Born into a poor family in Cedartown, Georgia, northwest of Atlanta, Sanders was the fourth of five children and picked cotton as a teenager. The family home was near a nine-hole course and he was a self-taught golfer.
Sanders accepted an athletic scholarship to the University of Florida in Gainesville, where he played for the Gators golf team in National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) competition in 1955. In his single year as a Gator golfer, Sanders and the team won a Southeastern Conference (SEC) championship and earned a sixth-place finish at the NCAA championship tournament—the Gators' best national championship finish until that time. Sanders won the 1956 Canadian Open as an amateur—the only amateur ever to do so—and turned professional shortly thereafter.
Sanders had thirteen top-ten finishes in major championships, including four second-place finishes: 1959 PGA Championship, 1961 U.S. Open, 1966 and 1970 British Opens. In 1966, he became one of the few players in history to finish in the top ten of all four major championships in a single season, despite winning none of them. He earned unfortunate notoriety for taking four shots from just 74 yards as the leader playing the final hole of the 1970 British Open at St Andrews, missing a sidehill 3-foot (0.9 m) putt to win, then lost the resulting 18-hole playoff by a single stroke the next day to Jack Nicklaus. His final victory on tour came in June 1972 at the Kemper Open, one stroke ahead of runner-up Lee Trevino.
Sanders is remembered for an exceptionally short, flat golf swing — a consequence, it appears, of a painful neck condition that radically restricted his movements.
He was a member of the U.S. Ryder Cup team in 1967, which won handily in Houston.
Sanders was a stylish, flamboyant dresser on the golf course, which earned him the nickname "Peacock of the Fairways." Esquire magazine named Sanders one of America's Ten Best Dressed Jocks in 1973.
Sanders identified himself as the lead character, a playboy PGA Tour golfer, in the golf novel Dead Solid Perfect, by Dan Jenkins.
Since retiring from competitive golf, Sanders has been active in his own corporate golf entertainment company and has for nearly 20 years, sponsored the Doug Sanders International Junior Golf Championship in Houston, Texas. From 1988 to 1994, he also sponsored the Doug Sanders Celebrity Classic.
He currently resides in Houston.
Sanders is a member of the Florida Sports Hall of Fame, Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, and the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame. He was also inducted into the University of Florida Athletic Hall of Fame as a "Gator Great."
Major championships are in bold
PGA Tour playoff record (5–5)1957 Colombian Open
1959 Sahara Pro-Am
1963 Yomiuri International
1983 World Seniors Invitational
LA = Low Amateur
NT = No tournament
DNP = Did not play
WD = Withdrew
CUT = missed the half-way cut
R64, R32, R16, QF, SF = Round in which player lost in match play
"T" indicates a tie for a place
Yellow background for top-10
Sources: Masters Tournament, U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur, Open Championship, PGA Championship, 1956 British AmateurMost consecutive cuts made – 14 (1965 PGA – 1969 Masters)
Longest streak of top-10s – 4 (1966 Masters – 1966 PGA)