When he started at the age of 9 his ambitious trek from his home in Macedonia to his eventual landing spot of Girard, Ohio, young Savic – who spoke not a word of English at the time – couldn’t have had much of an idea of what to expect in northeastern Ohio.
When he enlisted in the Marine Corps to fight in World War II, he had no idea if he’d return to the United States alive from his combat position in the Pacific Theater.
When he did come back and headed to Ohio State to play quarterback, he likely had no idea he’d lead the school to its first-ever victory in the Rose Bowl.
And when a hotshot young golfer named Jack Nicklaus moved in up the street in the Columbus suburb of Upper Arlington, Savic probably couldn’t have imagined that one day he’d play a major role in the development of Muirfield Village Golf Club and the Memorial Tournament.
Along the way he’s broken bread with presidents and legends, developed friendships to last a lifetime and lived enough stories to write more than one book.
In some ways, he puts Forrest Gump to shame, as his path truly has intersected with some of the most defining personalities of the past century of American life.
Simply put, Savic has lived the American dream, the success story of how hard work, a sense of the moment and a little bit of luck can lead to amazing results.
“I’ve had a very full life, you know, from the standpoint of coming over like I did,” he told BSB recently from the clubhouse at Muirfield Village. “The country allows you to succeed at life like nowhere else in the world. It offers you opportunity.”
A Long Journey
Born in the village of Drago in 1925 in what is now Macedonia on the Balkan peninsula of southeastern Europe, Savic watched his father move to Ohio in his early days. He was cared for by his mother, who died when he was 4, and then his grandmother, who passed when he was 6.
He stayed with family including an uncle until his father sent for him, at which point Savic – as hard as it is to imagine in today’s world – made the trip from the old world all the way to Ohio on his own. He left Macedonia and traveled through southern Europe until he reached France, where he boarded an ocean liner headed for Ellis Island in New York.
“I came all by myself,” he remembers today. “I had some notes and all that. Macedonia was on the Greek border, so I took the train from the border all the way through most of Europe into France and didn’t make any mistakes, luckily. I picked up the liner out of France nonstop into New York.
“No one met me there, but I had my notes. I went through customs of course to get checked out, then I went into New York and showed my notes to people there, and I took a train out of there from New York into Youngstown, Ohio, where they finally met me.”
“They” being his father as well as his stepmother, Margaret, who would go on to play a key role in Savic’s life. When he arrived in the Steel Valley he was inserted into first-grade classes until he quickly learned English, and it also didn’t take him long to pick up the lingua franca of the rough-and-tumble ethnic neighborhoods that made up his new northeastern Ohio home – sports.
Blessed with size, competitiveness and toughness, Savic played them all but stood out in football. He was good enough to earn a scholarship to Ohio State to play at the conclusion of his high school career, something that very much pleased Margaret, who knew the importance of education in America.
“We had a share in a bakery up in Girard and I used to work in there on weekends and evenings and knock the dough around a little bit,” Savic said. “My father wanted me to work there full time and drive the bread truck, and she stepped in and said, ‘You can’t do this to that boy, he has other places to go.’ ”
But Savic’s road to Ohio State in 1943 was postponed by the raging World War II. As an able-bodied young man, he knew he’d be called upon to serve, so he made the decision to sign up for the Marine Corps and was sent to the Pacific, driving an amphibious vehicle to transport fellow soldiers from sea to land in the campaigns at both Peleliu and Okinawa.
He wasn’t sure he’d make it home, but President Harry Truman made the decision to drop two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan surrendered shortly thereafter.
Upon his return from war, Savic faced a choice, but it was an easy one when Ohio State said it would honor the scholarship he had been offered before joining the service.
“They wanted to send me to officer candidate school, and I told the general that I talked with, ‘You know, sir, I have a scholarship for football at Ohio State. I’d like to go and see if I can make the team,’ ” Savic recalled. “He gave me a big hug and he said, ‘Go to it, son.’ ”
Run For The Roses
Things were a bit different in those days, and Savic didn’t play quarterback quite the way Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett do today. Lettering under former Ohio State coach Wes Fesler from 1947-49, Savic played quarterback but took snaps played in an offense in which multiple players threw the ball.
