By: Claudia Mazzucco – On June 10, 1939, Sam Snead made the most talked about 8 ever taken in Golf’s History and lost the 43rd United States Open at the Spring Mills course of the Philadelphia Country Club, in Gladwyne, Philadelphia.
Sam began with 68 and 71 to lead by one shot after the second round. As a result of a 73, he dropped to second place in the third round. Having entered the last round one stroke behind Johnny Bulla, Snead came to the par-5 18th hole, believing he needed a birdie to win. Indeed, he was misinformed. A par would’ve earned him the Open. It is worth stressing that leaderboards were not then standard equipment at the national championships, but rather a golfer would assess his position on the basis of hearings from a given individual in the gallery.
Snead hooked his tee-shot into the left rough. It is often the better part of wisdom not to take foolish risks but he rarely concerned himself with the risk of missing the target. His willingness to take chances was his greatest strength and sometimes his undoing. He used a 2-wood for his second shot. The ball landed in a bunker some 100 yards short of the green. Weighing that he needed to reach the green in 3, he gambled. “The ball went 4 feet,” he said, “slammed into the collar, and stuck in a crack left by the re-sodding.”
He ended up scrapping the ball onto the green, 40 feet from the cup. The first putt lipped the cup and twisted 3 feet away. He missed the second putt for a triple-bogey 8. “What happened has haunted me ever since,” Sam would recall later. “When you need a bogey-6 to tie for the U.S. Open and you make an 8, you’re ready to take the gas pipe.”
Lapsing into helplessness, he avoided facing the press and returned home grieving, angry and in shock. His brain was so loaded, it nearly exploded. “He walked like a man hypnotized through the stunned, muttering crowd,” wrote Herbert Warren Wind. “He sat silently in the clubhouse trying to adjust himself to the unreal fact that he had taken an 8 and blown the championship.”
With scores of 284, Byron Nelson, Denny Shute and Craig Wood tied for first place in the first triple playoff since 1913. Nelson became the champion by default. He shot a 70 to Wood’s 73 in the second 18-hole playoff. Early in the morning, in the first overtime, he got a birdie 4 on the 18th hole to tie Wood with a score of 68, one under par. Shute was eliminated with 76. Over the 108 holes they played to define the title, Byron hit six flagsticks with six different clubs: driver, the 1, 4, 6 and 9 irons, plus his wedge. He holed out with the 1-iron for an eagle on the 14th hole during the second 18-hole playoff.
Losing the 1939 U.S. Open has become for Snead one of the great collapses in golf history. It brought about a sense of personal failure that would never allow him to maximize his capacity for winning the Open. Sam’s protégé, William “Bill” Campbell, reflected on Sam’s attitude toward this championship: “There was always something in Sam that half expected things to eventually go badly. Country people learn to live by the seasons, and know a storm will come. Sam always had that feeling about the U.S. Open.”
The next year, Sam was full of anticipation for the Open at Canterbury, in Cleveland. He set a new course record with 67 in the first round. It was also the lowest first round in Open history up to that time. But he had a pitiable last round of 81 when a 72 would have won the title for him.
Claudia M. Mazzucco is a researcher at Golf Channel and teacher of History of Golf at the PGA of Argentina, in Buenos Aires. She is the author of Legendary Lessons (2016), El Golf de los Tiempos, A Novel (2002) and The Guide of Golf Courses in Argentina (2003). She received the PGA Award from the PGA of Argentina in 2005