Philadelphia golf memories

With the AT&T National underway at Aronimink Golf Club, here’s the first in a series of blog posts on other noteworthy golf tournaments in Philadelphia’s past:

 The 1939 U.S. Open, the Spring Mill Course of the Philadelphia Country Club:

 The darkness at the bottom of the cup summoned Sam Snead.

 As he bent to remove his ball from the 18th hole, the dazed golfer stared into the blackness for what felt like forever. He wanted the hole to swallow him up.

 It was June 10, 1939, at the Spring Mill Course of Philadelphia Country Club, and Snead had just lost - given away, really - the 43d U.S. Open on the 72d hole.

Moments earlier, as he'd stood on the 18th's elevated tee, he seemed a likely winner. A par 5 on the sedate, 558-yard hole would give him his first Open. Even a bogey 6 would leave him tied with Byron Nelson.

Wearing khaki trousers, two-tone spikes, a floppy white hat and a long-sleeve white shirt that, despite the June 9th heat, was buttoned at the collar, Snead pondered his strategy: Should he play safe or aggressively?

Snead yanked the driver from his bag.

While 10,000 fans, mostly men in light-colored hats and shirts on this Saturday afternoon, slowly positioned themselves, Snead waited anxiously to drive. At last, standing above the ball, his body turned and unwound in the naturally sweet swing golfers still discuss with reverence.

``What happened next,'' Snead recalled in 1986, ``has haunted me ever since. . . . When you need only a bogey-6 to tie for the U.S. Open and you make an 8, you're ready to take the gas pipe.''

Sam Snead would win every other major golf tournament in the world during his 50-year career, many of them, like the PGA and Masters, more than once. Yet he never won the one he wanted most - the U.S. Open.

His remarkable 8 on that unremarkable hole in the heat of that long-ago Philadelphia June would trigger a string of Open collapses by the Hall of Famer. None pained Snead as much as the first, in the twilight of that Gladwyne evening.

``The U.S. Open has had many dramatic moments,'' wrote Inquirer sportswriter Cy Peterman, ``but the end of Slammin' Sam, `The People's Choice,' struck a new high of tragedy.

 The old clubhouse, with its tan stucco walls and red-tile roof, is used to store equipment now. The ``Spring Mill'' was dropped from the club's name in 1950, when Philadelphia Country Club sold its original course, now the site of the Presidential Apartments on City Line Avenue.

Polo-playing Philadelphians had founded the country club in 1890. In an era when immigrants flooded the city, bluebloods sought a retreat where, according to an early club publication, ``families can visit . . . without encountering anyone or anything that will be inconsistent with good behavior and good manners.''

 The older Bala course had opened in 1892. In 1924, the board of governors purchased a tract between Lafayette and Spring Mill Roads in rural Gladwyne. The second course, designed by William Flynn, who had worked on the crew that laid out Merion Golf Club, was finished in 1927. By 1939, it was respected enough to host the Open, Pennsylvania's third since 1934.

When a new clubhouse was constructed on the Spring Mill Road side of the club in 1957, a few holes were reconfigured. The old 18th became the third hole.

Its topography, however, remains unchanged from that afternoon 58 years ago.

* ``There's not a lot of trouble on the hole, when you think about it,'' said Tim DeBaufre. The club pro there for many years, he stood on the green and surveyed the fairway.

``There's no water, not a whole lot of trees. It's not the kind of hole you would think anyone could take an 8 on.''

Especially not Sam Snead.

An easygoing 27-year-old whose long drives and country humor had quickly endeared him to press and public, he emerged from West Virginia in 1937 to become a pro-golfing sensation.

He played his first tournament at Hershey, finishing fifth and earning $385. A year later, he won the Vardon Trophy, for the lowest scoring average, and already in 1939 he had won three events

Snead began that 43d Open with a 68 on Thursday, one-under for the 6,786-yard layout, and followed with a 71 Friday. Opens in those days concluded with 36 holes on Saturday, and Snead, teeing off with host pro Ed Dudley at 9:50 a.m., shot a 73 for the first 18.

 He ate a quick lunch and then, at 1:50, began the final round as the leader. Playing two groups ahead of him, Nelson, the Texan who was then the pro at Reading Country Club, would shoot 71-68 to finish at 284.

