Missed putt changed his life in 1970 Doug Sanders visits British Open again.

Posted: July 13, 2005

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — As he hung around outside the ropes near the first tee at the Old Course yesterday, Doug Sanders stood out as he has always stood out.

True to his trademark sartorial flamboyance, Sanders was decked out in bright electric orange matching shirt, slacks and shoes, topped by a full mane of white hair. He was holding forth to an audience of one, only occasionally interrupting himself to greet a player in the 134th British Open marching to the tee.

"Phil, Doug Sanders," he said over his shoulder, as Phil Mickelson, all business, with his head down, walked briskly to the tee.

Mickelson stopped dead in his tracks and turned around. "Mr. Sanders," he said, offering his hand, "Good to see you again."

With the great Jack Nicklaus saying his farewell to the Open Championship here this week, golf fans around the world are understandably sentimental over the prospect of his final walk over the Swilken Bridge to the 18th fairway at St. Andrews.

But it was on that same 18th hole, 35 years ago in 1970, that Sanders missed a three-foot putt to win the Open, a missed opportunity that changed his career and, ultimately, the course of his life.

The following day, Sanders lost an 18-hole playoff to - who else? - Nicklaus, who won the first of his two Open titles at St. Andrews. (The other came in 1978.)

Nicklaus, of course, finished with 18 major championships - the total that Tiger Woods chases - and became perhaps the greatest player in the history of the game. Sanders, who joined the PGA Tour in 1957 and won 20 tour events with a home-grown quick, three-quarters backswing, never won a major and won only two more times in his career, the Bahama Islands Open later that year and the 1972 Kemper Open.

In the years since, Sanders' missed putt at the Open has joined golf's lore as one of the most heartbreaking, chilling moments in the game, along with such miserable moments as Jean Van de Velde's triple-bogey finish at Carnoustie in 1999.

With the Open back at St. Andrews, and with all the Nicklaus retrospectives this week, Sanders will no doubt be forced to relive the anguished moment several more times.

"If I had made that putt, all the endorsements, the clothing lines, the golf-course designs," Sanders said, almost wistfully. "It's like buying a lottery ticket worth $200 million and then dropping it in the can and watching the numbers wash away." Sanders shrugged. "I'm delighted to have had the opportunity to get that close, but I felt like I cheated myself," he said.

Sanders, who will be 72 on July 21 and lives in Houston, hasn't returned to the scene of his tragic undoing since a golf trip here with friends seven or eight years ago. This year, he came over as a guest of a friend, and his walks around the Old Course have been bittersweet.

Plenty of golf fans out here yesterday weren't born 35 years ago. But plenty more recognized him and approached him.

"People say, 'Doug, I hate to bring it up . . .' " Sanders said, smiling, "but it has been wonderful. I feel very accepted here."

Sanders insists he doesn't dwell on the putt or what might have been. His life is too full and good for that. Yet talking to him for a few minutes suggests otherwise.

"I never got set," Sanders said, shaking his head, as he recalled the putt.

In fact, he allowed himself to do what golfers can never do: get ahead of themselves. With thousands of fans surrounding the green - including British royalty - waiting in anticipation for his near-tap-in victory, Sanders began thinking of what to do and what to say in victory. "I was thinking about which side to bow to," he said.

Then, as he stood over the putt, seemingly ready, Sanders paused to wave away a bug from the ball. Instead of beginning his shot routine anew to refocus, he went back to the address position and tapped the putt. It never touched the hole; it slipped past on the right side, as the gallery gasped.

A friend of his was watching with Ben Hogan. As he waved the bug away, Sanders' friend told him later, Hogan was saying, "Back away, back away."

Alas, he didn't, and it has haunted him ever since. Sanders has done the only thing he could do: make the best of it.

"I wait and measure my worth in friendships, and I'm rich," said Sanders, adding "this game has given me the opportunity to play golf with presidents and kings."

Still, as he stood not 30 yards from a spot that has defined so much of his life, Sanders knew deep down one essential truth.

"That's history," he said of the '70 Open. "You have to accept it."

Contact staff writer Joe Logan at 215-854-5604 or jlogan@phillynews.com.

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