Gene Sarazen was one of golf’s early legends who made a lasting impact as a champion golfer, broadcaster, equipment designer, and ambassador for growing the game. Sarazen rose from humble beginnings as a caddie to become one of golf’s greatest champions.
Dubbed “The Squire” for his dapper style, Sarazen won 39 times on the PGA Tour, including seven majors. The first to complete the modern career Grand Slam, Sarazen left a lasting mark through his invention of the sand wedge, as well as bringing golf into America’s living rooms as host of Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf in the 1960s.
In this post, we’ll take a look at the life of Gene Sarazen. We’ll run through his early days, professional career, notable work as the host of Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf, memorable moments like “the shot heard round the world,” and the legacy he left through his design for the modern sand wedge. Finally, we’ll take a bunker lesson and hear Gene explain the origins and development of the sand wedge. As always, we’ll link you to further reading and show some videos to bring the subject to life.
Sarazen’s Early Life
Gene Sarazen was born Eugenio Saraceni in 1902 in Harrison, New York to poor Sicilian immigrant parents. From a very young age, he worked as a caddy at local golf courses including Apawamis Club. He quickly took up the game himself, honing his skills whenever he could. His formal education was limited, but Sarazen practiced golf constantly on the side.
As Sarazen entered his late teens, his golf skills rapidly improved from his near constant play between caddying jobs. He won his first major tournament, the U.S. Open, in 1922 at the young age of 20. This victory made him one of the youngest golfers to ever with the U.S. Amateur or U.S. Open titles. Prior to his win, Sarazen had top three results in three other significant amateur events between 1920 and 1922. His success and potential were clear.
Later in 1922, on the heels of his U.S. Open win, Sarazen decided to turn professional. This was an easy decision given that his skills had already surpassed those of most golf professionals at the country clubs where he had worked. Over the next few decades, Sarazen’s golf career would continue to take off.
After turning professional, Sarazen established himself as one of the world’s best golfers, winning the U.S. Open and PGA Championship in both 1922 and 1923. His continued success earned him a spot representing the United States on the Ryder Cup teams in 1927, 1929, 1931, 1933, 1935, and 1937. Sarazen won the British Open in 1932 at Prince’s and the Masters in 1935, making him the first to complete the career Grand Slam. He was later joined by Hogan, Nicklaus, Woods, and Player – the only five to have achieved it.
In 1935, Sarazen hit what many consider the greatest shot in golf history at the Masters. His double eagle 2 on the par-5 15th hole (holing out with his second shot with a 4-wood from 235 yards). Dubbed “the shot heard round the world,” the albatross tied him for the lead with Craig Wood, who he would defeat in a 36-hole playoff for his lone Masters victory.
Sarazen played on the PGA Tour until the late 1960s and continued playing in select events into his 90s. He even recording an ace in the Open Championship at Troon in 1973 (see the Videos section). Over his long career, Sarazen tallied 39 PGA Tour wins and 47 professional wins overall. Sarazen set numerous records that stood for decades and was considered one of the best ball strikers to ever play the game. He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame with its inaugural class in 1974. In 1992, he was awarded the Bob Jones Award, the highest honor given by the USGA, in recognition of distinguished sportsmanship in golf. Sarazen passed away in 1999 at the age of 97 in Naples, Florida.
Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf
Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf was a televised series of golf matches sponsored by Shell Oil starting in the 1960s. It featured challenge matches between top professional golfers playing at renowned courses around the world. The show popularized golf for TV audiences, showcasing legends like Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead, George Knudson, Ben Hogan and Gary Player. The show brought golf to the masses and made the game appear more exciting and accessible. Though it ended its initial run in 1970, the series was revived from 1994-2003 with a new generation of players such as Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros, Paul Azinger, and more.
Gene Sarazen served as the host of the show from its inception, along with George Rogers and Jimmy Demaret. He also played in one of the matches at the Old Course at St. Andrew’s against Henry Cotton, besting him by a shot. Gene provided commentary and insights during matches, adding deeper perspectives on the players and golf history. His role on Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf introduced Sarazen and his accomplishments to a new generation and viewers tuned in each week witness his personality and love for the game.
Gene often interviewed match participants at the end of the round, encouraging them to share some of their wisdom and secreats with the folks at home. In our post on Portmarnock, we highlighted Gene and Harry Bradshaw reviewing the pitch and run. Over 20 years after retiring from tournament golf, Sarazen made a lasting imprint on the sport through Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf. Check out our full post “Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf: Looking Back” for more on Gene, the history of the show, and the impact it had on televised sports. Gene’s daughter also wrote a book on his experiences on the show entitled, “Gene Sarazen and Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf.”
