STANFORD, Calif. - Frank “Sandy” Tatum has had a remarkable life and shows few signs of slowing down.
He earned an engineering degree from Stanford in 1942, was a Rhodes Scholar and received his BCL in engineering from Oxford in 1949, where he was the first American to play on the golf team, and graduated from Stanford Law School in 1950.
Last week, Tatum, a retired law partner with Cooley LLC, where he has worked for 64 years, celebrated his 94th birthday by playing golf. He still drives to his Palo Alto office daily to advise clients.
“I have a serious reservation to charging anybody anything for what I do,” he joked this week.
Tatum was a standout golfer at Stanford and qualifies as one of its oldest-living former student-athletes. He helped the school win back-to-back NCAA Championships in 1941 and 1942, winning the individual title in the latter. He calls it his “proudest accomplishment.”
“I played No. 3 on the team and loved it with a passion,” said Tatum, a member of the Stanford Athletics and Bay Area Sports halls of fame. “From somewhere, I got visited and I played better than I knew how. I can remember vividly having finished the final round and having won the event and finally getting to a telephone to call my father, who was my inspiration in so many ways. I barely was able to say, ‘Dad, I won.’ And neither of us could speak for a substantial period of time. To this day, I resonate about it.”
Tatum remained Stanford’s only NCAA individual golf champion until 1996, when Tiger Woods joined the club. This year, left-hander Cameron Wilson became the third member.
“It’s pretty hard for me to describe how it affects me,” said Tatum. “The history involves so many remarkable golfers, such as Lawson Little and several others. Then I was joined by Tiger Woods, and that gave it seriously effective impact. This delightful young guy (Wilson) who has real potential joined us, and that added another feature for me in a very important way.”
Tatum grew up in Los Angeles, and began playing golf at age six. He often caddied for his father, a solid 4-handicapper, at Bel Air Country Club.
“He’d take me out there on Sundays with his group and give me a couple balls and a couple sawed-off hickory shafted clubs and told me to stay out of people’s way and when I got tired to go sit in the car,” Tatum said. “I was in and out of that car maybe a dozen times before he finally came out after his game. I thought it was a swell way to spend a Sunday.”
Little did he know what impact golf would have on his life. Tatum enrolled at Stanford mostly because his brother Donn, six years his elder, attended and raved about the university.
“He was my role model,” said Tatum. “Once he chose Stanford, that did it for me. I visited the place a fair number of times and was totally taken and fell.”
Tatum thrived in his new surroundings.
“It was spellbinding,” he said. “I was old enough to be conscious of the intellectual aspects of the place. But what really grabbed me was the environment, the way in which the place operated and the quality of the people.”
Tatum was immediately impressed by the humble nature of the students, their thirst for knowledge and drive to succeed.
“In my judgment, it has virtually always had a combination of characteristics, the basic premise being a first-class education,” said Tatum. “But beyond that in a way that gives it its ultimate dimension is the synergy and quality of people you’re associating with.”
That included his professors.
“In my sophomore year, I was having trouble expressing myself in writing,” he said. “It got to the point where I just had to do something about it. I had this English teacher and I went to him and said, ‘Give me some direction, some advice. I’m stuck.’ So he said, ‘Okay. We’ll meet once a week.’ He basically educated me in a very personal way and that made a huge difference in terms of being able to express myself. It was a pretty dramatic illustration of what he was willing to do for one student in a capacity that has turned out to be pretty damn useful.”
When he wasn’t practicing law or spending time with his wife Barbara and six children, Tatum was playing golf. A member of San Francisco Golf Club, Cypress Point Club and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club in St. Andrews, Scotland, he worked hard at his game and was a regular participant in the San Francisco City Golf Championship at Harding Park.
A single-digit handicapper most of his life, Tatum shot 73 at San Francisco Golf Club at age 86.
Along the way, Tatum realized the importance of giving back to the game. He joined the USGA and ascended swiftly up the organizational ladder to the executive committee. He became involved in course setups for the U.S. Open, negotiated television contracts, and helped bring Pebble Beach Golf Links back into the U.S. Open rotation.
In 1974, the U.S. Open was held at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y. Players started complaining about the difficulty of the course from the moment they arrived and didn’t hold back with the media. Tatum took the brunt of the criticism.
“As I was walking through the clubhouse, four players came my way and one said, ‘God almighty Tatum, you look tired.’ Another one of them said, ‘You’d look tired, too, if you had been out there on your hands and knees all night waxing the greens.’ ’’
Tatum is nothing if not resilient. His now famous response was, “Our objective is not to humiliate the best players in the world. It’s to identify them.”
The average score the first round was 77.
“That was a serious problem,” he conceded. “Thank God Hale Irwin came through.”
Tatum also got involved in golf course design, helping Robert Trent Jones Jr. and Tom Watson create The Links at Spanish Bay in Pebble Beach, and co-designed Lockeford Springs Golf Course in Lodi, Calif. and Mount Shasta Resort in Mount Shasta, Calif.