Snead played without incident through the afternoon and was 1-over for his final round when he reached the par-four 17th. Pars on the last two holes would give him a 282.

But on No. 17, after a 300-yard drive, ``he missed a short putt,'' DeBaufre said, and made bogey. ``That was the start of his problems.''

There were no scoreboards on the course, and Snead was unaware of Nelson's total or the fate of other contenders - Craig Wood, Denny Shute and Johnny Bulla. A fan at the 18th informed Dudley of Nelson's 284, but the club pro never mentioned it to his partner, and Snead never asked.

From where he stood on the Gladwyne course’s 18th hole, the top of Philadelphia's City Hall was visible just above the thin stand of pine and oak trees along the fairway's right side. Shiny black roadsters and sedans filled a field between the nearby clubhouse and Lafayette Road.

Straight ahead, the fairway - an undulating valley that descended steeply from the tee and then rose gently to a high green - was pockmarked with bunkers, 10 of the 117 Flynn had placed on the Montgomery County course.

Walking to the last tee, he’d heard a cheer behind him, assuming that either Wood or Shute had birdied. Snead mistakenly believed he needed a birdie 4 on 18.

With Snead and Dudley helpless spectators, marshals took nearly 30 minutes to clear the 18th fairway of fans - golfing legend Bobby Jones, who had played South Jersey's Pine Valley that morning, was among them. Most were pulling for the popular Snead.

``I was stewing every second,'' Snead said of the delay. ``I wanted to let off a shotgun blast.''

His drive traveled 260 yards but hooked left. Contemporary accounts said it settled into heavy rough. According to DeBaufre, Snead later told him the ball had landed in a bunker.

Next came his pivotal mistake. Instead of recovering safely to the fairway, Snead opted for a 2-wood. Hit poorly, the ball fell into a bunker in the fairway's heart, still 110 yards short of the green.

The lie was terrible. Snead knew a sand wedge would never get him to the green. He made his second big miscalculation. He chose an 8-iron. The shot didn't have the necessary loft, and the ball burrowed into the bunker's lip, between two hunks of fresh sod.

Again he blasted out and found yet another bunker, left of the green.

Just then someone in the gallery approached him: ``Nelson's at 284.'' Snead looked at him in disbelief, knowing now he would have to get down in two for a tie.

``Why the hell didn't somebody tell me earlier?'' he snapped.

Snead's next sand shot landed on the green, 40 feet from the pin. In an era of three-hour rounds, he studied the putt that could tie Nelson for an abnormally long time.

It rolled true, and the crowd screamed in anticipation. But, veering slightly left as it neared the cup, the ball lipped out, resting three feet beyond.

``Things got black then,'' Snead said. ``I didn't give a damn anymore.''

He missed the meaningless 3-footer and tapped in for 8. Shute and Wood would equal Nelson's 284, and it would take another 36 holes of playoff golf, over two days, before Nelson would prevail.

Dudley, attempting to console his obviously devastated playing partner, patted Snead on the back. The fans, after a long pause, rose in an ovation for Snead, who looked at Dudley and tried to speak

``[He] choked when he tried to reply,'' Peterman wrote of the scene, ``and staggered to the shower as if struck by a hit man's bullet.''

In the next year's Open, at Cleveland's Canterbury Golf Club, Snead was leading again entering the final round. He would have won with a 72. He shot 81. Then, in 1947, at St. Louis Country Club, he missed a 30-inch putt on the 18th hole of a playoff to lose by a shot to Lew Worsham.

 ``I think that what happened here began to play with his brain a little bit,'' DeBaufre said. ``He never won the Open. If he had won two or three, he probably wouldn't have thought too much about this place.''

In 1962, DeBaufre, then a club assistant, played the course with Snead.

When they came to the hole, DeBaufre said, it was clear the place still haunted the 50-year-old golfer. Snead described in detail each shot he had taken that June afternoon. By then, he knew he would never win an Open.

``There were some people following us, and this one young guy ran up to him as we neared the green and said, `Hey, Sam, you remember this hole, don't you? You were over here and over here and over here,' '' DeBaufre said.

``And Sam just looked at him and said, `How the hell would you know?' ''