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Gene Sarazen, the Squire of golf, dead at 97

Gene Sarazen, one of only four men to win all four of golf's major professional championships, died today in Naples, Fla., at age 97.

Sarazen died at Naples Community Hospital shortly after 9 a.m. from complications of pneumonia, said his lawyer, John Cardillo. Sarazen had been hospitalized for several days.

Since 1981, a highlight of the Masters has been Sarazen, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead hitting the ceremonial "first ball" to start the tournament before retiring to the clubhouse. Sarazen remained part of that special moment through this year's Masters.

"The game has lost one of its great heroes," said PGA Tour commissioner Timothy Finchem. "Gene Sarazen dedicated his life to golf and became one of the game's legendary figures."

Sarazen was just another promising young golfer when he won the 1922 U.S. Open at the age of 20, shooting a final-round 68 to defeat Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen.

He also won the PGA Championship that year and in 1923, won his second consecutive PGA by defeating Hagen in the finals, giving Sarazen three major championship before he was 22.

Sarazen won the PGA Championship three times, the U.S. Open twice and the Masters and British Open once each. Only Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player won all four majors at least once in their careers.

His best year was 1932, when he won the British Open with a then-record 283 and captured the U.S. Open by shooting a final-round 66. Jones called Sarazen's late charge, "the finest competitive round ever played."

Yet it was a shot that he made in 1935 in a then-obscure event that was to become known as the Masters that earned Sarazen his greatest acclaim.

Trailing Craig Wood by three strokes with just four holes remaining, Sarazen holed a 235-yard 4-wood shot on the 15th hole for a double-eagle 2 -- the rarest shot in golf. It was known as "the shot heard 'round the world."

Sarazen then went on to tie Wood in regulation and won in a playoff. The shot also helped put Augusta National Golf Club on the map in only the second Masters played.

"It was a spectacular shot, the one everybody talks about, but I take my greatest pride in having won the U.S. and British Opens in the same year, 1932," Sarazen said.

"Nowadays, wherever I go, people say, `That's the man who got the double eagle,"' Sarazen said. "Actually, it was just a piece of luck. They forget the championships I won."

His victory in the 1932 British Open at the Prince's course in England was made possible in part by a new club he invented -- the sand wedge.

"I invented it in 1931 and I showed it at the British Open in 1932," Sarazen said in a 1997 interview with The Associated Press. "I had it hidden because I was afraid they were going to ban it."

Sarazen won the 1954 PGA Seniors title and in 1973, at age 71, made a hole-in-one during the first round of the British Open on the famous Postage Stamp hole at Royal Troon. Fittingly, it was his last tournament.

Known as "The Squire" for his elegant style and fashionable knickers, Sarazen spanned the sport from Harry Vardon, who developed the most common grip used in golf, to Nicklaus.

"I'm the only man alive who can say he played with all the greats, from James Braid, Vardon, Hagen and Jones down to Nicklaus," Sarazen told the AP.

"The greatest player of all time was Nicklaus," he said, ``then Jones, Harry Vardon and Ben Hogan."

Asked where he fit in among golf's greats, he said: "Sarazen just came in accidentally from the caddie ranks. When (Francis) Ouimet, an ex-caddie won the Open (in 1913) I said if he can win it I can win it."

"I missed at least five majors because I made stupid shots -- mental errors," Sarazen said. "Bob Jones was college-educated. When he stood over a ball you could almost see the sparks going on inside his brain. He made very few judgment mistakes."

Eugenio Saraceni was born Feb. 27, 1902, in Mamaroneck, N.Y., near New York City, the son of an Italian immigrant carpenter who never understood golf and saw his son play only once -- at the PGA Championship in Pelham, N.Y.

Sarazen said his father, standing on a highway, watched him play the 10th hole.

"I had a 40-foot putt and missed it," Sarazen recalled in an interview last year. "That night he said, `You mean to say they pay you fellows to play that game and you couldn't put that thing in the hole?' I said, `Did you ever try it?"'

The game wasn't easy, but Sarazen loved it. He became a caddie at age 8, walking four miles to the nearest club and playing whenever he could. He set his sights on becoming a professional, against all odds.

"In those days, only brokers and bankers played golf," he says.

He won his first tournament and $20. He made a hole-in-one and the next day his name was in the papers: Eugenio Saraceni.

"I didn't like the name. It looked too much like a violin player. I changed it to Gene Sarazen."

One of the game's most outspoken players, he often said that golf courses were too big and that too much emphasis was placed on power. He also criticized some players, such as Hogan and Nicklaus, for what he considered slow play.

He was also critical of the replacement of caddies by riding carts at most courses, saying the disappearance of caddies denied poorer kids access to the game.

"That's the reason players are coming from outside of the United States, because they don't have carts," Sarazen said. "We used to get our great players from the caddie ranks. Now, most courses couldn't survive without the money they get from carts."

Sarazen said there was an easy explanation for why he remained a good player for so long.

"Good golf is simply a matter of hitting good shots consistently," he said. "And a player can do this for many years after he has passed his physical peak if his swing is fundamentally correct."

Sarazen, who witnessed the emergence of Tiger Woods, said Nicklaus' record of 18 major professional championships and two U.S. Amateurs would never be broken.

"The Nicklaus record? Forget it," Sarazen said. ``Nobody will ever come close to his 20 major championships. It's the safest record in sports."

Sarazen said he made $700 for winning his first U.S. Open and $500 for the British Open.

"Today a good, young golfer -- he doesn't have to be a champion -- gets $150,000 for wearing a logo on his cap or his sleeve," Sarazen said.

When the PGA Tour established its Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996, Sarazen was its first recipient.

Sarazen lived the last year's of his life in Marco Island, Fla. He lost his wife of 62 years -- Mary Catherine -- in 1986.

Funeral services were not announced. Cardillo said that in lieu of flowers, donations should be made to the Gene and Mary Sarazen Foundation, P.O. Box 977, Marco Island, Fla., 33969.