Despite his record 81 victories on the PGA Tour and an ageless game that kept him competitive into his 60s, "Slammin' Sam," who died Thursday at 89, was known best for the sweetest swing in golf.
"It was a gift, something you can't teach," two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange said. "His hands looked like they were born to have a golf club in them."
Snead died at his home in Hot Springs, Va., daughter-in-law Anne Snead said. He had suffered a series of recent strokes and died while she and his son Sam Jr. were with him. "He didn't seem scared," Anne Snead said. "I think he was very much at peace."
He was raised during the Depression in the backwoods of western Virginia. He learned how to play in bare feet and with clubs made from tree limbs, and he was blessed with as much raw talent as anyone who played golf.
"He brought so much to the game with his great swing and the most fluid motion ever to grace a golf course," Jack Nicklaus said.
Arnold Palmer, who was on two winning World Cup teams with Snead, called him one of the greatest athletes ever. Snead was so limber he could kick the top of a door frame even when he was in his early 80s.
"He was a man who was very important to the popularity of the game," Palmer said. "I'm so sorry these things have to happen."
"I don't think there's ever been a golf swing as aesthetically pleasing as Sam Snead's," pro Phil Mickelson said from the Memorial Tournament.
Snead was the only player who won sanctioned tournaments in six decades, from the 1936 West Virginia Closed Pro to the 1982 Legends of Golf.
He was the oldest winner on the PGA Tour, capturing the 1965 Greater Greensboro Open at 52, and remained a threat well into his 60s. He tied for third in the 1974 PGA Championship at 62, finishing three strokes behind Lee Trevino.
Five years later, Snead became the youngest player to shoot his age - 67 - in the Quad Cities Open. He shot a 66 two days later.
"I was never amazed at anything he ever did," Byron Nelson said.
Snead was famous for his straw hat, cocky grin and homespun humor. A three-time Masters champion, Snead had been an honorary starter since 1983. He would jaunt to the first tee, show off that flowing, flawless swing and then tell stories outside the clubhouse.
This year was different.
He didn't close the annual Champions Dinner with any jokes. And for the first time, he needed someone else to tee up the ball at the Masters. The ceremonial shot flew into the gallery and struck a fan in the face, breaking the man's glasses.
Although he didn't feel well, Snead never considered passing on the tradition of hitting the ceremonial first drive.
"Anyone else wouldn't have done it, but Sam was tough as nails and very determined," Anne Snead said. "He was never a quitter."
For all his victories - independent record keepers place his total at 160 - Snead never won the U.S. Open, which haunted him the rest of his career. He was a runner-up four times.
The Masters, however, was his domain. He won it for the first time in 1949, the year club members began awarding a green jacket. He won again three years later, and earned his final Masters victory in 1954 after beating Hogan by one stroke in an 18-hole playoff.
He had nine finishes in the top five and 15 finishes in the top 10.
He also was a three-time winner of the PGA Championship during the match play era.
Snead claimed his only British Open at St. Andrews in 1946 during a time when few American players could afford to travel across the Atlantic.
Born in Hot Springs, Snead needed no formal teachers to develop the swing that lasted a lifetime.
"Watching Sam Snead practice hitting golf balls is like watching a fish practice swimming," said John Schlee, a U.S. Open runner-up in 1973.
The late Gene Sarazen once said of a young Snead, "I've just watched a kid who doesn't know anything about playing golf, and I don't want to be around when he learns how."
Snead joined the PGA Tour in 1937, driving out to California with only $300.
He won at least one tournament every year on tour except one for the next 23 years. His biggest season was in 1950, when he won 11 times. No one has won that much since, although Tiger Woods came close in 2000 with nine victories.
Snead first met Woods during an exhibition in California when Woods was 6.
Woods couldn't clear a narrow stream in front of a par 3, then played out of the shallow water and made bogey. Snead beat him with a par, and was duly impressed, talking about Woods and his favorite subject - the swing - years later.
"You watch his backswing, and it comes right down on that same line," Snead said. "A lot of fellows come over the ball or dip around. Hogan said, 'I got something I'll take to the grave,' but I knew what it was. It was the right arm that would point toward the flag. You're not going to get off track very far. And that's the same with Tiger."
Snead won the Greater Greensboro Open a record eight times, the first in 1938 and the final one in 1965. That also was the last of his 81 victories - 17 of them after turning 40.
"The game of golf lost one of its great champions and most charismatic players," Nicklaus said.
By Doug Ferguson