Phil Sheldon's unforgettable images of golf's superheroes turned him into one

In 1939, on Earth-616, a young, hard-nosed freelance photojournalist by the name of Phil Sheldon dreamed of relocating from New York City to Europe, where budding conflict between superpowers would be sure to keep his independent enterprise alive. That all changed when Sheldon uncovered powers within his own community: a man who caught fire, a human submariner and an ordinary Army captain turned shield of the nation. In volume one of a comic-book series that would alter culture and box offices forever, Sheldon dubbed these anomalies “Marvels.” 

In 1978, on Earth as we know it, a scrappy 5-foot-6 freelance photographer named Phil Sheldon—no relation to the comic-book character—boarded a U.K. flight bound for New York City. The Laker Airways bird was one of the first budget-friendly overseas options of its time, but still required Sheldon to borrow some money from his father. 

Sheldon had grown tired of his Sport & General photojournalist assignment. After four days of unsuccessfully doorstepping Lord Lucan, a controversial English high-society member suspected of murder, he abandoned his post for a squash match and was fired the next morning. While money was now an issue, time was not. He was free to chase his dream of photographing golf.  

Once in New York, Sheldon worked his way down the coast and finagled a press credential that got him through the gates of Augusta National. His wife, Gill Sheldon, still doesn’t know how. He had arrived on golf’s grandest stage; now he needed to stand out. When Sunday came, Sheldon’s gut implored him to stick close to Gary Player. “As so often was the case,” Gill says, “his hunch was a good one.” The 42-year-old South African closed with a final-round 64 to erase a seven-stroke deficit and secure his third and final green jacket. The next day, photos of a triumphant Player flashed across sports pages worldwide. The man who captured that real-life human torch? Phil Sheldon.

Over the next three decades, Sheldon rocketed from little-known upstart to the pinnacle of golf photography. He developed modern techniques for shooting and processing images, embraced both the charisma and whimsy of golf’s great characters and relentlessly found new ways to present the game. He zigged when others zagged, worked while most slept and walked while they ran. 

Larry Petrillo, a Golf Digest staff photographer at the time, met Sheldon in 1981. He recalls his friend pushing the limit in virtually every aspect of his craft, all in search of a photo nobody else had taken.

“He had bought what we call a blimp,” Petrillo remembers, “which was basically a soundproof box that you put your camera in. The one he bought was meant for cinematographic use. When you put your camera inside this blimp, which was about the size of a VCR, this box with a bunch of foam in it deadened all the sound. It made loading a roll of film into a 10-minute production as opposed to something that you could typically do in 30 seconds or less.”

The payoff was worth the hassle. Sheldon’s homemade silencer allowed him to capture tournament golf swings like never before, specifically top-of-the-backswing rear shots, which were eye-opening in the 1980s. Most importantly, he did it without bothering players—something the always-aware Seve Ballesteros appreciated. 

“I can see from these pictures, which are very good, that Phil has been following me around for many years,” Ballesteros wrote in SEVE, Sheldon’s first photography book. “But, I must say, not many times have I caught him shooting me. That’s good. Other photographers are always getting in my way. Not Phil. He knows the when and the why and the how to move and which way to go. What I look for in a photograph is more than a memory—although, I must tell you, this book has built me a very good memory.”

Sheldon was never on staff at a major publication. His decision to work freelance offered him flexibility in assignments, but if his images didn’t run, he didn’t get paid. So Sheldon created his own luck. Being at the right place at the right time wasn’t just some cliché; it was his means of survival. 

During the 1980 Open Championship at Muirfield, Sheldon and fellow photographer Stephen Szurlej caught wind that Arnold Palmer was planning on jogging around the course in the morning before a practice round. The two staked out through the night across from the Greywalls Hotel, and, sure enough, the King showed. 

“The three of us were running across the links at Muirfield during an Open Championship,” Szurlej recalls. “Arnold was just shaking his head, laughing. He got a kick out of it.”

