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 says repeatedly that IJG is his way of paying something back to the golfing world that has provided him with a luxurious lifestyle. "Whatever I've given," he says, "I don't think it's been enough." Sanders grew up poor in Georgia. To help his family pay the bills he picked cotton. He was a self-taught golfer -- he remembers walking to and from the courses in shoes with flapping soles. He grimaces when remembering the outhouses he once used.

"I had a burning desire, a killer instinct, a will to win," he says. He also was very lucky. His big break came at the Junior National Championship in 1953. After playing "36 holes a day for six days," Sanders was the only survivor. Soon after his victory, Sanders accepted a scholarship offer from the University of Florida. (His victory also inspired a 30-minute movie -- The Boy Next Door -- that brought the young Sanders some attention.)

After spending three years at UF -- "I did everything but study," he says -- Sanders won the 1956 Canadian Open while he was still an amateur. In his 38-year professional career, Sanders would never win an event bigger than the Canadian. Still, despite never claiming a major tournament title, Sanders logged more total victories than all but six golfers in the history of the sport. "Doug Sanders was an excellent fairway wood player," says longtime Golf Digest editor Chris Hodenfield. "One of the best I've ever seen."

Sanders was extremely popular on the tour, and not just for his stellar play. Women adored his all-American good looks and his perfect smile. In an era when golf was a sport of boring fashion conformity, fans would go out to the golf course to catch what outlandish, but tasteful, outfit Sanders was modeling. For his stylish wardrobe, which was laid out each day by a personal valet/cook/chauffeur, Sports Illustrated dubbed him a "pop artist's dream." He never wore a pair of golf gloves more than once, and he designed a golf bag with a changeable pocket so that his bag and pants could always match.

"Life is a party for me," he says, "and I like to look my best for it. Besides, I play better that way." Sanders lived for the PGA lifestyle. During rounds he often signed visors and kissed admirers. Off the links, he was much the same way. He loved to party and meet people, especially famous people. At his inaugural Tournament of Players Championship -- which he qualified for with his win at the 1956 Canadian -- he had his first brush with stardom. "The Buddy Hacketts, the Perry Comos," says a smiling Sanders. "They were there to participate in the shows."

Sanders was hooked. "I saw a guy the other day," he says. Sanders flashes his perfect smile and winks every time he talks about a celebrity friend. "Bumped almost head-on into Kirk Douglas. Gosh damn. Kirk Douglas! The man's man. And he said, 'Hi! Doug! I'm Kirk Douglas.' For him to call me Doug, boy, I was just so flattered."

Despite Sanders' talk about helping his kids and returning something to the sport that did so much for him, it appears obvious now that a major reason he began his Celebrity Classic in 1981 was to keep in touch with the stars he loved to rub up against. During the tournament's first decade, Doug and Scotty Sanders hustled as hard and as fast as they could to make sure the event ran smoothly. Scotty originally ran IJG's books, and to help cut costs, she took a job with Pan Am Airlines. The airline's employee benefits allowed her and Doug to fly to the IJG preliminary tournaments for free.

"We never paid a dime for those tickets," she says. "And we never charged anything. [Pan Am] flew the kids from Australia to Asia to India. Everywhere. I gave up 11 years of my life to get that."

Doug Sanders took care of the glamour aspects -- making sure the celebrities were taken care of, and that the shows and auctions were always successes. Describing what sort of businessman he is, Sanders says, "I have an alligator mouth that outruns my canary ass. But creativity, [that] I am. Who could have gotten the things I've gotten out at my tournament? You don't do that sitting on your ass, big boy."

Sanders was always able to pull the show together. He supported himself in the first years of the Classic by playing on the Senior PGA Tour. He also employed a "scratch your back" bartering style of business. Professional golfers who are past their playing prime are in high demand in the business community. Many companies engage in a practice commonly called "corporate outings," at which executives can play a round of golf with a touring professional. Of course, fantasy golf has its price. An outing with Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus, for instance, can cost upwards of $75,000. When he was still competitive on the Senior PGA Tour, Doug Sanders commanded $15,000 to $25,000 for each outing.

But instead of taking money for his games, Sanders would often work out a future benefit for IJG and his Classic. He struck a deal with MCI, for example, whereby in exchange for one corporate outing -- Sanders took a couple of bigwigs on a round at Augusta National -- he wouldn't have to pay for long-distance calls. The same was true for Pan Am when it was in business. In exchange for a few corporate outings with Sanders, the airline flew participants in his junior tournaments around the world for free.

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