ruefully told The Age golf writer Peter Stone: “It’s very hard to get much of a back-swing with the side-saddle.” Stone wrote that Snead outdrove Thomson every time, by 30 to 50 metres. On the 442-metre m 16th, Snead was on in two lining up a 30-foot putt for eagle thrre, but shrugged his shoulders and said: “I don’t know what the hell I’m looking for.” He was right. His putt went four feet wide left. On the par-five final hole, Snead pushed his drive into the cypress trees. He rifled a three-wood through a four-foot gap to within 10 metres of the green. Thomson wrote a typically elegant obituary when Snead died in 2002 just four days short of his 90th birthday. He lauded his friend’s skill and decades of contribution to the game, but sympathised with his years of torment on the greens: “His putting was often pathetic as he missed time and again from short distances for birdies, which seemed to destroy his exuberance, until he resorted to straddle putting (which was soon outlawed), ending up trying to hole putts sidesaddle.” At Yarra Yarra, Thomson carded a five-under 67 to defeat Snead’s even-par 72. Snead had conceded Thomson 17 years on a course he had never seen before and played with the unfamiliar 1.62-inch small ball, and yet he came within one stroke of matching Thomson from tee to green. He took 34 putts for his par round while Thomson had 30. But nobody really cared about the scores. “Sometimes you experience a special day like that and you realise you were so damn lucky to have seen it,’’ says Ranald Macdonald. After the match, a clinic was set up around the 18th green and Snead wowed the crowd demonstrating a selection of high fades, low draws and a shot that soared as high as an eight-iron — all hit with his one-iron. He was then handed a left-handed driver. He casually practice-swished it that way before turning the club’s wooden head upside down on its toe and belting a magnificent drive right-handed. The crowd loved Sam, and he loved a crowd. The final word on that magic day goes to Snead’s caddy Michael Cahill. He has never forgotten a joke Snead told in his West Virginia drawl that brought the house down: “To become a pro golfer, you should go to the practice fairway and fill your mouth with marbles. “Each time you hit a great shot, spit one out. When you’ve lost all your marbles, you know you’re a pro golfer.” John Trevorrow wagged the afternoon off school to be part of the crowd at this historic match. This article was first published in The Long Game, the newsletter of the Golf Society of Australia.

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