When Petrillo discovered the Leica—a new, but extremely expensive, camera out of West Germany that allowed for simplified silent shooting—Sheldon immediately hopped on the wave. A Google search of pictures from Ballesteros’ chip on the 18th green at Royal Lytham en route to his last Open victory, in 1988, pulls a series of similar images, with one standing out. 

“Everybody else shot him from across the green with 300-, 400-, 500-millimeter lenses,” says Petrillo. “Phil’s directly behind Seve because he was shooting with a Leica, and all the rest of our pictures, you just see Seve’s upper body, maybe full body. You don’t really see the flag. You don’t see any context or the distance. You just see the emotional response as he almost holes the shot and knows he’s won a major. But Phil’s pictures show the whole setting. He was just fearless about new technology in the digital age.”

The crowd crossing a railway line between the 3rd and 4th holes during the French Open Golf Tournament held at the Golf de St Germain in Ile de France, circa 1985.

Whether it was embracing the Fuji 617 camera for panoramas, renting a $40,000 scanner in the U.K. and carrying it to Augusta so he could shoot color-negative film and process on site, developing his own Photoshop-style software or sneaking onto the BBC aerial lift, he was always hunting for an edge. And when technological advancements like longer lenses and autofocus closed the gap between amateurs and professionals, Sheldon’s artistry and sense of humor kept him in a different class.

During the 1983 U.S. Open at Oakmont, Sheldon, Petrillo and Szurlej found Palmer again—this time in the famous church-pew bunkers down the left of No. 4. Noticing his long lens, Petrillo remembers Sheldon telling him, “If you go in too tight, Palmer could be anywhere. You want to frame this shot loose, because then, to a real golf fan, it won’t even need a caption.”

Despite his revered work, Sheldon knew not having a major publication next to his name could make access to big events difficult. So, in addition to his professional reputation, he also developed relationships wherever he went. Weaseling into scoreboards, broadcast trucks and Ryder Cup celebrations made for great stories, but it was also part of the job.

“You couldn’t go more than 20 yards on a golf course and Phil would stop to talk to somebody,” Szurlej says. “If he and I were going out to find someone who was shooting a low number, maybe trying to pick them up on 15 or so, he’d be forever stopping. He’d get there eventually, but he knew everybody. He knew the wives, he knew the players, he knew all the on-air personalities.” 

The cinder blocks and wood paneling might be gone from today’s Augusta National, but thanks to Sheldon’s eye for one-of-a-kind images, the charm of the caddie barn in 1989 will live on forever.

It was all of this—the toughness, the underdog spirit, the affability, the skill and the stories—that made his 1999 diagnosis of multiple myeloma so tough to swallow for so many. 

Yet Sheldon never wavered. When Petrillo’s wife passed, the two rented a car and drove to St. Andrews together; it was her dying wish to have her ashes scattered there. Well aware of his imminent fate, Sheldon rode shotgun and took pictures of the ceremony. He never mentioned his own health, but both men knew. 

A few months later, in 2005, Sheldon lost his six-year battle. He was only 52. At the time, to Petrillo’s knowledge, only one British citizen, an Olympian, had lived longer with the same diagnosis. 

“For a little guy,” Szurlej says, “he really had a lot of guts.”

In a career cut too short, Sheldon’s résumé consisted of 24 Masters, 21 U.S. Opens, 25 Open Championships, 18 PGA Championships and 11 Ryder Cups. He was voted Specialist Sports Photographer of the Year in England three times. Golf World touted his 2002 shot of Paul McGinley’s Ryder Cup–clinching putt the best in golf history. 

No matter the event, with his camera in hand, it was Phil Sheldon’s universe.

“Manhattan seemed like the whole world to us sometimes,” the comic-book Sheldon says, back on Earth-616. “But it was an island—and the Marvels among us didn’t exactly hide.”