Bill Sander remembers the moment very clearly.
“I was nine years old, walking around with my Dad while he played Wayne Golf Course (in Bothell, Wash., now closed),” he recalls. “The ninth hole was a par-3, and you had to hit the tee shot over the slough. He handed me a cut-off 5-iron and told me to take a swing at it. I knocked the ball on the green.”
It was the first time he had ever hit a golf ball.
“From that moment on, I was absolutely addicted to the game,” Bill said. He would become a shooting star that illuminated the Northwest golf scene in the 1970s.
In 1968, at age 12 Bill began working as a caddie at Inglewood Country Club in Kenmore, Wash. “For my first loop, I was paid $3.25,” he says. “But the best part was that Inglewood would let caddies play for free on Mondays. I was in heaven.”
In 1971, Bill joined Inglewood as a junior member for a fee of $7.50 per month, and the floodgates opened. “I just couldn’t get enough of the game,” he says. “I played as much as I could, whenever I could, no matter the weather.” At age 15, he broke his left ankle and was in a walking cast. “I figured out that if I opened up my left foot a little in my stance, I could still swing,” he says, so he went out and played Inglewood while in a cast, once with snow still on the ground.
In 1973 he won the Washington State Junior title, and played on the golf team at Shorecrest High School where he was regularly breaking par by his junior year. In 1974 he won the first of three consecutive Seattle Amateur titles. “That first Seattle title was when I realized I could really do this, that I could beat the other really good players,” Bill said. He celebrated that first title by going back to Inglewood and playing until dark.
“The great thing about Inglewood,” he says, “was all the good players there at the time. My brother Dick is two years older and a good player, and he let me play with him and his friends. If you couldn’t shoot in the 60s, you didn’t have a chance against them. It was a great way to grow up and learn to play your guts out.” When Bill won the 1974 Seattle Amateur, his brother, who at the time was the captain and No. 1 player on the Seattle University golf team, finished third. The two of them traded setting course records at Inglewood.
At six-feet-two, 170 pounds, Sander was blessed with a golfer's build, and his on-course demeanor was determined and businesslike. His father, Hank Sander, a member of Inglewood Country Club from 1971-74 before joining Seattle’s Sand Point Country Club, recalled his younger son’s innate ability to strike a golf ball. “Billy had a lot of natural talent,” Hand said. “He was a very long driver.”
Sander’s long-driving ability allowed him to regularly power the ball 330 yards off the tee. Just prior to the 1976 U.S. Amateur, he won the Washington State long drive contest with a 329-yard smash, using a Persimmon driver, at Seattle’s Jefferson Park Golf Course. He was probably the longest hitter in the world at the time. He didn’t use a tee – he just smashed the ground and beat on the ball.
It was in 1976 that Bill exploded onto the regional and national golf consciousness. A year earlier he had left school at BYU, saying although it was a good school, it just wasn’t a fit for him. So, the relatively unknown Sander quietly worked on his game at Inglewood, and soon accepted a scholarship offer to play golf at the University of Houston.
In the summer of 1976, in preparation for his upcoming departure for Houston, Bill won his third Seattle Amateur. Sander then entered and won the 1976 PNGA Men’s Amateur, held that year at Waverley Country Club in Oregon. In the final match, Sander defeated Tim Bond of Aberdeen, Wash., 5&3.
When he decided to enter that summer’s U.S. Amateur, Sander told Inglewood’s PGA head pro, Billy Derickson, “I’m leaving for school at the University of Houston, but I am going to stop off in Los Angeles and win the U.S. Amateur.”
With the Amateur being held that year at Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles, Sander also played in the Pacific Coast Amateur, being held at nearby Los Angeles Country Club just prior to the U.S. Amateur. Sander competed for the PNGA team in the Morse Cup competition in the Pacific Coast Amateur; and in his final match at the U.S. Amateur two weeks later, he wore his PNGA Morse Cup logo’d golf shirt.
In that final match in the U.S. Amateur, Sander regularly out-drove his opponent, Parker Moore, by 50 yards, and the unheralded and unknown Sander cruised to an 8&6 victory, the widest margin in the championship since Jack Nicklaus won it 15 years earlier.
Sander’s out-of-nowhere victory in the 1976 U.S. Amateur opened golf’s doors for him. Although he fulfilled his commitment to attend the University of Houston after the championship, he stayed in school only a few weeks.
“I knew what I wanted to do – play golf,” he said. “So that’s what I did.” He accepted invitations to play in the World Cup, the Walker Cup, the Masters (where he finished low amateur), the U.S. Open, and the PGA Tour’s Sea Pines Heritage Classic at the Harbour Town Golf Links in Hilton Head, S.C. (where he again finished low amateur).
At the 1977 Masters, Sander slept in the fabled Crow’s Nest quarters upstairs in the Augusta National clubhouse, reserved for the amateurs entered in the tournament, and played a practice round with Graham Marsh, Gary Player and Jim Colbert. When Hank Sander saw his son in that illustrious group, he thought to himself, “Boy, he’s arrived. That was a great thrill when they announced his name on the first tee.”
Sander qualified for the PGA Tour in 1978, and although he had some modest success, he never felt the same about the game. “Amateur golf was so much fun,” he recalls. “I was around such a good group of players, and we used to go out and just play golf, because we just loved it so much. When I started playing it for money, I have to admit that the game lost the allure for me.”
Sander moved to Florida and played on the tour for 15 years, his final year being 1993. He then left the game completely. “My body couldn’t do it anymore,” he says, explaining the issues he’s had with his back. He did consider a comeback, to try for the Senior Tour when he turned 50, and although he could still strike the ball well, his body just couldn’t hold up.
He moved back to the Northwest in 2006 to be closer to family. He built his current house with his own hands. “Now when I see Inglewood Golf Club, it looks like a park,” he says. “I love it. I don’t think I would have done anything in this game if it wasn’t for the opportunity I had there.”