History of the Legends
A Vision of Friendship
Gene Sarazen & Don Panoz
By Tim Rosaforte
Written in 2004
They laughed at Don Panoz. They laughed when he announced plans for a big-time golf tournament that would feature the world’s national Open champions and pay $350,000 to the winner.
They laughed at Panoz when he said he wanted to start a winery in Georgia, too. “We’ve won our 200th medal since 1985,” Panoz says.
Panoz is the man who built the golf course, guaranteed the prize money, secured a television contract and put the Sarazen Open Championship on the golfing map.
He did his job. And he did it not for an ego boost or because people were saying he couldn’t. Don Panoz went to all this trouble for no other reason than to honor Gene Sarazen, the golfing Squire.
Theirs is a relationship that was borne long before Gene Sarazen knew who Don Panoz was and is. When he lived in Ireland, Panoz would watch Sarazen host Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf. He saw how much Sarazen resembled his father. Then he learned how Sarazen had to change his name, just as his father did, because of prejudice against Italian-Americans in this country during the early 1900s.
Sarazen was once Eugenio Saracini. Panoz’s father was Eugenio Panuzi. As a featherweight boxer, Panuzi was 120-4-2 when he retired at age 22 from a broken hand suffered in a split decision against Joey Archibald at Cadillac Gardens in Pittsburgh. Archibald won the title later that year. Panuzi became Panoz, and took a job as club manager for the Loyal Order of Moose in Spencer, West Virginia. “It was a humble family, but the food was great and the spirit was great,” Panoz remembers. He can still smell the bread his grandmother Louisa cooked. He can still see his 90-year-old grandfather come down from their home in Alliance, Ohio and plant 500 tomato plants. He was so thin, his pants had to be held on by a rope.
Panoz went to Greenbrier Military Academy in White Sulphur Springs, W.V., and remembers shagging golf balls for the golf coach, a fella named Sam Snead. His first real association with golf was playing on a nine-hole public course his father managed in Spencer. This was after Panoz completed his tour of duty in Japan for the Army Security Agency.
When he moved to Pittsburgh, Panoz remembers driving by Oakmont Country Club on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and thinking, “How do you get to play a course like that.”
Panoz wanted to be a pharmacist, but five years of schooling were too much at that point in his life. He had a wife and two children. So he did the next best thing. He went out and bought a pharmacy on Liberty Avenue in the Italian section of Pittsburgh. By living in Pittsburgh, he became friends with some of the baseball Pirates. Through a relationship with Bob Prince, Panoz was able to borrow $20,000 from the Pirates World Series winnings to start Mylan Laboratories, a pharmaceutical distribution corporation based in White Sulphur Springs. Ten years later, he was able to form Élan Corporation in Athlone, Ireland. That company became famous for developing the Nicotine Patch. In 1983, Panoz made his home in Bermuda and started to play golf again.
His guru was a clubmaker named Junior DeSilva. It was through DeSilva that Panoz was made aware of the Bermuda Open. With PanAm facing bankruptcy, the tournament was looking for a sponsor. Panoz underwrote it, but was appalled to find the Bermuda Open champion receive no exemptions worldwide. “I always thought that whether a country was small or large, the country’s championship should be treated equally,” Panoz said.
His next business move was to purchase 2,400 acres in Braselton, Ga., and convert part of it into a winery. What weren’t vineyards became fairways and greens. In 1991, Panoz invited Sarazen, Snead and Kathy Whitworth to co-design the Legends course. The concept was for each of these Hall of Famers to replicate six of their favorite holes from around the world. As time passed, Panoz became closer and closer to Sarazen. “Once I got to meet him, it was hard not to understand the true genuineness of the man,” Panoz says. “I was so charmed by the guy.”
They would meet at the Masters and drive to Chateau Élan after Sarazen hit the first tee balls with Snead and Byron Nelson Thursday morning. Last summer, they traveled around Ireland together. This past year, they did news conferences at the Honda Classic and British Open to sell the event to the media. How this plays in the United States is anybody’s guess. The PGA Tour will be in Hawaii for the Kapalua International. Some of the big-name international players will be chasing appearance money in Asia. The inaugural field could be stronger, but it does have U.S. Open champion Ernie Els and former major championship winners Ian Woosnam, Lee Janzen, Mark Calcavecchia and Craig Stadler. Some of the other headliners are Australia’s Steve Elkington, New Zealand’s Frank Nobilo, Zimbabwe’s Mark McNulty and European Ryder Cuppers Joakim Haeggman of Sweden, David Gilford of England, and Costantino Rocca of Italy.
John Daly, given one of the Squire’s selections, was scheduled to play before deciding to take the rest of 1994 off. Nick Price, the No. 1 player in the world and the reigning British Open champion, wrote a letter explaining a schedule conflict, and promised he would be in the field next year. Since Grand Slam tournament champions were granted invitations, Paul Azinger and Bernhard Langer were considering entry.
All of this made Panoz extremely happy considering the short time he had, and some of the obstacles he had overcome. “You can’t promise success. You can only promise a chance,” Panoz says. “We can give this tournament a chance. It’s up to the golfing world to make it a success.”
Panoz, 60, has long-term plans to eventually rotate the Sarazen World Open Championship to courses around the world. Negotiations are on-going with European Tour Executive Director Ken Schofield to identify a site for 1996. The Legends West Course, being built on a 42-square mile tract of land called Diablo Grande in the California desert near San Jose, could host the tournament by the year 2000. The tournament will return to Chateau Élan in 1995.
This year’s Sarazen Open will have the corporate underpinnings of Volvo, Chase Manhattan Bank, Pepsi-Cola, and UPS. It will still cost Panoz over $2 million, but that’s a small portion of the man’s net worth, and it’s worth the investment to build a monument for the Squire.
“I think this tournament has the format, and the spirit of a man who has done as much for golf as anyone,” Panoz says. “I would hope the Sarazen World Open will become an eternal remembrance of Gene’s contributions and his career.”