Flamboyant Golfers of the 50s

By Jim Thomas

There was no shortage of show biz on the fairways of professional golf in the 1950s. Although the best golfer of the era, Ben Hogan, eschewed any trace of flamboyance, other great golfers picked up the slack. Among the men, Sam Snead, Jimmy Demaret and Tommy Bolt entertained golf fans with a larger-than-life flair. Women's golf in the 1950s featured perhaps the finest female athlete in history, "Babe" Didrikson Zaharias, who brought women's golf and women's sports to the attention of the general public.

Sam Snead

Slammin' Sammy brought a backwoods charm and tons of natural talent to the game. Snead was known for his silky smooth swing and tremendous length off the tee. The son of a farmer, he grew up in the mountains of Virginia, where he hunted and fished and caddied at a local resort. Growing up in poverty led to one of his classic lines: "Keep close count of your nickles and dimes, stay away from whiskey and never concede a putt." His seven major championships included the 1952 and 1954 Masters. Snead's down-home wisdom about the game still resonates. Said Snead: If a lot of people gripped a knife and fork the way they do a golf club, they'd starve to death." Although Snead didn't practice as much as his peers, he understood the value of it, which was summed up by another memorable quote of his: "Practice puts brains in your muscles." Snead retired from the PGA Tour in 1979, at age 67. His final season included a round of 67 and a 68.

Jimmy Demaret

Bob Hope called him the funniest amateur comedian in the world. Ben Hogan said "he was the most underrated golfer in history. The man played shots I hadn't dreamed of." Demaret was born in Houston, where he played barefoot and caddied at courses where the greens were made of sand. He was a nightclub singer for a brief time before he committed himself fully to golf. Although he won three Masters and 31 events on the PGA Tour, Demaret was largely known for his wit and his extravagantly elegant and colorful attire. "If you're going to be in the limelight, you might as well dress like it," he said. Along with Gene Sarazen, Demaret hosted the popular TV show, "Shell's Wonderful World of Golf."

Tommy Bolt

Terrible Tommy, also known as Thunder Bolt, won the 1958 U.S. Open and 14 other tournaments between 1950 and 1965. Bolt, however, was best-known as a hothead. His temper was legendary, but Bolt also sometimes blew his stack as a stunt. "It thrills crowds to see a guy suffer. That's why I threw clubs so often. They love to see golf get the better of someone," he said. His blowups weren't all for show. Once he asked his caddie for an iron for an approach shot and the caddie handed him a 2-iron. It was the only iron still left in the bag; the others had been scattered hither and yon. Bolt, who taught golf into his 80s, looked back at his tantrums with a sense of humor: "Here's an irony for you. The driver goes the shortest distance when you throw it. The putter flies furthest, followed by the sand wedge."

"Babe" Didrikson Zaharias

Babe's whirlwind life was marked by otherworldly feats. She was an Olympic golf medal winner in the javelin and hurdles, an All-America basketball player in college, a baseball star, a wizard at bowling and tennis and perhaps the most talented woman to ever pick up a golf club. Although she didn't play golf seriously until she was in her 20s, Babe won 31 of the 128 professional events she entered from 1948 to 1953 and helped get the fledgling women's golf tour off the ground. Married to professional wrestler George Zaharias, the Babe described her success on the links with a favorite phase: "I just loosen my girdle and take a whack at it." After cancer surgery, she returned to win seven more times, highlighted by a 12-stroke victory in the 1954 U.S. Women's Open. Babe died in 1958 at 42. She wrote, "All my life, I've had the urge to do things better than anyone else."

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