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The 19th Hole

Own a sand wedge? Thank Howard Hughes and Eugenio Saraceni!

By Gene Bleile | Aug 28, 2014

On February 7, 1902, Eugenio Saraceni was born to poor Italian immigrant parents in Harrison, New York. Like many future hall-of-famers, he had to drop out of grade school to help support the family. His new caddie job at the local golf course would change his life forever, and his sand wedge invention improves your golf game each time you step into a bunker.

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Sand wedges have been around since the Scots first started hitting a featherie ball (hand sewn leather pouch, stuffed with goose or chicken feathers) around a sheep pasture in the late 1700s, but today the modern sand wedge is a multi-million dollar industry, thanks to Eugenio.

As the story goes, Eugenio was a close friend of billionaire Howard Hughes. One day in 1930, Hughes gave him a ride in one of his collector airplanes. As the plane varied in altitude, Eugenio noticed the flaps moving up and down to create wind resistance. So, he thought, why not add a large flange to a niblick (similar to a pitching wedge today) and hit behind the ball in a trap to lift the ball up and out toward the green? He sent the prototype to the Wilson Company and the modern sand wedge was born.

The rest of the story

Eugenio Saraceni, who later changed his name to Gene Sarazen, loved the game of golf at an early age. When he was nine years old, his parents gave him a used golf club for his birthday and Gene was determined to teach himself the game.

At age 13, he shot his first round under 70, but his young career was put on hold when his father made him get a higher paying job in a carpentry shop. After two years of bad health from working indoors, a doctor recommended that he get a job outdoors.

This turn of fate landed him an assistant pro position at the local golf course, and at age eighteen he became a full-time professional golfer.  Two years later, at the tender age of twenty, he won both the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship.

The next year he won the PGA Championship (again), and by 1927 he was playing on the first Ryder Cup team that defeated the Europeans 9 ½ to 2 ½. In 1932, using his newly invented sand wedge, he won both the British Open and the U.S. Open. When he won his third U.S. Open the next year, pro golfers as well as amateurs began using his new sand wedge.

Arguably, the greatest golf shot of his career came in his first appearance at the 1935 Masters Championship. Behind by three shots on the par five fifteenth fairway, he hit a four wood for his second shot, which travelled 235 yards and rolled into the hole for a double eagle. With that shot, he tied the tournament leader (Craig Wood) and beat him in a thirty-six hole playoff 144-149 to win his only Masters Championship.

Nicknamed “The Squire,” he became a golfing legend around the world and played competitively until 1973. Sarazen finished his career with thirty-nine PGA tour wins, including seven major tournaments. He was elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974, and died at age 97 in Naples, Fl. in 1999.

19th hole trivia

• At age 71, Sarazen played in the 1973 British Open and hit a hole-in-one on the famed “postage stamp hole” at the Royal Troon Golf Course.

• In 1991, Ian Woosnam won the Masters to become the shortest winner ever. (Sarazen was 5 feet 5.5 inches, while Woosnam was 5 feet 4.5 inches.)

• When Sarazen won the 1935 Masters Tournament, he became the first golfer to win the professional Grand Slam (The Masters, The U.S. Open, The British Open and The PGA Championship).

• In 1966, he was awarded the PGA’s first Lifetime Achievement Award.

• In 2000, Golf Digest ranked him the 11th greatest golfer of all time.

• Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen both witnessed his double eagle at the 1935 Masters Tournament.

• Wilson’s contract with Sarazen lasted 75 years.

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