Mary Ann Sarazen: Dad didn’t invent the sand wedge, but he modernized it

February 4, 2010

This would have been a big year for my father, Gene Sarazen, one of five golfers to have won all four professional majors. It was 75 years ago that he won the 1935 Masters with his Shot Heard ‘Round the World, a double eagle on 15. It amazes me to think how that phrase and shot are still part of golf lore. Three years before that, in 1932, he won the U.S. and British Opens with a nifty new club in his bag: a Wilson sand wedge that he designed. To this day people see my last name and say, “Tell me the story of how your father invented the sand wedge.” Or, “Wow! Can you imagine how much money your father would have made had he applied for a patent on the sand wedge?”

There’s only one problem: My father didn’t really invent the sand wedge. Scottish golfers in the 19th century had special clubs for getting out of the sand. Walter Hagen was using a battle ax of a sand wedge in the late 1920s, with a hickory shaft and a smooth concave face — later deemed illegal — with a lot of loft and about a half pound of weight in the flange. A man named Edwin K. MacLain had a patent on that club and assigned the rights to Hagen’s manufacturing company. I know this because I sit on the USGA’s museum and library committee with a man named Pete Georgiady, who is an expert on old clubs. Pete and I are both members of the Golf Collectors’ Society. Oh, the things we talk about. You’d be amazed.

What my dad did was design the first modern sand wedge, with a steel shaft, markings on the clubface and the amount of flange on it that is still widely used today. The story he told me, was that some time in the late 1920s, he went flying with Howard Hughes, the aviation tycoon, movie producer and scratch golfer. When Hughes’s plane took off, the flaps on the wings came down and my father made a connection between the flaps and the flange you could add to a club that would allow it to slide through the sand and help the ball pop up.

In those days my parents rented a bungalow in New Port Richey, Fla., and my father experimented by soldering flanges to his niblicks, which were similar to a modern pitching wedge. He sent the clubs to Wilson, and the company used those prototypes to come up with its first sand wedge in the early 1930s. Almost 80 years later the club has hardly changed.

Bob Mendralla, a club designer who began working at Wilson in the late 1940s, knew my father well, and for years he had some of those homemade sand wedges in his office. They didn’t have as much loft as the modern sand wedge, but when Bob measured them they had about 10 degrees of bounce — close to the standard for a sand wedge today. Wilson added about five degrees of loft to the prototypes, to 55 degrees. My father had put his “reminder” grip on them, which showed you where to put your thumbs. (The reminder grip is another of his innovations with which Wilson did well.)

As for the patent, it would never have occurred to my father to apply for one. He was the proud son of Italian immigrants, a little former caddie — not even 5’6″ — who was thrilled to be making his way in professional golf and to have a contract with a U.S. manufacturing giant like Wilson. As a matter of fact, the Sarazen-Wilson relationship, which lasted 75 years, is said to be the longest-standing endorsement contract in all of sports. My father was still under contract with Wilson when he died in 1999 at age 97. True, he probably never made more than $20,000 a year from that deal, but he was content with it. He lived through the Depression. In his day, touring pros were working men, even if they could wow celebrities like Howard Hughes.

As for Wilson, I believe that when knowledgeable golfers think of the company, they think of sand wedges, and they think of my father. His first sand wedge had punch marks on the face instead of scoring lines, and over the years Wilson has sold duplicates of that club, not as some sort of museum piece but because people like to use it. My father was also a pioneer of the explosion shot. It is the game’s easiest shot, golf teachers say, because the clubface never touches the ball. The explosion shot and the sand wedge have made golf more fun for more people than we could possibly count. My father took a lot of pleasure in all of that.