News & Opinion

Tatum, 96, leaves legacy of principled devotion

Sandy Tatum gained renown for masterfully articulating the essence of the U.S. Open, but his legacy runs much deeper than one memorable quote. Few people impacted golf the way that he did, and nobody cherished the game more.

Tatum, who died Thursday at age 96, was an accomplished lawyer and one-time president of the U.S. Golf Association. Still, his passion for golf stretched beyond powerful positions and reflected an ability to stir the soul. Consider the apt title of his 2002 autobiography: “A Love Affair with the Game.”

He blended influence with wide-ranging curiosity and interest in countless golf-related matters. Tatum perpetually railed about the need to limit the distance that the ball travels in this let-’er-rip era. He loved the nuances of course architecture, which he explored in collaborating with Robert Trent Jones Jr. and Tom Watson on the design of Spanish Bay, on California’s Monterey Peninsula.

Tatum also persuaded a once-reluctant Watson, his longtime friend and fellow Stanford alumnus, to embrace links golf, setting him on a path to five British Open victories. And, not incidentally, Tatum, a lifetime private-club member, became a tireless advocate of public golf, most notably shepherding the resurrection of Harding Park, San Francisco’s municipal-course gem.

As one mutual friend put it, Tatum accomplished more after age 80 than many of us will in our lifetime.

One of my favorite personal memories involves a long-ago conversation, in which I made the mistake of mentioning my disinterest in playing golf on an especially rainy, windy Northern California day. Tatum, his deep voice resonating through the phone, politely but firmly chided me.

His fundamental point: Golf is meant to be played in all conditions. Deal with it.

Tatum won the 1942 NCAA individual championship and remained a fine player later in his life. He once shot 72 from the white tees at San Francisco Golf Club – at age 84Years later, when he was in his early 90s, I arrived at Harding Park one day and spotted an older man who looked like Tatum (from a distance) smacking balls on the range.

When the man paused at the top of his swing, as if savoring the moment, I knew it was Tatum. That was his signature move.

Tatum’s most famous public utterance vividly conveys a quick wit and guardianship of the game. He selected and set up U.S. Open venues during his eight years on the USGA’s executive committee, capped by two years as president (1978-80). This included the so-called Massacre at Winged Foot in 1974.

Hale Irwin slogged to the title at 7 over par on the classic layout in suburban New York. Asked about ringing criticism of the demanding course conditions, Tatum succinctly offered a quote for the ages.

“We are not trying to humiliate the best golfers in the world,” he said. “We are simply trying to identify who they are.”


For all of his power and privilege, Tatum devoted much time to spreading the gospel of golf to those less fortunate. Here was a man with memberships at San Francisco Golf Club, Cypress Point and Pine Valley. Yet he spoke with genuine exuberance about the public’s chance to play a refurbished Harding Park, and he beamed with pride any time he talked about his role as chairman of The First Tee of San Francisco.

“The First Tee is reaching a lot of kids in places where they need outreach desperately,” he once said.

That’s also a big part of Sandy Tatum’s legacy.

Ron Kroichick has covered golf for the San Francisco Chronicle since 2005. He also is a regular contributor to NCGA Golf, the Northern California Golf Association’s magazine. E-mail:; Twitter: @ronkroichick