While not a household name, learn about the Italian American who has cemented himself in the records as one of the greatest golfers to play the game.
Gene Sarazen might no longer be a household name like Tiger Woods or Arnold Palmer, but both golf historians and the record books suggest that he should be.
Anyone who has played the game of golf in the past hundred years has held part of Sarazen’s golf legacy in their hands. The Hall of Famer and groundbreaking Italian-American sports figure is credited with creating the modern sand wedge found in any complete bag of clubs.
Born Eugene Saraceni in Harrison, N.Y. in early 1902 to poor but hard-working immigrants from Sicily, he began caddying at age 10 to help pay the bills for his family. Sarazen, as he changed his name to, said in numerous interviews that although he instantly loved the game, he didn’t think of playing it himself in his early teens, since golf was strictly for the wealthy.
His thinking changed in his later teen years, and Sarazen became a professional in 1921.
At the age of 20, Sarazen won the first of his two U.S. Open championships, the second-youngest winner of the Open to this day. He was still 20 when he won his first PGA Championship.
Nicknamed “The Squire,” Sarazen built on that foundation with a legendary career that included 38 PGA tournament wins.
“Gene Sarazen’s stature in golf history is legendary,” said Dr. Bern Bernacki, president of the Golf Heritage Society. “Essentially self-taught, ‘The Squire’ rose from the caddie ranks to the highest echelons of professional golf by virtue of his talent, diligence, and love of the game.”
"He won seven major championships—the PGA Championship three times, the U.S. Open twice and The Masters and British Open once each,” Bernacki noted. “He was the first to accomplish the Career Grand Slam, a feat matched by only four other golfers—Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, and Tiger Woods. The significance of his accomplishments was reflected by his induction as a charter member of the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974."
Golf historian Vincent Kmetz said there is little argument that Sarazen is a giant of golf. “One can’t stress enough how impactful it was for Gene Sarazen to be the first player to win what we now refer to as the Grand Slam, at a time when professional golf was just emerging in this country,” explained Kmetz, a past president of the Caddie Masters Association. “Along with Bobby Jones’s legendary amateur game, the fierce competitions between Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen throughout the 1920s and the 1930s not only brought a whole new level of attention to the game but also put the United States on the map for professional golf alongside Great Britain.”
Sarazen’s longevity as a professional golfer is also astounding, Kmetz said. “Sarazen was 61 when he made his final cut at the Masters, and at age 71, playing in his last tournament, Sarazen had a hole-in-one on the eighth hole during the first round of the British Open.”
Perhaps his humble beginnings as the son of an Italian immigrant carpenter, going from caddy to champion, added to his popularity with the average citizen. The fact that Sarazen was small in stature, standing at 5 feet, 5 inches, but could drive the ball as far as any of his contemporaries, also made him a favorite to the growing legions starting to follow the sport in the ‘20s and ‘30s.
His accomplishments drew plenty of accolades during his playing days, ranging from being crowned the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year in 1932 to being awarded the PGA’s first Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996. Sarazen gained popularity with fellow Italian-Americans and Italians, who flocked to see him play around the country and the globe.
Kmetz pointed to a story that Sarazen himself wrote about his longtime, often bitter rivalry with Walter Hagen, in which Sarazen recalled how Hagen always hinted that an Italian-American fan helped Sarazen, who was just a young upstart, defeat Hagen, who was nine years his elder and already a success, to win the 1923 U.S. Open in Pelham, N.Y.
As the tourney went to extra holes to break a tie, Hagen’s tee shot plopped on the fairway, setting up what looked like an easy path to a birdie. Sarazen got overly aggressive and hooked his tee shot, which appeared to land out of bounds in adjacent woods.
But when the golfers walked toward the green, Sarazen’s ball was in play, not out of bounds, albeit in an awkward spot.
Sarazen used his 9-iron to make a “miraculous” shot, even in his own estimation, and Hagen flubbed his next shot, leading to Sarazen winning the Open.
Until his rival’s death, Sarazen wrote, Hagen believed that Sarazen’s drive on that final hole “went out of bounds and that the family living in the house in those woods threw the ball back onto the course. ‘There are an awful lot of Italians living in that neighborhood, Gene,’ he would say in all seriousness.”
There were many dramatic victories and incredible shots in the long, historic career of Sarazen, earning him 11th place in Golf Digest’s ranking of the greatest golfers of all time in 2000.
But one, in particular, stands out—what many consider the most renowned shot in the history of golf.
At the Masters in 1935 at Augusta, Sarazen's shot with a 4-wood on the 15th hole in the last round went into the cup from 235 yards away. Dubbed ''the shot heard 'round the world,” it led to a come-from-behind-tie for Sarazen, who went on to win the 36-hole playoff to capture his first and only Masters.
After retiring from competing, Sarazen spent decades writing about the game he loved. As a TV commentator on ''Shell's Wonderful World of Golf,'' said he never grew tired of reliving that once-in-a-lifetime shot for double eagle at the Masters. In his 90s as an honored guest at the Masters, he recalled: ''It was quite a thing for me, and for golf, too.''
John Roche is an award-winning journalist, author, and faculty member in the Department of Writing and Literature at Western Connecticut State University, where he earned his M.F.A. His crime novel, BRONX BOUND, was published in 2015. After working full-time as a newspaper journalist for 25 years, Roche switched to teaching journalism and other writing full-time at the undergraduate and graduate levels. He continues to regularly freelance for regional and national publications.