"Slammin' Sam" Snead could hit the ball a country mile with a swing that was the sweetest in golf.
"It was a gift, something you can't teach," two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange said. "His hands looked like they were born to have a golf club in them."
Snead, one of golf's greatest players with seven major championships, a record 81 victories on the PGA Tour and an ageless game that produced titles in six decades, died Thursday. He was 89.
"He brought so much to the game with his great swing and the most fluid motion ever to grace a golf course," Jack Nicklaus said.
Snead died at his Hot Springs, Va., home at 3:38 p.m., daughter-in-law Anne Snead said. He had been suffering from a series of strokes that began just after the Masters, although he had been ill even before the tournament.
He died holding hands with his son Sam Jr. and his daughter-in-law.
"He didn't seem scared," Anne Snead said. "I think he was very much at peace."
Snead was raised during the Depression in the backwoods of western Virginia. He learned how to play in bare feet and with clubs made from tree limbs, and he was blessed with as much raw talent as anyone who played golf.
"In those days, we used to think long hitters couldn't play well," Byron Nelson said. "Well, he stopped that myth."
Arnold Palmer, who was on two winning World Cup teams with Snead, called him one of the greatest athletes ever. Snead was so limber that he could kick the top of a door frame even when he was in his early 80s.
"He was a man who was very important to the popularity of the game," Palmer said. "I'm so sorry these things have to happen."
Phil Mickelson spoke for anyone who ever saw him play: "I don't think there's ever been a golf swing as aesthetically pleasing as Sam Snead's."
Snead was the only player who won sanctioned tournaments in six decades, from the 1936 West Virginia Closed Pro to the 1982 Legends of Golf, which he won with Don January as his partner.
He was the oldest player to win on the PGA Tour, at age 52 in the 1965 Greater Greensboro Open, and remained a threat well into his 60s. He tied for third in the 1974 PGA Championship at age 62, finishing three strokes behind Lee Trevino.
Five years later, Snead became the youngest player to shoot his age 67 in the Quad Cities Open. If that wasn't enough, he shot a 66 two days later.
"Beyond his achievements, we will always remember him for the style and grace he brought to our sport," PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said.
Snead was famous for his straw hat, cocky grin and homespun humor. A three-time Masters champion, Snead had been an honorary starter since 1983. He would jaunt to the first tee, show off that flowing, flawless swing and then tell stories outside the clubhouse.
This year was different.
Snead's son said he was recovering from strokelike symptoms, and for the first time, he needed someone else to tee up the ball at the Masters. The ceremonial shot flew into the gallery and struck a fan in the face, breaking the man's glasses.
Although he didn't feel well, Snead never considered passing on the tradition of hitting the ceremonial first drive.
"Anyone else wouldn't have done it, but Sam was tough as nails and very determined," Anne Snead said. "He was never a quitter."
Snead wrote two books on golf. "How to Play Golf" was published in 1946, and one of his swing tips was to "take it easily and lazily, because the golf ball isn't going to run away from you while you're swinging."
He also wrote "The Education of a Golfer" in 1962.
"Some of the things I didn't have to be taught as a rookie traveling pro were to keep close count of my nickels and dimes, stay away from whiskey and never concede a putt," he wrote.
For all his victories independent record keepers place his total at 160 Snead never won the U.S. Open, which haunted him the rest of his career.
He was a runner-up four times, but his most infamous U.S. Open occurred in 1939 at Philadelphia Country Club.
There were no scoreboards on the course, and Snead thought he needed a birdie on the final hole to win the U.S. Open, when all he needed was a par. Playing aggressively, he hit his drive into the left rough and never recovered, making a triple bogey.
"That night, I was ready to go out with a gun and pay somebody to shoot me," Snead said later. "It weighed on my mind so much that I dropped 10 pounds, lost more hair and began to choke even in practice rounds."
He had three other chances a missed 30-inch putt on the final hole of a playoff in 1947 against Lew Worsham, a three-putt from the edge of the 17th green at Medinah in 1949 to lose to Cary Middlecoff, and a 76 in the final round at Oakmont in 1953 to finish six strokes behind Ben Hogan.
The Masters was different.
Snead was the first man to dominate at Augusta National. He won the Masters for the first time in 1949, the year club members began awarding a green jacket. Snead won again three years later, and earned his final Masters victory in 1954 after beating Hogan by one stroke in an 18-hole playoff.
He also was a three-time winner of the PGA Championship during the match play era, and he made it to the finals two other times.
Snead claimed his only British Open at St. Andrews in 1946, during a time when few Americans traveled across the Atlantic Ocean because of the cost. Even a victory would not guarantee they could cover their expenses.
He returned to St. Andrews with other past Open champions for a four-hole exhibition in 2000, and recalled his first trip to the home of golf. When the train arrived alongside the Old Course, "It did not look to me like it had ever had a machine on it."
Snead turned to the man next to him and said, "What abandoned course is this?"
"Once I got on the golf course, I respected it more each time I played it," he said.
Born May 27, 1912, in Hot Springs, Snead needed no formal teachers to develop the sweet swing that lasted a lifetime.
"Watching Sam Snead practice hitting golf balls is like watching a fish practice swimming," said John Schlee, a U.S. Open runner-up in 1973.
The late Gene Sarazen once said of a young Snead, "I've just watched a kid who doesn't know anything about playing golf, and I don't want to be around when he learns how."
In his first professional event, the 1936 Hershey Open, Snead hit his opening tee shot out of bounds. He hit the next one out of bounds, then drove the green, 350 yards away.
Snead joined the PGA Tour in 1937, driving out to California with only $300.
He won at least one tournament every year on tour except one for the next 23 years. His biggest season was in 1950, when he won 11 times. No one has won that much since then, although Tiger Woods came close in 2000 with nine victories.
Snead first met Woods during an exhibition in California when Woods was 6.
Woods couldn't clear a narrow stream in front of a par 3, then played out of the shallow water and made bogey. Snead beat him with a par, and was duly impressed, talking about Woods and his favorite subject the swing years later.
"You watch his backswing, and it comes right down on that same line," Snead said. "A lot of fellows come over the ball or dip around. Hogan said, 'I got something I'll take to the grave,' but I knew what it was. It was the right arm that would point toward the flag. You're not going to get off track very far. And that's the same with Tiger."
The Masters was Snead's personal playground, with three victories, nine finishes in the top five and 15 finishes in the top 10. Snead won the Par 3 Tournament in 1974 when he was 61, but he was ageless in so many other tournaments.
He won the Greater Greensboro Open a record eight times, the first in 1938 and the final one in 1965 when he was 52, the oldest man to ever win on the PGA Tour. That also was the last of his 81 victories 17 of them after turning 40.
"The game of golf lost one of its great champions and most charismatic players," Nicklaus said.
Snead is survived by two sons, Sam Jr., 58, and Terry, 49.
Snead's family will receive guests during a one-hour visitation Saturday night at St. Luke's Episcopal Church, the site of the funeral service Sunday at 2 p.m. Snead will be buried Sunday in a private service at the family's cemetery near Hot Springs.