The Burial and Resurrection (maybe) of Doug Sanders

For 14 years, Doug Sanders ran Houston's most celebrity-filled golf tournament. Then he was accused of sticking his hand in the till. Now he wants to come back.

Sanders' tournament was a showcase weekend for Houston. It was the one time each year when Hollywood's brightest stars and Las Vegas' big-name performers flew into town. In exchange for a future "favor" from Sanders -- maybe free accommodations at a luxurious hotel or a gift of Waterford crystal -- each would play in the Classic's pro-am, or perform at a tournament banquet, or sign an item for the tournament's auction. Sanders' event was never a major fan draw -- attendance at the 15th- annual Doug Sanders Celebrity Classic last March was estimated at only 7,000 (by comparison, the PGA's Houston Open, held in April, drew over 120,000) -- but it did lure celebrities.

In theory, Sanders' Celebrity Classic benefited a host of charities, including Sanders' International Junior Golf (IJG). But in truth, the tournament was Sanders' way of mixing with the stars he met during his rise to golfing prominence during the late '50s and early '60s.

"You gotta pay tribute where tribute is due," Sanders says, sitting at a bar in one of his home's many living rooms. He points to a wall covered with photos, mainly of him and various famous faces. "These people don't let the little things bother them. Go down the line -- they're all there. From the Eisenhowers to the Gleasons to the George Straits to the Willie Nelsons to the Dean Martins to the Clint Eastwoods." His voice is rising to an excited crescendo. "You don't make friends like this overnight. These people know you. They've lived with you. They've broken bread with you. They've stayed in your house. And you've stayed in their house."

A maid interrupts Sanders' diatribe. She serves coffee, muffins, honeydew melon and orange juice. Sanders opens a cabinet next to his black marble fireplace. Inside are dozens of photo albums, each containing even more pictures. On one page he and Gene Kelly are fishing for Nile perch in Africa (their efforts were documented on an episode of American Sportsman). Turn the page and Sanders is at an archaeological dig, holding two human skulls. Then he's near the equator with Bob Hope, he's drinking bloody marys with Sammy Davis Jr., he's on The Dating Game with Dick Clark and Jack Kelly. ("What would you say if we were to have a perfect evening?" a contestant asked Sanders. He replied, "Good morning, honey." And she said, "I don't think I'm gonna mess with you.")

In their heyday, Sanders and his wife, Scotty, were two of Houston's biggest socialites. "We used to entertain every minute," says Scotty. "It was party time all the time." As we stroll through his house, a smiling Doug Sanders agrees. "The parties we used to throw here, the stories that have been told...." He shows off an air-conditioned wine room (the bottles are classified by both vineyard and year, and Sanders readily plays a which-celebrity-likes-which-wine trivia contest), his tennis court (together with five friends, he would take on, to no avail, John Newcombe), and a walking machine (presented to him by the president of Indonesia).

Sanders can't remember all the people who have spent time in the guest house in his back yard. "Once we had to get Ed McMahon out at one so that Oral Roberts could be in at three," he says. When Simon Koones visited, the artist took down three of his original paintings that hung on the wall in one bedroom and hand-signed each.

But Sanders is most excitable when it comes to his Celebrity Classic -- when he's telling of how it grew from a simple gathering of his "friends" into a couple of rounds of golf and then into a major stop on the senior PGA tour.

"George Bush was the first president to ever play in a senior PGA event," says Sanders. "It was a Doug Sanders event." He smiles, then winks. "And for the first time in history, an acting president and vice president played in a tournament together." He points at a picture of Bush and Dan Quayle, standing together with Sanders. He winks again. The photo is signed by both Bush and Quayle, and there's some unintended irony in the former vice president's message: "Doug, You Put on a Great Show."

Indeed, just how much of Sanders' tournament was for show, and how much for the charities it claimed to be benefiting, is the issue that has brought Doug Sanders such grief. Ostensibly, proceeds from the Doug Sanders Celebrity Classic were to benefit IJG, Sanders' charity. In the tournament's 1994 program, IJG's purpose is clearly stated: "To provide young men with a head start in life -- through golf." Through the IJG, Sanders pools kids from 45 countries and hosts a series of preliminary golf tournaments. The top two finalists from each prelim advance to a championship tournament in Aberdeen, Scotland. The unquestioned impact Sanders' IJG has on his young golfers is exposure: college coaches frequent his tournaments in search of standouts who might use the scholarships they have to offer.

"College coaches give the kids a look," says Hugh Conser, IJG's current chairman. "If they do well, it shows that they can play well under pressure. And that's what these coaches are looking for."

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