Photo Archive — A Champion's Story
"I'm just a fellow who's been playing golf as well as he could for as long as he could and still loves the game," wrote Saraz
en in his characteristically understated and humble style in "Champion's Story." But we know better.
Sarazen has been golf champion, innovator, ambassador, and philanthropist. He reshaped the game forever by inventing the sand wedge. In 1935, he became the first golfer to complete golf's "Grand Slam" by winning the four major championships - the British Open, the United States Open, the PGA Championship and the Masters.
Sarazen was born on February 27, 1902, in the town of Harrison in Westchester County, New York, the son of Federico and Adela Saraceni. His father, a carpenter, was continually hard-pressed for money and from the age of five Gene worked at odd jobs. At eight, he started to caddie at the Larchmont Country Club and later at the celebrated Apawamis Club, where he fell in love with the game. When the United States entered the First World War, Gene's life changed. He left school and went to work in war plants. After nearly dying during the influenza epidemic, he was told that his only chance of regaining health was to get plenty of fresh air and sunshine. To Gene this spelled one word: golf.
Sarazen's victories in the 1922 U.S. Open and PGA Championships stirred the country. Like Francis Ouimet before him, he had risen from the caddie ranks. The fact that he came from a humble Italian family made his story even more arresting and popular. In 1923, however, he played poorly in the British Open, and when he was never in the running in the U.S. Open, most American sportswriters lost little time in dismissing him as a flash in the pan. Sarazen quieted them with a courageous defense of the PGA title, defeating Walter Hagen on the 38th hole of a hard-fought match at the Pelham Country Club. He won the PGA Championship for the third and last time in 1933.
In June, 1924, Gene Sarazen made the smartest move of his life; he married Mary Henry a bright and pretty blond whose family came from Lebanon, Indiana. They had met in 1922 when Mary was attending Miss Harris' School in Miami. Gene proposed to her late in 1923 after stabilizing his career by winning his second PGA Championship. It was typical of Mary that she learned to speak Italian so that she could communicate easily with Gene's parents. She learned to cook the Italian dishes he loved. She raised their children, Gene Jr. and Mary Ann with affection and humor. Mary Sarazen died in l986. She was always there for Gene, the family and their friends. In many ways, she still is.
Before "Arnie's Army" drew throngs of fans to the game, Sarazen whet their appetites as weekly host of "Shell's wonderful World of Golf." This show was golf's introduction to television.
Golfers were second-class citizens until Sarazen, Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan produced a previously unseen level of professionalism. Sarazen may have hit some of the most memorable shots ever in the game, but what's more important to us is the man.
Sarazen has candidly said he would never wish to relive the days that brought him to the pinnacle of the game. To understand Sarazen, one must look upon him in the context and time frame when he played the game and avoid comparing him to today's heroes who play with space-age metallic clubs and chemically formulated golf balls.
In May 1978, Gene received the honorary degree, Doctor of Humane Letters, Honoris Causa, from Siena College in Loudonville, New York. Later that year, Gene and Mary established the Gene and Mary Sarazen Scholarship Fund at Siena. Four-year scholarships are awarded annually to Siena freshmen who have financial need and exemplify qualities consistent with those of Gene and Mary Sarazen. The scholarship perpetuates the deep commitment of Gene and Mary Sarazen to humanitarian causes.
It has been said that Sarazen is golf's bridge to the past. For the Marco Island community, he has been a chariot to the future. Through the game that brought Gene Sarazen greatness he has never stopped giving back in equal portions to his game.
"I guess that was the last one of the four guys to have won all four majors along with Gary, Ben, and Gene - and that's a very select group. I think it's a nice honor to be there. I'm sure Gene feels, having been the first, that it's a pretty special thing to have won all four majors, and to know, at one point and time in your career, that you were the only one to have done that."
- Jack Nicklaus
"Over and above his prowess as a golfer, he was a wonderful family man. Although there were tremendous travel requirements for people on the Tour, he always seemed to have time for his wife, Mary, and their children, and he spoke of them often."
- Ben Hogan
"We decided that the only future in America was to buy a farm and live off a farm. So we bought a farm up in Brookfield Center, Connecticut. A dairy farm. It had about two cows...I was on a farm for 35 years. I learned more on a farm than if I went to Yale."
- Gene Sarazen