Two of sport's great nearly men died last week. One was popularly regarded as the classic embodiment of the breed while the other was such a titanic figure it was easy to miss the fact that he fell into the same category. But what Doug Sanders and Stirling Moss had in common was that they were fated to miss out on the biggest prizes in their respective sports, sometimes by agonising margins.
Time may have rendered it less prominent in the public imagination, but the three-footer Sanders had to win the British Open, and pushed to the right at St Andrews in 1970, is probably the most famous missed putt in the history of golf. Only the tiddler Scott Hoch missed to win the 1989 Masters on the first play-off hole against Nick Faldo comes close.
There still seems something uniquely tragic about Sanders' lapse, a few seconds after BBC commentator Henry Longhurst complacently intoned, "So now. This is it. This is what people dream about." It cemented a place for him in golf history as the ultimate choker, a big-time loser who ended his career without a Major to his name.
This constitutes a gross underestimation of Doug Sanders. It's well known that he went on to lose that Open in a play-off to Jack Nicklaus. But it's perhaps less well known that those were the days of 18-hole play-offs and that Sanders, who must have felt crushed by his spurned opportunity, still only lost by one shot to the greatest golfer of all-time.
Sanders, who died of natural causes this day last week at the age of 86, was a much better golfer than Hoch, Jean Van De Velde, Ed Sneed, Bobby Clampett and other players who failed to capitalise on their big chance in the Majors. He may even have been the best player never to win a Major.
No one in the modern era won more times on the PGA Tour without winning a Major. Sanders had 20 victories, among them play-off wins against both Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer which suggest that his loss of nerve at St Andrews was an untypical lapse.
That 1970 Open wasn't the only time the man from Cedartown, Georgia came close to breaking his Major duck. In the 1959 PGA Championship, he finished second by one shot when the unfancied Bob Rosburg shot a 66 on the final day. In the 1961 US Open he led going into the last day and narrowly missed birdie putts on the final two holes of the championship to lose by one shot to Gene Littler. There was another one-stroke defeat, to Nicklaus, in the 1966 British Open at Muirfield.
He was two shots off the pace in the 1960 PGA Championship and three off the winner the year after that. And in 1966 he achieved the rare feat of finishing in the top ten at all four Majors, his best effort coming at the Masters where he was a couple of shots from forcing a play-off.
The career of Sanders showed that the classic nearly man has to be extremely talented. Otherwise they wouldn't go so close so often. Galling and all though that St Andrews mishap was, it's difficult to cast the man's life in a tragic light.
We're talking about a guy who grew up in straitened circumstances as the son of a small farmer and picked cotton to make money as a teenager. His introduction to the game of golf came about through searching on a local course for lost balls which his brother would sell back to the club professional.
Small wonder that when success came his way the man relished it to the full. Sanders dressed flamboyantly, earning the nickname of 'The Peacock of The Fairways', splashed out on expensive cars and partied hard with Frank Sinatra and the members of The Rat Pack.
He also became a byword for good humour. In a 1962 Sports Illustrated profile, Alfred Wright said that Sanders "has a wisecrack on his lips under conditions that send his fellow pros into their meanest sulks. When he misses an important putt, he often goes into a comic pantomime that brings a cheerful guffaw from the gallery. He chats endlessly with the spectators and keeps them entertained with a stockroom full of ready-made gags."
Asked in later life if he ever thought about that putt at St Andrews, Sanders would quip, "Only every four or five minutes." His good humour was all the more remarkable because he played for years with a painful neck injury which necessitated the adoption of a famously unorthodox swing. If this man was a loser, there's not much hope for the rest of us.
On the same day that Sanders died in Houston Moss passed away in his native London at the age of 90. It's almost impossible for anyone who hasn't spent at least some time in England to grasp the affection with which Moss was regarded there by the generation who'd witnessed his heyday. That the standard greeting of English transport police to motorists pulled up for speeding was once, "Who do you think you are? Stirling Moss?" says a lot about the outsize place he occupied in his nation's imagination.
Moss was the toughest of competitors, excelling in the sports car endurance events then such a high profile part of the racing calendar. His victory in the 1955 Mille Miglia, a 1,000-mile race along the public roads of Italy which drew five million spectators along the way, remains one of the great moments in British motorsport history.
The same year he also won the Targa Florio, a notoriously tough 500-mile race on the Sicilian roads. Both Mille Miglia and Targa Florio have long since been discontinued on safety grounds. The fact that Moss had to take amphetamines before winning the former perhaps shows why.
His talents also extended to rallying where he won a number of prestigious international events.
But Moss will be remembered mainly as a driver in Formula One where he won 16 Grands Prix but saw the world title continually elude him. Four times he finished second and three times he finished third to earn the title of the 'greatest ever driver never to win the world title'.
He was unlucky initially to come up against Juan Manuel Fangio, perhaps the greatest Formula One driver of all-time, who relegated his young rival to second place in 1955, 1956 and 1957. But 1958, on the other hand, was the one that got away. With Fangio in retirement, Moss was favourite to succeed the legendary Argentinian.
However, he was pipped by fellow Englishman Mike Hawthorn, who won only one Grand Prix to Moss's four but whose Ferrari was less prone to mechanical breakdown than his rival's Vanwall. Moss went into the last race, the Moroccan Grand Prix, knowing that a victory would give him the world title if Hawthorn finished lower than second. Moss carried out his side of the bargain but Hawthorn finished runner-up to take the title by a point.
The following year a win in the season-ending US Grand Prix would have given him the title. He took pole position and after just five laps had built up a 10-second lead. But a broken gearbox forced him out and handed the title to the Australian Jack Brabham.
Moss did win at Watkins Glen the following year but it only secured him third overall behind Brabham. Another third-place finish in 1961, behind the American Phil Hill, included a memorable Monaco Grand Prix win in a Lotus car which was underpowered compared to its main rivals.
Three years earlier, Hawthorn might not have been in a position to win the title had Moss not spoken up for him when the Ferrari driver was threatened with the loss of points after the Portuguese Grand Prix. There was a notably Corinthian element to Moss's character as also evinced by his statement, "Better to lose honourably in a British car than win in a foreign one."
Greater ruthlessness might have secured that elusive world title but the British public loved Moss as he was. A Cavalier rather than a Roundhead, he followed his win in the Mille Miglia by driving through the night to Cologne with his girlfriend, stopping for breakfast in Munich and lunch in Stuttgart. As you do. It seemed entirely fitting that he appeared in a James Bond movie, 1967's Casino Royale.
Like Sanders, Moss had his childhood battles. Sent to public school by a dentist father who wanted him to follow in his footsteps, Moss was subjected to anti-semitic bullying because of his Jewish ancestry. He used this to spur himself on.
These two great men who died last week were distinguished by their obvious enjoyment of not just sport, but life in general.
If they fell short of the very biggest prizes, they lost little caste in doing so. Like the current Mayo footballers, Jimmy White, the Dutch soccer team of the 1970s and the Waterford hurling team of the noughties, Sanders and Moss proved that 'nobody remembers who came second' may be the most witless of all sporting adages.