Savic was never really known as a great passer, but he was deftly able to run the OSU attack and called his own plays.
“I would listen to my people as to what position they were playing as they explained what they could do against whomever,” he said. “They would always cover me on that, and I would know so then we would attack that person in that area.”
While he didn’t put up eye-popping statistics, he made plenty of big plays throughout his career. In 1947, he keyed a late comeback win vs. Northwestern, throwing a touchdown pass on the final play of the game to Jimmy Clark as the Buckeyes claimed a 7-6 win.
Ohio State was just 2-6-1 that season before improving to 6-3 in 1948. Savic completed all five of his passes in a season-opening win vs. Missouri then threw a touchdown in a 20-0 whitewashing of USC a week later. He had two of OSU’s five TD passes in a wild 34-32 win vs. Wisconsin that year, as well.
Donning No. 25, he was back in 1949, a magical season for Ohio State. The Buckeyes opened with a 35-34 triumph vs. Missouri, a game in which Savic threw two touchdown passes to Ray Hamilton, including the 24-yard winning TD in the fourth quarter. OSU followed with a win vs. Iowa, a tie at USC and a loss vs. Minnesota before ripping off consecutive wins vs. Wisconsin, Northwestern, Pittsburgh and Illinois.
That set the stage for a showdown with Michigan, and the stakes were clear for Ohio State – a win or a tie would send the Buckeyes to the Rose Bowl for just the second time ever and the first time since the 1920 season.
The fifth-ranked Wolverines took the lead in the second quarter with a touchdown and held that 7-0 advantage for much of the game. The seventh-ranked Buckeyes were still trailing by that score in the final frame when Savic hooked up with Hamilton on a 49-yard pass to put the team deep in Michigan territory. Curly Morrison carried the ball over the line before Jimmy Hague missed the extra point, but Michigan was offside and Hague’s second try went through to send the Buckeyes to Pasadena to face Cal.
“We had a runner, Ray Hamilton, who was a real quick runner, and I said, ‘Get behind their linebackers, I’m going to have to throw you something. We have to tie up this ballgame,’ ” Savic said. “Sure enough, he caught the ball, we tied it up and went to the Rose Bowl.”
The trip to California was notable for a couple of reasons. While in Tinseltown, he met movie star Elizabeth Taylor – he was so struck by her beauty at a pregame banquet that he spilled his soup on his tie – and the game was pretty memorable, as well. The Buckeyes used Hague’s late field goal from 18 yards out to beat the Golden Bears by a 17-14 score for OSU’s first-ever Rose Bowl victory.
Savic didn’t have a great statistical game – he ran for 9 yards on four carries and completed 1 of 5 passes for 7 yards and an interception – but he directed an offense that outgained Cal for the day.
“We won the Rose Bowl, which was pretty good,” Savic said. “They had an All-America guard – Rod Franz was his name – and whenever I would come across someone like that, I would attack him and attack him. After the game was over he came over to me and said, ‘You son of a bitch, Savy!’ and gave me a big hug. I said, ‘I know you were their top dog and I wanted to come at you.’ We took him out of the ballgame and we won the ballgame.”
A Wonderful Run
Savic considered playing pro football at the end of his college career, but a fortuitous discussion with a college football legend changed his course for the better.
“I could have gone professional with the Green Bay Packers,” Savic said. “I called Doak Walker, who was there at the time, and I said, ‘Doak, I may have an opportunity to come there to play,’ and he said, ‘What did they offer you?’ I said, ‘Five thousand a year. What are you making up there?’ He said $8,000, and he finally said, ‘Go to work. You’ll be better off.’ ”
So Savic did just that, creating a company that produced industrial safety equipment with David Templeton, captain of the 1948 Buckeye squad that Savic quarterbacked. Savic sold the business for millions in 1999.
But one of the luckiest breaks of his career came after he had settled down in Upper Arlington. In 1961, a house up the street was purchased by a former Ohio State golfer with a big future by the name of Nicklaus.
