The American golfer Doug Sanders, who has died aged 86, will go down in sporting history for missing a 30in putt to win the 1970 Open Championship at St Andrews, which he then lost in a play-off to Jack Nicklaus. It was the kind of nervy challenge that every club player dreads in a pressure situation, especially as the putt had a slight borrow on it. But it was one that any self-respecting professional would have expected to hole.
Instead, in a moment that has often been cited as one of the game’s biggest “chokes”, Sanders jabbed at the stroke so badly that the ball went comfortably to the right of the cup, not even touching the hole. Asked if he ever thought about the miss in later years, he answered: “Only every four or five minutes.”
The mistake was costly indeed – Sanders finished on the same aggregate score as Nicklaus, and when the pair came back the next day for an 18-hole play-off, Sanders lost by a stroke. Although one of the top golfers of his era, he had not won a major championship up to that point and afterwards never came as close again. At 36 his best chance of glory had gone.
Fortunately Sanders bore the trauma with good grace and humour, for he was never a man to take the game too seriously. From his earliest days on the US tour he had been known not only for his wide-legged, short swing, but for his carefree, upbeat attitude, which often found him chatting and wisecracking with the crowds, with whom he was a favourite. Although he could be focused when needed, and won 20 tournaments on the US tour, he was never inclined to beat himself up over a bad round or a poor shot.
Good-looking, with a purposeful stride, he often had a tee peg tucked behind his ear. His quick-witted demeanour and high-quality golf attracted endorsements, advertising contracts and guest television appearances, furnishing him with large amounts of cash to blow on expensive cars, women, flamboyant clothes (he was known as “the peacock of the fairways’’) and drinking expeditions with a host of celebrity friends, including Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack. “I could live off the money I spend,” he once joked.
Born in Cedartown, Georgia, Doug was one of five children of George Sanders and his wife, Pauline (nee Barnett), who scraped a living picking cotton. They did this near Cedartown golf course, where the young Doug searched for lost balls and sold them to members. He was caddying by the age of 10, and then began playing under the watchful eye of the club’s professional, Maurice Hudson.
After three years on a golfing scholarship at the University of Florida, Sanders began selling insurance in Miami, joined the city’s La Gorce country club, and became, in 1956, the first amateur to win the Canadian Open. He turned professional the following year, tying for second place at the 1959 USPGA at Minneapolis and again at the US Open at Oakland Hills, Michigan, in 1961, a year in which he won five US tournaments. His next close finish in a major was in the 1966 Open at Muirfield, where he was joint runner-up again, one shot behind Nicklaus, and four years later came his play-off defeat by the same man at St Andrews.
On that final day in 1970, Sanders had needed only a par four at the short 18th to win. His second shot to the green finished around 30ft from the hole, and he looked to have done the hard work with his first putt, which left him within three feet and appeared to be a formality.
Commentating for the BBC, Henry Longhurst noted that he was now fulfilling every player’s dream, standing over a short putt to win the Open at the home of golf. When the ball trickled by agonisingly, Longhurst reflected the general empathy in the crowd with the words: “There but for the grace of God …” Although Sanders performed well in the play-off, Nicklaus made a crucial, tricky putt on the final hole to beat him.
Sanders played well in the next year’s Open at Royal Birkdale, finishing ninth, and in 1972 at Muirfield was just three shots behind Lee Trevino in fourth position, one of 13 top-10 finishes he posted in major championships. But the putt at St Andrews was his lost opportunity, and the incident that defined his career.
His final big tournament win came at the Kemper Open at Quail Hollow, North Carolina, in 1972, and from 1975 onwards he gradually began to phase himself out of the main US tour, reducing his commitments to the point where he was playing just one competition a year.
After turning 50 in 1983 he played on the US seniors tour, winning the World Seniors Invitational that year and setting up the annual Doug Sanders Celebrity Classic tournament for senior golfers, which was played in Houston, Texas, where he lived. He also helped out with various corporate and charity golf events and sponsored the Doug Sanders International Junior Championship for top-ranked juniors around the world.
Thrice married and divorced, Sanders remained close friends with his third wife, Scotty (nee Kolb). He is survived by a son, Brad, from his first marriage.
•Doug (George Douglas) Sanders, golfer, born 24 July 1933, died 12 April 2020