Sarazen and the Sand Wedge
Today, the sand wedge is a standard club in all golf bags, but it was not always the case. Prior to the 1930s, golfers struggled to escape tricky bunkers using clubs with narrow blades that tended to dig too deep into the sand. Gene Sarazen, frustrated with his bunker play, looked for a better way.
In 1931, while taking flying lessons from billionaire Howard Hughes, Sarazen had an epiphany. He noticed how the tail of an airplane adjusted itself and thought something similar could help a golf club glide through sand rather than digging in. When he returned home to Florida, Sarazen began tinkering with club designs in a local machine shop. He experimented by welding wider flanges onto the back of a niblick, which was an early version of a 9-iron. The flange allowed the clubhead to skim off the sand more easily. Once Sarazen felt he had perfected the design and honed his technique, he put his new “sand iron” into play at the 1932 British Open at Princes Golf Club. Using the club for the first time, Sarazen escaped several bunkers with ease and went on to capture the Claret Jug.
In 1933, Wilson Sporting Goods mass produced Sarazen’s sand wedge design. “The revolutionary sand wedge”, as it soon became known, took the golf world by storm. Its wider sole prevented digging while still allowing golfers to impart enough loft to carry the ball out of sand traps. Though other sand clubs had existed previously, Sarazen’s was the first effective modern iteration. Thanks to his innovative design, escaping bunkers became much easier and scoring improved. The sand wedge remains one of the most important clubs in the game.
Lesson – Bunker Play
The introduction of the sand wedge revolutionized the short game. Its wide, flat sole allowed the club to glide through the sand rather than dig in, while the lofted face gave shots the height needed to clear a bunker’s lip. Before Sarazen’s innovative design, players struggled mightily out of sand traps.
If you struggle with your own bunker play, channel Sarazen’s technique. Grip down an inch, open the sand wedge’s face, and make an aggressive, upright swing, ensuring the club bottoms out behind the ball to pop it out. Traditional advice is to hit about one ball length behind the ball, but there are so many variables that will affect height, distance, and spin. Many of us carry 3-4 wedges now with varying degrees of bounce, which all provide more options for dealing with bunkers and bad lies.
Unfortunately, most amateurs struggle with what the pros consider a straightforward shot, soley because they don’t practice it, either by choice or because it can be difficult to find a proper place to work on this part of your game. With practice, you will develop feel and this shot will become routine. Check out Dave Pelz’s Short Game Bible in the Further Reading section – he has you covered with everything you need to improve your bunker play.
by David Sowell
Summary: Sarazen: The Story of a Golfing Legend and His Epic Moment details Sarazen’s life and storied career, from his days sweeping floors in a pro shop through his rise in the golfing world to become one of the country’s foremost players. Central to the story is Sarazen’s iconic moment in the sport, a long shot from 235 yards that somehow found the bottom of the cup at Augusta National—perhaps fitting for a man whose golfing career was once considered a long shot itself. It became the greatest shot in golf history and put the Augusta National Golf Club on the map.
Gene Sarazen & Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf
by Al Barkow, Mary Ann Sarazen
Summary: Behind-the-scenes story of this ground-breaking golf show from the birth of televised sports, as witnessed by the show’s writer, Barkow, and host Sarazen’s daughter. Includes 50 historical photos and 15 private letters to the legendary Bobby Jones.
My Mulligan to Golf: The Hilarious Story of Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf & the Beginning of the Senior Tour
by Fred Raphael
Summary: Fred Raphael was the producer and director of the Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf Series from 1960 to 1970, and this book reveals his experiences in that role. The book also tells the story of how the Senior Tour, now called the Champions Tour, was born with Fred’s creation of the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf Tournament.
Summary: Dave Pelz’s Short Game Bible analyzes the importance of mastering shots inside 100 yards to lower scores, based on statistical research showing short game proficiency is the key skill separating winners from losers. Pelz scientifically studies elements like swing mechanics, trajectory, and green reading for pitching, chipping, bunker play, and putting to develop proper technique. The book reveals secrets like accelerating through impact, matching club selection to shot distance, and emulating a pendulum stroke to gain short game skills possessed by pros. Pelz emphasizes fundamentals over unconventionality, using physics-based analysis more than any instructor before him to elevate short game knowledge.