Nicklaus essentially grew up on campus, where his father operated a drugstore, and attended football games when Savic was the quarterback. Known for his photographic memory, Nicklaus still remembers his first interactions with Savic from when he was a kid.
“He used to come to my dad’s drugstore at Chittenden and High, and he first saw me when I was stuffing my pockets with candy,” Nicklaus said in 2009. “He pointed it out to my aunt, and she said, ‘Oh, that’s Charlie’s boy. Don’t worry about it.’ ”
So when the two became neighbors, there was already an element of familiarity there, and Nicklaus and Savic became fast friends.
“He wanted to throw the football up and down the street with me because of my football days at Ohio State,” Savic remembered. “I said to him one day, ‘Jack, enough about throwing this ball up and down the street, I want to learn that other game that you’re playing.’ ”
The two would become closely linked, as Savic was welcomed into Nicklaus’ inner circle with such friends as Robert Hoag and Ivor Young. All were instrumental in putting together the plans for what would become Nicklaus’ central Ohio masterpiece, Muirfield Village.
“When he brought up this idea and I said, ‘Do you want me involved?’ he said, ‘You’re damn right I do. I won’t be here that much, and I want somebody I can trust,’ ” Savic said.
The plan was to look at numerous sites for the course around the Columbus area, but Savic and Nicklaus were touring a plot of land in the northwest suburb of Dublin along with famed course architect Pete Dye when all three agreed they had the spot. The first piece of land was purchased in 1966 and work began, with Nicklaus’ friends and partners supervising the local work while he was out winning majors.
The course was finally finished in 1974, with Nicklaus setting the course record of 66 in the opening round while playing with Savic, Young and Hoag. Since, the course has hosted the Memorial Tournament each year since 1976 and is the only course in existence to have hosted the Ryder Cup, Presidents Cup and Solheim Cup.
The venture has been wildly successful, to say the least, and those who know the history of the club point to the work that Savic and his associates put in to get the course and tournament off the ground.
“Muirfield Village and the Memorial Tournament wouldn’t have become what it is without Jack Nicklaus, certainly,” said club captain Jeff Logan, a former OSU football player himself in the 1970s. “But the Memorial Tournament and Muirfield Village Golf Club couldn’t have gotten to where it is today without Pandel Savic being a part of the team as well.
“He was the boots on the ground through a lot of that growth. This dream became a reality not only because Jack wanted it to but because Pandel and the other people involved drove the thing to get it completed.”
Savic would often host dignitaries who visited the course – presidents Gerald Ford and George W. Bush have stayed in his cottage on the second hole at the course, with Bush once leaving money on his dresser to pay the long-distance bill he’d racked up – and he developed a proclivity for playing the game as well.
A noted aficionado of golf lessons – he once famously had three in one day, and one time an associate stumbled upon him getting a lesson at a car wash in Florida – Savic played in pro-am events around the world with Nicklaus and developed a reputation as one of the fiercest competitors at Muirfield.
Many of his rounds have taken place with Logan by his side, and the former OSU running back – who met Savic through his father, Richard, a football letter winner in 1950-51 – has been present for the pair of aces Savic has shot in the past three years.
“We always joke that they can never beat two guys from Ohio State,” Logan said, “and we’ve won a lot more matches than we’ve lost, I can tell you that.”
Now 89, Savic doesn’t play golf like he used to, but he remains active. He still goes to Ohio State football games, sitting with such former players as Ike Kelley and Karl Sturtz, and he was inducted into the Ohio State Athletics Hall of Fame in 2009. His son, David, works for Nicklaus Designs as a course architect, and he also had a pair of daughters, Sally and Stephanie, with his late wife, Janice, who passed away from cancer in 1991.
He carries with him the presence of a man who commands respect not just because of what he’s done but the character he’s done it with. It’s been a nearly incomparable life but one that has served as the perfect proving ground of what can happen when opportunity meets spirit.
“It’s been just a wonderful run at life, I’ll tell you that much,” he said.