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The last time a lot of us saw Sam Snead, he was hitting the ceremonial first shot in the Masters on an April morning filled with the nostalgia of bygone years and the excitement of another tournament in that beloved place of pink blossoms and green grass.

He was out there alone this time. Byron Nelson, who can hardly walk, had asked out after last year, and Gene Sarazen had died.Snead walked with mincing steps, although he did try to slip in a little hop or skip, typical of him in lighter moments when all eyes were on him. He hit the shot and the ball traveled maybe half of the distance it used to travel when he uncorked one. It veered to the right and hit a spectator, but Snead didn't know it. He couldn't see that far.

A realization came over us then. The man we thought would never grow old had. He had stayed young longer than anyone ever had in a major sport, winning tournaments in six decades.

The years just blew right on by him, leaving him supple enough to kick the top of a door frame when he was in his 70s; gifted enough to shoot a 60 on the Lower Cascades course near his home in Virginia when he was 73; dogged enough to win eight Greater Greensboro Opens, his first in 1938, his eighth in 1965 when, almost 53 years old, he shot 68-69-68-68 to blow all the younger ones away by five strokes. The PGA Tour said that was his 81st victory. Slammin' Sammy said he won more than 100 more than that, 90 on the PGA Tour. Doesn't matter, really. Nobody else ever won even 81.

He has his three PGA Championships, three Masters and a British Open. Curiously, he never won the U.S. Open, twice losing it in heart-breaking, last-hole fashion. Had he shot 69 in the final round, he would have won seven of them.

We thought Samuel Jackson Snead would never grow old, but he did, and Thursday, at 3:38 p.m., in his home on a pretty hillside in his beloved Hot Springs, Va., he died, four days short of his 90th birthday.

He took to the grave with him a golf swing that had none of the input of today's gurus, the swing coaches and personal trainers and dietitians and psychologists and other specialists who mold today's players.

He brought it down from the mountains where he grew up. It was as simple and natural as a log cabin but as beautiful and graceful as ballet. If a golf swing were hung in an art museum, it would be his.

- Ron Green Sr., Charlotte Observer

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