But his biggest gift to golf has been his involvement with Harding Park and his support of the First Tee Program for underserved kids. A gem of a course in the 1950s and ’60s, the City Championship drew approximately 12,000 spectators for the 1956 final between E. Harvie Ward and Ken Venturi. But soon after, the course suffered from neglect and quickly deteriorated.
“I was taken with it,” said Tatum of Harding. “I thought it had very special characteristics, including the setting, and the routing, which is brilliant. Being blessed with privileges made me acutely aware of the dislocations in golf; more than 80 percent of the people who play golf play public courses, and more than 90 percent of golf is played on public courses. That combination of factors stimulated me. I was just horrified to see the golf course turning into a weed patch.”
Tatum leaned on friends for help, notably businessman and investor Charles Schwab, who graduated from Stanford in 1959 with a degree in economics.
“When I took a look at the project, I realized it would take a lot of money,” Tatum said. “I didn’t think it would work unless I got the PGA Tour involved. And so I did what I have done on other occasions and I went and talked to Chuck. He arranged a dinner with PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem and the rest is history.”
When the course remodel, spearheaded by former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, went over budget, Schwab and his wife Helen made a $2 million gift for a new maintenance facility and clubhouse. At Schwab’s insistence, the latter was named after Tatum.
Naturally, Tatum protested.
“I wanted it to be called the Schwab Clubhouse or Schwab/Tatum Clubhouse,” said Tatum, chuckling at the memory of the phone call with Schwab. “There was silence at the other end of the line. He finally said, ‘Tatum, do you want the $2 million or not?’ So it got done.”
Finchem and his staff were so impressed with the course, they committed for the 2005 World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship (won by Woods) and the 2009 Presidents Cup. They now own and manage Harding and will bring several noteworthy events to the course, including the 2020 PGA Championship.
“The best way I can describe it is a dream come true,” Tatum said.
Tatum has developed many special relationships through golf, none more important than Watson. When Tatum was an undergraduate, Watson’s father, Ray, was attending Stanford Graduate School. They became friends and Tatum made a point of seeking out his son when he enrolled as one of the nation’s top high school golf prospects.
“He was the whole package,” said Tatum. “And his love affair with the game was so pervasively impressive – it certainly had an impact on me. And we bonded. It was remarkable.”
Watson, who graduated from Stanford in 1971 with a psychology degree, went on to have a brilliant PGA Tour career, winning 39 times including eight major championships, highlighted by the 1982 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. The latter was punctuated by a remarkable chip-in birdie on the par-3 17th hole on Sunday, enabling him to hold off Jack Nicklaus.
From 1978 through 1982, Watson was ranked the No. 1 player in the world. He is a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame and the Stanford Athletics Hall of Fame, remains competitive on the Champions Tour, and will captain the U.S. Ryder Cup team for the second time in September in Gleneagles, Scotland. This week, he and Woods are competing in the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool Golf Club in Hoylake, Engalnd.
From age 57 to 77, Tatum partnered or was paired with Watson every year in the Bing Crosby Pro-Am/AT&T National Pro-Am.
“In those 20 years, I saw everything there is to see about Tom Watson,” said Tatum. “He had dominated the game like very few people had dominated it, and then all of a sudden, it left him. And he went nine years and 144 events without a win against that background.”
While Watson’s swing and ball-striking have always stood out, Tatum was more impressed with his attitude. Even in the tough times, Watson soldiered on without complaint.
“Near the end of those nine years, we were playing in the AT&T and he arrived at No. 17 on Saturday at Pebble Beach needing two pars to make the cut,” Tatum said. “And he hit a terrible iron shot, chunked a wedge, took a double-bogey and missed the cut. It was somewhat late in the afternoon and we went over to Cypress Point for a late lunch. As we were leaving, I saw him look at his watch and I said, ‘What time is it Watson?’ And he said, ‘It’s 4:30. We’ve got time to play nine holes.’ We didn’t have any clubs, shoes or balls, but he gave me a Watsonesque look and said, ‘Can you fix it Tatum or not?’ ’’
As it turned out, long-time member Hank Ketcham, creator of the Dennis the Menace comic strip, turned up. He agreed to join the group, all playing out of his bag.
“I won $10 bucks from Watson, primarily because on the 16th hole, he hit Hank’s wooden-shafted 3-wood and it buried in the top of a bunker in back of the green,” Tatum said. “I’ve never had more fun playing golf.”
Tatum, who has 11 grandchildren, retains his passion for the game. He practices several times a week and plays nine holes three or four times a month. Tatum said his swing has “left him for a younger man,’’ but that has only fueled his desire to re-discover it.
“I am now starting my fourth year of intense effort to find some remnant of the golf game I once had,” he said. “But I’ve got a mantra that I will never surrender. I’m going to find it before I die and I might die doing it. But I can’t tell you how grateful I am to be out there swinging it.”