A strong argument can be made that Sam Snead was the greatest ball striker ever to play golf. Partisans of Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods may make counter-arguments, but can any of those three make a documented claim to hitting the ball so purely that witnesses felt compelled to give up competitive golf?Snead did just that to Harvey Penick back in the 1930s, the first time the future teaching legend saw Snead hit a tee shot. "It sounded like a rifle and the ball flew like a bullet," Penick recalled. "I knew right at that moment that my future was not as a Tour player."
So it's something of a paradox that Snead, toward the end of his life, developed a sympathetic regard for the travails of the average golfer. But he did, and it's on display at a course called Poplar Grove, which opened in 2004 in the Virginia hill country where Snead was born and raised.
Snead was never a professional golf course architect. But in the months before his death in 2002, he and his son Jack got involved in a project that was supposed to inaugurate the Sam Snead Golf Trail. They worked with Ed Carton, an alumnus of Tom Fazio's design atelier.
Sam Snead visited the Poplar Grove property several times. Jack and Carton drove him around in an SUV, getting out to inspect green sites. Back home in Hot Springs, Virginia, Snead looked at diagrams and offered design suggestions. And in the spring of 2001, on his annual drive from his winter home in Florida to the Masters, he and Carton talked about design. Carton recorded parts of the conversation.
Snead, eighty-eight years old at the time, is often barely audible on the tape, and his attention wanders on occasion to subjects like the rising cost of Augusta house rentals during Masters week. But the overall impression is that of a weary gladiator, a man who at the end of a long career in the arena has come to the considered conclusion that things needn't be quite so barbaric out there.
Snead had had quite enough, for example, of greens with more tiers than a wedding cake. "I've seen some where the ball would bounce eight feet from the hole and all of a sudden it's off the green," he said. "You've hit a perfect shot, and you're killed."
"You think a green should have pretty gentle slopes?" Carton asked.
"Yeah, I think it should," Snead said. He enjoined Carton not to build those troublesome tiers, advising him instead to design greens with a few challenging hole locations. The trick was in the way the bunkers were set. They should guard a relatively small piece of the green, leaving a broad, open target for the average player. "If you want to, you know, squeeze their nuts, you can put the hole just alongside this trap and give them [average players] all the green to hit."
That was a staple of good design when Old Tom Morris was a lad, and so was Snead's advice about fairways.
"I like wide fairways," he said. "I think everyone likes wide fairways." He had no problem, however, with narrowing them where long hitters land their tee shots. His reasoning was that distance was not something a player could work to acquire, the way he might hone his accuracy.
Snead was also critical of Jack Nicklaus's designs. "I saw one in Canada [he was probably referring to Glen Abbey, a Nicklaus design that has frequently hosted the Canadian Open] where the ball was within ten feet and then rolled off the green and into a bunker," he snorted. "I've never liked Jack's courses. The only decent one I ever saw was the one in Ohio [Muirfield Village]. Down near Beaufort [South Carolina] he had a course . . . I guarantee you, a man who shoots a little less than a hundred couldn't make 150. I never saw such a thing."
Other aspects of Snead's duffer-friendly sensibility became clear recently as Carton gave me a tour of Poplar Grove, which is laid out on the site of a colonial-era manor. The first tee shot is sharply downhill to a broad fairway, because Snead preferred to give players an encouraging start. In general, he didn't like uphill tee shots, and Carton responded by placing tees on every promontory the property offered.
Carton pointed out some friendly touches that Snead had suggested. There's a bunker in front of the green at the par-three fourth, but it's there to make sure that a ball landing just short doesn't trickle back into a pond. The greens are generally big, receptive and gently sloped. Carton said Snead told him greens ought to be like catchers' mitts, holding balls rather than shedding them.
Four lakes and a couple of creeks mean that there may be more water on the course than Snead might have liked, but Carton minimized its impact. The most visually intimidating hole is the par-four second. From the tee, the player looks out over the arm of a lake on the left side. But on closer inspection the carry to safety is easy, provided you select the appropriate tees. And the fairway is fifty yards wide. What looks daunting at first turns out to be manageable with a driver and a seven-iron.
Visiting Poplar Grove made me wish that Snead and Carton could have had a longer partnership. The course meets one of the toughest challenges an architect faces—it's never boring. And it's not easy, either. From the tips, at 7,059 yards, it's got a slope of 141. But from the white tees, the average golfer can score, giving him the chance to walk away feeling that he played well.
Carton and Jack Snead are pursuing new projects together, but Poplar Grove will go down in history as the only one in which Jack's legendary father took a personal hand. If there is golf in the hereafter, we can take comfort in the belief that Slammin' Sam now plays on courses where all the tee shots are downhill, all good iron shots are rewarded, and the greens test the patience of the angels just a little, but never too much. •
Poplar Grove Golf Course, Amherst, VA; 434-946-9933, poplargrovegolf.com. Greens Fees: $40$50.