Remembering the colorful Doug Sanders, and his memorable 1970 visit to Hattiesburg

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Sadly, golf’s Doug Sanders, once famously known as the “Peacock of the Fairways,” died Sunday at his home in Houston. An accomplished winner of 20 PGA Tour tournaments – but better known for his bright, flashy, color-coordinated outfits – Sanders was 86 at the time of his death.

Golfers and golf fans of a certain age will remember Sanders well. I surely do. One sunny Sunday afternoon, 50 years to the day before his death, I followed Sanders around the fairways of the Hattiesburg Country Club as he played in the final round of what was then called the Magnolia Classic (now the Sanderson Farms Championship). Sanders wore a purple and pink ensemble that day, replete with bright purple shoes.

Rick Cleveland

Not just everybody could pull that off. But Sanders, with swarthy, movie star looks, thick and wavy brown hair, and a dashing physique, appeared positively resplendent. And let the record show that Sanders shot four straight par-or-better rounds and finished tied for 17th in the Magnolia. That earned him a $700 pay day. Seventeenth place in last September’s Sanderson Farms event was worth more than $100,000.

Much more than the money has changed in the past half century in professional golf. For the most part, gone are the colorful characters such as Sanders, a self-taught golfer, who had an abbreviated swing that looked as if it could have been completed in a porta-potty. He didn’t hit the golf ball all that far, but he knew where it was going and he loved to compete.

Said Hattiesburg lawyer Jack Pittman, a fine amateur golfer who played with Sanders in the Magnolia’s Wednesday celebrity Pro-Am, “He really loved our country club course because of the narrow fairways lined with all those pine trees. He knew he wasn’t going in those trees.”

In those days, the Pro-Am was a much bigger draw than the tournament itself. The 1970 Magnolia Pro-Am was the biggest ever, attracting a crowd of more than 15,000 fans to see not only Sanders, but celebrities such as Clint Eastwood, Glen Campbell, Bobby Goldsboro and Dizzy Dean. Many of the swarming fans were school kids who didn’t know the greens from the tees and certainly knew nothing of golf etiquette. The teeny-boppers flocked to Eastwood, who was fresh from making “Two Mules for Sister Sarahand about to make “Dirty Harry.” Seemingly all wanted autographs and souvenirs. At least twice, someone dashed out into the fairway to snatch a souvenir, which just happened to be Eastwood’s golf ball. After nine holes, Eastwood gave up and retired to the 19th hole. Presumably, he was running out of golf balls.

On Twitter, Jack Nicklaus paid tribute to Doug Sanders.

Sanders, as was his nature, chatted amiably with the Hattiesburg gallery and seemed to have a merry time in a town not all that different from Cedartown, the small Georgia town where he was raised. Born during the Great Depression, Sanders was the fourth of five children in a poor family. As a child, he picked cotton and caddied at a nine-hole golf course near his home. He took an interest in golf, often sneaking onto the course to play after his caddying chores.

Despite his unorthodox swing, he became an outstanding junior player, earning at golf scholarship to Florida. He won the Canadian Open as an amateur and remains the only amateur champion in that tournament’s history.

Sanders won those 20 PGA Tour tournaments but is perhaps better known for the tournaments he did not win. He was runner-up in four of golf’s major tournaments, including the Open Championship twice, the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship. His highest finish in The Masters was fourth place. Most famously, he finished second to Jack Nicklaus in the 1970 Open Championship at The Old Course at St. Andrews three months after he had played in Hattiesburg. Sanders had a 30-inch putt to win the Open on the 72nd hole, but missed. Nicklaus won an 18-hole playoff by a single shot the next day.

Asked years and years later how often he thought back to the missed short putt, Sanders deadpanned, “Some days it doesn’t cross my mind for a full five minutes.”

Madison resident Randy Watkins, the former PGA pro and national junior champion, met Sanders as a junior golfer when he received an invitation to play in an exclusive international junior golf championship Sanders hosted annually in Houston.

“Mr. Sanders had a party at his house the night before the tournament, a cookout,” Watkins said. “I’ll never forget it. His closet was bigger than most people’s living rooms. He had over 200 pair of golf shoes, every color you could think of and shirts, sweaters and slacks to match them all.”

The playoff loss to Nicklaus came near the end of Sanders’ competitive career. His golf game deteriorated into the ’70s. His sense of humor did not.

“I’m working as hard as I can to get my life and my cash to run out at the same time,” Doug Sanders once said. “If I can just die after lunch Tuesday, everything would be perfect.”