Sam Reeves is a retired cotton merchant, bodysurfer, pro-am partner and one of golf’s trusted old souls
I first heard about Sam Reeves 15 or 20 years ago. At Cypress Point, if good fortune got you there, a caddie might point out his magnificent house, between the course and the ocean. Someone would say that Tiger had just been to the Reeves house for dinner, or that Butch had given Fred a lesson there, in the backyard. In any given Pebble week, the guest list might include a range of Tour elites: Jim “Bones” Mackay, Jay Haas, Tim Finchem, and also Peyton Manning and Tom Brady and that whole crowd. I imagined the houselord as an industrialist of the old school, sniffing his port. Then I met him.
A mutual friend, Brian Roberts of Philadelphia, got us together, in South Florida, during the Honda tournament. Sam Reeves invited me to dinner with his wife and two of their younger friends.
He's 82 but he doesn't look or act it, and he's as slender as Hogan's Merion 1-iron. (He ordered moderately, in a rural Georgia accent, from both sides of the menu.) I learned that Sam and Betsy were married in 1958, at an historic church in downtown Asheville, N.C., and that their four daughters have traveled the world with their father, on work and mission trips both.
Reeves is in great shape in a variety of ways. He made his fortune as a cotton king, opening China to the American cotton trade in the wake of Nixon-Kissinger. At the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am this year, Sam and Nick Watney made the cut. If an older amateur has ever played all four rounds there—walking!—I'd like to hear about it.
We were a fivesome at a Juno Beach fish-house: Nick Watney and me on one side of our booth, Betsy and Sam on the other, Adam Scott in between them. (Our host has played golf or broken bread with 25 Masters winners, including Claude Harmon, Butch's father.) Sam wears his vitality as another man might wear cologne, and he packs more questions than answers, though he has plenty of both. Asking questions keeps you young, don't you think?
“Well, our friend Brian's getting his squash game in shape for the Maccabiah Games, isn't he?” Sam said.
“What's that?” Adam asked.
“The Jewish Olympics,” Sam said. “They play them in Israel every four years.” Not a well-known thing, but Sam's beat is the world.
One of his hobbies is bodysurfing, as it is for me, and a couple days later we met again, at a beach club, bathing suits on. Two and half hours later, though, we were still on the barren side of the dunes, the gray Atlantic yawning. Sam, who played golf at Chapel Hill in the 1950s, is a plus-4 conversationalist.
“I believe we all have a creator,” Sam said. His eyes, bright blue, have a power source all their own. “We all seek to deepen our mental, physical, occupational and social lives. People the world over want what you and I want. They want dignity. They want to be valued.” Beachside chitchat, Sam Reeves-style.
Adam Scott met Sam when the Australian was a 19-year-old amateur. “I learned how to be a human being from Sam,” he told me. We were in a windowless room deep in the PGA National clubhouse. The 2013 Masters champ was sitting on a cargo box after insisting that I take the lone chair. “Sam's one of the biggest role models in my life.”
In 2001, when Christy and Butch Harmon were married, Sam Reeves was the best man. “In personality, Sam and I are 180 degrees apart, but we love each other,” Butch said. Butch, like Sam, has seen the world's dark underbellies. “Sam cares. It's not a bulls— care. He actually cares.” Butch and Christy, with rising emotion, talked about Sam's commitment to their son, a budding historian—and not a golfer—now preparing for grad school.
But with Sam, there's always the tug of the game. For his 70th birthday, he and Butch went to Scotland. The nastier the weather, the happier Sam was. He wrote in an e-mail, “Golf embraces character, perseverance, grit, courage, mental strength, timeliness, worldly disappointment, hope, faith, pain. And, yes, joy, accomplishment and satisfaction.”
The intimate dinners held at the Reeves home during the Pebble Beach tournament are occasions where the players can breathe. One winter night, a decade or so ago, José María Olazábal talked about the unthinkable prospect of a life without golf, after a mysterious foot ailment caused him to miss all of 1996. But by April 1999, he and Greg Norman were in the day's final twosome on Masters Sunday.
“And I remember being on 13 green on Sunday with Greg,” Olazábal said that night, as Butch recalled it. “He has a 20-footer for eagle, I have a 15-footer for birdie, the flowers are magnificent and I am thinking, “How lucky am I to be here?” And then Greg made the putt.”
The room was still. Sam could not contain himself.
“But what did you do, Ollie? What did you do with that birdie putt?!”
The author welcomes your feedback at email@example.com.