I imagine most of you have heard about Sam Snead. He was a golfer who won 82 times on the PGA tour between 1936 and 1965, with seven of those being major championships. Back in 2000, Golf Digest ranked him the 3rd greatest golfer of all time.
He also made a lot of his backcountry origins, including learning to play golf barefooted.
Sam Snead was born in Ashwood, Virginia, in the western mountains. He grew up the standard barefooted boy, and that’s how he learned to play golf (sneaking onto a golf course and playing around 2 holes before getting kicked off).
Anyways, here is part of an article he wrote about golf and his life, from the June 8, 1959 edition of Life magazine. I’ve included the stuff in which he talks about playing barefoot. (By the way, the Wikipedia entry says he played tournaments barefoot. From this article that does not appear to be the case. Though, do read about the reaction when he played a few practice holes barefooted.)
If the rules said that everybody had to play barefoot, I figure I’d hardly ever lose a tournament. I learned to play golf barefoot and it’s more natural for me. It feels good out there, wiggling your toes. When you step up to the ball, you’re connected with the earth and you almost feel the roots go down. Besides, you don’t swing so hard. If you do, your toes will get all cockeyed and you’re liable to take a spill. So what happens? You swing nice and easy, just like the book says.
With shoes on, I sometimes get to thinking I’m King Kong. I try to hit that little ball eight country miles. I like to hear the crowd go “Oooh!” when I really get ahold of one. But I pay for it. It’s the cause of a lot of my trouble. That’s what comes from wearing shoes.
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You’d think that this week when I tried to qualify for the U.S. Open—that’s the tournament I’m famous for never winning—I’d have played barefoot. But I was wearing shoes. That’s because golf nowadays is like visiting a city cousin: you get all dressed up and mind your manners and think about a lot of things you don’t usually have to mess with. It was never like that back in Hot Springs, Va. when I was a kid.
Me and my brother Pete just couldn’t wait until the first day of May to take our shoes off. Then we’d play golf. We’d get Piggie McGuffin and Horsehair Brinkley and walk two miles over to the “goat course.” Sometimes on the way we’d see rattlesnakes. We used to practice our swings by fixing an old mashie head onto the end of a buggy whip shaft and lop their heads off clean as a whistle.
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We never put shoes on until the frost came. By then my toenails were practically all torn off and my feet were tougher than wet leather. I could stomp a chestnut burr and feel nothing. I even caddied barefoot until it got too cold. One time I remember I had to drop the man’s golf bag and leave. It was snowing and my toes were frostbit.
I played golf barefoot until I got into high school Then I got a second-hand set of sticks for $10 and drove spikes into an old pair of street shoes. But the shoes didn’t feel normal. Right then the game started getting complicated for me. Instead of banding away at the ball without a thought in my head, I found myself thinking about all kinds of things I was trying to do—and in golf that’s first-degree murder.
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The reason nobody ever gets this game 100% under control is that everything about it is different from what it seems. If you hit the ball easy, it goes far. You hit down and the ball flies. Golf teases you into doing a lot of thinking, but the simpler you keep it the better. It’s played mostly by city folks, but it’s really a game for country kids. That’s why I feel I could play it better barefoot.
Some of the most spectacular shots I ever hit were made barefoot. At Carnoustie, Scotland, in the 1937 British Open, my ball went into a creek and was under water. I took off my shoes and went in after it with my pants rolled up and the water almost to my ankles. But I knocked it up on the green and got my par.
In Miami one year, when my ball got buried in some mud at the edge of a moat, it looked like nothing was going to blast it out. But I took my shoes off and swung. Everything flew. Mud went in my mouth and in one eye. But out of the other eye I could see the ball land on the green. It was black with mud and went galumphing, first this way and then that, until it plopped right into the cup.
The only time I ever played barefoot, except when I was a kid or had the excuse of being in the water, was during a practice round before the Masters tournament one year. There was an argument among some sportswriters about whether anybody could play golf in bare feet. So I played two holes barefoot and birdied them both.
From the roar that went up you’d have thought I had burned down the clubhouse. Some people said it was undignified, even in a practice round, and that I’d disgraced the ancient game. I put my shoes back on, figuring I better keep the peace. Besides, after wearing shoes so many years, it made my feet hurt to go without them.
It’s rather sad what he writes at the end there, that he ended up getting addicted to shoes.