Sanders died Sunday morning in Houston, the PGA Tour confirmed through a text from Sanders’ ex-wife, Scotty. He was 86.
Sanders was still an amateur when he won his first PGA Tour event in 1956 at the RBC Canadian Open in a playoff against Dow Finsterwald, and his best year was in 1961 when he won five times and finished third on the PGA Tour money list.
But he is best known for four runner-up finishes in the majors, the most memorable at St. Andrews in the 1970 British Open. He only needed par on the final hole of the Old Course to beat Jack Nicklaus, and Sanders was 3 feet away. He jabbed at the putt and missed it, and Nicklaus beat him the next day in a playoff.
“If I was a master of the English language, I don’t think I could find the adjectives to describe how I felt when I missed that short one,” Sanders said after the playoff, where Nicklaus beat him by one shot. “But that’s golf, and that’s the fascination of the game.”
Sanders also finished one shot behind Nicklaus in the 1966 British Open at Muirfield. He had a one-shot lead going into the final round of the 1961 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills and finished one behind Gene Littler, and he finished one shot behind Bob Rosburg in the 1959 PGA Championship at Minneapolis Golf Club.
The loss to Nicklaus took its place with other near-misses in golf, such as Scott Hoch at the 1989 Masters. Sanders once cited Walter Hagen saying no one ever remembers who finishes second.
“But they still ask me if I ever think about that putt I missed to win the 1970 Open at St. Andrews,” he said. “I tell them sometimes it doesn’t cross my mind for a full five minutes.”
But there was never any mistaking Sanders, known as the “Peacock of the Fairways” for his Easter-egg collection of colours he wore on the golf course, even after he was done competing.
“The two most frequent questions on tour were, `What did Arnold Palmer shoot?’ and `What’s Doug Sanders wearing?”’ Sanders told Golf Digest in 2007.
Tommy Bolt once said of Sanders, “The man looks like a jukebox with feet.”
Also overlooked were his 20 victories on the PGA Tour, the last of which was the 1972 Kemper Open by one shot over Lee Trevino. He won at some of the bigger spots on tour, such as Colonial, the Western Open and Doral. When he won the RBC Canadian Open in 1956, it was 29 more years before another amateur – Scott Verplank – won on the PGA Tour.
Sanders played in one Ryder Cup, in 1967 in Houston, with Ben Hogan captain of what is regarded one of the best U.S. teams from that era of the matches.
He was born in Cedartown, Georgia, and played college golf at Florida.
Sanders stayed active after no longer competing, sponsoring the Doug Sanders Celebrity Classic for six years and a junior golf championship in Houston.