With places like Innisbrook, Cheval and Saddlebrook, here in the Tampa Bay area we are no strangers to the game of golf.
But, did you know that Pasco County’s past history actually has a connection and claim to golfing fame?
That connection is professional golfer Gene Sarazen, who in the late 1920s, considered New Port Richey his winter home.
Locally, Sarazen not only managed New Port Richey’s Jasmin Point Golf Course, but it was here that his invention of the modern sand wedge, with steel shaft, came to life.
From Eugenio Saraceni to Gene Sarazen
Born February 27, 1902, in Harrison, New York, Eugenio Saraceni was the son of an Italian carpenter from Rome.
With his family suffering financially, according to biographies, in 1910, at age 8, Saraceni was introduced to the game of golf when he took to caddying at Larchmont Country Club in New York to help increase his family’s income.
Saraceni reportedly held many odd jobs to supplement his family’s income such as lighting gas street lights, selling newspapers, and helping with his father’s carpentry business.
But, in 1913, he dropped out of the sixth grade to caddy full time for the Apawamis Club.
After contracting pneumonia in 1917, which led to pleural emphysema, Saraceni was hospitalized. But, following his release in May 1918, it was then he decided to take to the game of golf playing at the Beardsley Park Course.
Within a couple years the 17 year old Eugenio Saraceni turned professional and his name appeared in newspapers for making a hole-in-one.
"Not a bad name for a violin player, but a rotten name for an athlete," he wrote in his autobiography, Thirty Years of Championship Golf. So, he decided to change his name.
Starting with Sara, he first dropped the ceni portion of his last name but struggled for a suitable replacement until he finally added zen.
After searching the phone book and finding no other Sarazen listed there was no question about it. "That was what I was looking for," he wrote.
Sarazen’s career as a professional golfer took off. After working at several clubs as the Head Golf Professional he eventually reached PGA touring status.
In 1922, at 20, Sarazen became the youngest player to win a major after taking the U.S. Open at Skokie Country Club in Glencoe, Ill.
Not only did he win the tournament but he also became the first player in the world to shoot under 70 to win a professional event. Later in 1922 he went on to win the PGA as a rookie.
After his 1922 winning streak, Sarazen is said to have told reporters, “I don’t care what you say about me. Just spell the name right.”
From there a slew of victories soon followed including the 1933 PGA Championships, the 1932 British Open, the 1932 U.S Open, and the 1935 Masters.
At the 1935 Augusta National, he hit what has famously become known as “the shot heard ‘round the world.” Using a four-wood, on the 15th hole in the final round, Sarazen hit a 235 yard a double eagle.
Today, Sarazen is still considered a golfing legend and is one of the few golfers to achieve the career Grand Slam with his victory at all four Majors.
In 1932, Sarazen was named the Associate Press Male Athlete of the Year, and in 1974 his legendary status led to his induction in the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Sarazen was also the recipient of the Bob Jones Award in 1992—the highest recognition awarded by the PGA for sportsmanship. He also received the PGA Tour Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996.
Sarazen’s Pasco Connection
Perhaps one of the most important steps made in assuring New Port Richey’s early popularity as a “high-class tourist-resort town” was the development of its Jasmin Point Golf Course.
According to the New Port Richey Press, in February 1927, local developers Burns-Becker Corporation announced their plans for construction of a modern 18-hole golf course, complete with country clubhouse, swimming pool, and villas.
The project involved more than 200 acres of land stretching from the west banks of the Cotee River to the Gulf of Mexico, which, with its natural hazards, was ideally suited.
On April 18, 1927, less than two months after announcing the project, construction started under the direction of the Gulf Engineering Company, who began the task of readying 180-acres of land for its reception of fairways and bunkers.
According to Pasco County land records, two days later, on August 20, 1927, Burns-Becker succeeded in selling Gene Sarazen a residential lot, which fronted the new golf course—this plot of land described as lot 5, block 5 of Jasmine Point Estates.
But, more importantly was the deal brokered with the professional golfer to supervise construction and mange the new course.
After building a home which reportedly cost about $20,000, Sarazen made New Port Richey his home address and for several years honed his professional skills on the local Jasmin Point Golf Course.
Sarazen wrote, the “New Port Richey course wasn't a very good one, but it did have one excellent trap, right behind my house.”
And, it was in that little sand trap where Sarazen modified and improved his invention of the modern sand wedge, an idea he came up with in 1931 while flying with his friend Howard Hughes.
According to Mary Ann Sarazen, Gene’s daughter, “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.”
According to Sports Illustrated, when he got back home to New Port Richey, Sarazen said, "I called the Wilson Company and asked them to send me 12 niblicks, and I went to the hardware store and bought solder and rasps and files and spent four or five hours each day filing away till I got it just right.”
Sarazen tried and tested his sand-iron, hitting thousand of shots each week from the little sand trap behind his home, making adjustments back at the machine shop in town.
With its steel shaft and markings on the club face, Sarazen’s final design is what we now consider the first modern sand wedge.
In June 1932 when the British Open began, his new club design was ready.
But, fearful the game’s governing body would ban the club, Sarazen told his caddie to replace it in the bag blade down—at night he smuggled it into his hotel room under his polo coat.
Sarazen said, “I was seven or eight strokes in the lead at one time and I won by five.”
Sarazen’s Local Ties Cut
By October 1932, Sarazen’s ties to New Port Richey were cut after he filed suit in an effort to collect payment for his three years of service as manager and professional golf instructor at Jasmin Point.
According to the Associated Press, two $40,000 damage suits were filed in federal courts.
One suit was directed against the club corporation and another against Warren Burns, the New Port Richey developer who headed the club and Jasmin Point Estates where Sarazen’s home was built.
Edwin Thomas, Sarazen attorney, said the suits were based on the contract between Sarazen and Jasmin Point club which guaranteed an income of $20,000 for three years.
While Sarazen’s connections to Pasco County were short lived, New Port Richey still carries the distinction of being the city where Sarazen’s modern sand wedge was invented.
So, next time your golfing game lands you to the sand bunkers, remember Gene Sarazen and Pasco County’s claim to golfing fame.