News & Opinion

Woods vs. Snead renews its timeless aura

Yachts large and larger were docked at Albany in the Bahamas last week, one of them, “Privacy,” belonging to the host of the Hero World Challenge, Tiger Woods. It wasn’t the best of weeks on the course for Woods in the limited-field event that supports his TGR Foundation, but there are worse places to finish next-to-last than on a warm, sunny island less than a month before Christmas.

Woods’ performance in his last competition of 2018 will be a tiny footnote to his year, given that he nearly won the British Open and the PGA Championship and did win the Tour Championship, lifting a trophy less than two years after having difficulty walking due to the pain caused by a serious lower-back problem. With his first victory in five years, his 80th on the PGA Tour, Woods edged closer to Sam Snead’s record of 82 titles.

Snead first traveled from Miami to the Bahamas to play in a tournament, the Nassau Open, about this time of year in 1936 in less than the lap of luxury, as he detailed in Gettin’ to the Dance Floor by Al Barkow, one of the sport’s wonderful oral histories.

“Johnny Bulla, Bobby Dunkleberger, a boy from Greensboro, and I went over on a small freighter, about a 45-footer, and that thing went chug-a-lug, chug-a-lug,” Snead said. “It didn’t move but about 10 miles an hour. It took us all afternoon and night to get there, about 200 miles, and Bulla and me got deathly sick. Dunkleberger was running all over the place, and we wanted to kill him because he wasn’t sick and was eating everything we couldn’t eat.”

As Snead further explained to Barkow, the trip to the Bahamas was pivotal to his career, as Woods’ 2017 Hero World Challenge appearance had been to him in his first event since spinal-fusion surgery seven months earlier. As for Snead 82 years ago, he was uncertain whether to travel out west and test himself on the pro circuit or stay in Virginia as a club professional. A conversation during that week with fellow pros Henry Picard and Craig Wood convinced Snead to go for it, particularly Wood’s promise to give Snead the money to come home if he went broke trying.

Snead didn’t need to call on Wood’s generosity. Early in 1937, he finished sixth in Los Angeles and then won in Oakland, the first of five victories that season and one of eight years he would win five or more tournaments. In 1938, Snead won eight times, including the Greater Greensboro Open, the first of his eight victories in that event, a PGA Tour record for a tournament until Woods matched it twice, at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Woods also surpassed Snead in the number of five-plus victories in a year, his 2013 giving him 10 such seasons.

Given his successful return to competition in 2018, and assuming that Woods stays healthy, it seems to be a matter of when, not if, he surpasses Snead for most career victories. When Woods won No. 80 in September, some observers contended that he already had more tour titles than Snead because a handful of Snead’s came against very small fields, over fewer than 72 holes, or both.

Given the nature of the fledgling pro caravan, though, a 16-golfer field in the 1940s could well have been as legitimate as 60 or 70 players competing in a WGC event today. There wasn’t as much of a lot of things in Snead’s day – grass, golf balls that stayed round, ease of travel, depth, prize winnings. Compared to the current order, the “tour” of the mid-20th century had the structure of a kindergarten soccer game.

“Other” victories by Snead might well be considered official, foremost the 1949 North and South Open, whose omission in his career count is particularly befuddling because of where it was played (Pinehurst No. 2) and who played (that year’s U.S. Open champion and co-runner-up, Cary Middlecoff and Clayton Heafner, were third and fourth respectively). When Snead won his final GGO, in 1965, less than two months before his 53rd birthday, in addition to being called “ancient,” he also was reported to be “the winner of more than 100 tournaments.”

As Woods closes in on Snead’s PGA Tour-recognized mark of 82 victories – it was 81 when Snead died at 89 in 2002, with his 1946 British Open not yet counting – the focus ought to be as much on the men as the numbers, their effort sometimes not getting as much due as their natural gifts.

The icons of different eras did get to play together once, during a Snead exhibition round in southern California. A 6-year-old Tiger, already a prodigy, played two holes with the legend, confounding him when he insisted on playing a ball out of a creek despite being urged by Snead to take a drop.

“I remember looking at my ball and saying, ‘I’ve got to hit it. I don’t want to drop. That’s a penalty,’ ” Woods told reporters in 2000. “So, I hit my 7-iron onto the green, all wet, two-putted, got my bogey and bogeyed the last. I made bogey, bogey, and Sam beat me by two – par, par.”

It is a delicious proposition to consider what it would have been like to see peak Woods and peak Snead playing against each other. Not long before he died, Snead weighed in to Golf Digest’s Guy Yocom. “Could I have whipped Tiger Woods?” Snead said. “Hell, yes. In my prime, I could do anything with a golf ball I wanted. No man scared me on the golf course.”

No man scares Woods on a golf course, either, but for the moment, Snead is still beating him by two.

Bill Fields has covered golf since the mid-1980s, with much of his career spent at Golf World magazine as a writer and editor. A native North Carolinian, he lives in Fairfield, Conn. Email: williamhfields@gmail.com; Twitter: @BillFields1