US OPEN | LOOKING BACK
at Dale Concannon recounts the remarkable history of Ben Hogan's 1950 US Open win, arguably the most courageous comeback the game has ever seen.
n many ways Merion and Ben Hogan were made for each other. In a remarkable story that could have been penned by a Hollywood scriptwriter, the game’s biggest hero returns from a life-threatening automobile accident to win one of golf’s glittering prizes over arguably the toughest course in the world. Few adjectives can truly capture the drama. No wonder it has since been named the “Miracle at Merion." It all began on a fog-shrouded night in the early hours of the 2nd February, 1949.
Old Golf Images
Shot for the ages: Hy Peskin's famous photo of Hogan ripping his 1-iron to the heart of the green at the last hole of regulation play in 1950. Hogan would go on to beat Lloyd Mangrum and George Fazio in the next day's 18-hole play-off 54
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Hogan had just lost an 18-hole playoff against his long time buddy Jimmy Demaret at the Phoenix Open in Arizona. The new season was barely a month old but the price of success was already taking its toll on the reigning US Open and PGA champ. Widely acknowledged as the world’s top golfer “Bantam Ben” had just come off consecutive victories at the Crosby and Long Beach tournaments. Nobody expected him to lose to Demaret, least of all Demaret, but lose he did. Three weeks on the road living out of a suitcase had left Hogan feeling physically tired and mentally jaded. Life had
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That six-footer to win the Ryder Cup “was such a fine line between being the hero and the biggest idiot,” he says.
Old Golf Images
Hogan’s car, pictured years later, after his horrific crash in February 1949 (top); the poster for Follow the Sun (opposite), the popular Glen Ford movie which documented Hogan’s miraculous escape 56
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become a seemingly endless parade of professional tournaments and exhibition matches in backwater towns up and down the country. Desperate for a break, Hogan made the fateful decision to drive the thousand or so miles from Phoenix back to his home in Fort Worth, Texas. It was a journey that he and his wife Valerie would not complete. Crossing a two-lane bridge near the town of Van Horn in Culberson County, Texas, Hogan's Cadillac collided head-on with a Greyhound Bus after it swung into his lane while overtaking a slow-moving truck. Protecting his wife Hogan took the full force of the collision which saw the engine pushed into his driver's seat. Miraculously Valerie received only minor lacerations but her husband was in a bad way. It took well over an hour for an ambulance to reach the crash site on a still fogbound Highway 80. Barely conscious he was taken to a nearby clinic for emergency treatment before being transported to El Paso Hospital 150 miles away. Diagnosed with multiple fractures including a broken collarbone, a smashed rib, a double fracture of the pelvis and a broken ankle, internal bleeding was also suspected. Still in shock Valerie received an update on his condition later the same day – her husband was not expected to live. Joined at his bedside by his brother, the successful Fort Worth businessman Royal Hogan,
a period of relative stability ended abruptly after blood clots begun to form in Ben's legs. Flying in a top surgeon from New Orleans named Dr Alton Ochsner, Hogan made the decision to tieoff the principal vein in both his legs which, while saving his life, opened up the terrifying possibility that he may never walk again. His health took another dip a week later after he suffered a pulmonary embolism. Unable to catch his breath after his right lung collapsed, nursing staff admitted the only reason Hogan was alive was because of his extreme fitness before the accident. Making a slow and painful recovery the next two months were spent all but immobile in a hospital bed. Leaving El Paso Hospital in early April, a wheelchair-bound Hogan thanked everyone who had helped saved his life. Then almost as an afterthought he told his surgeon before leaving: “Watch out for me, Doc ... I ain’t finished yet." Transferred to a physical rehabilitation unit near his home in Forth Worth, Hogan now weighed just 119 pounds compared to his previous fighting weight of 140. Not that it mattered that much. He had made a miraculous recovery and just 59 days after he was dragged out of his Cadillac Sedan bloody and broken, William Ben Hogan finally walked through his own front door. HKGOLFER.COM
In the first week of May, Hogan asked Valerie to submit his entry for the upcoming US Open scheduled for Medinah. She laughed it off but he insisted that she make the journey to the local post office to send the telegram. Still barely able to walk she knew (and perhaps he did) that he was never going to make that particular date with destiny but a year later at Merion, the dream became an unlikely reality. The first clue that a comeback was on the cards came after Hogan was spotted playing a few holes at Colonial Country Club in early December. Using a single-seat golf cart, the seven months in between had been spent building up strength in his battered legs – first from the embrace of his wheelchair, second from endless hours walking the street near his home. (Fearful that he would push himself too far, Valerie would often travel around the neighbourhood in a car looking for him). His game unrecognisable, Hogan sensibly played down speculation about a return to tournament golf, telling one reporter who telephoned his home, "Don't waste your time writing about me ... people are tired hearing about Ben Hogan. They're interested in the guys HKGOLFER.COM
Diagnosed with multiple fractures including a broken collarbone, a smashed rib, a double fracture of the pelvis and a broken ankle, internal bleeding was also suspected ... Hogan was not expected to live. who are playing now. It will not be long before they forget all about me." Two months later Hogan turned that comment on its head by returning to competitive action at the Los Angeles Open at Riviera Country Club. Affectionately known as "Hogan's Alley" after his 1948 US Open victory, he asked tournament organisers to leave his name off the starting list for as long as possible in case he was forced to withdraw. When he did finally turn up for the opening round in early January there was an audible intake of breath from the assembled crowd. Visibly underweight, the effect was made worse by a pair of loose-fitting trousers which he wore to hide the heavy linen bandages he used to aid circulation in both legs. A nervy opening round of 73 was followed by three consecutive rounds of 69. Matching Sam Snead's total of 280, an epic Californian rainstorm postponed the 18-hole play-off for 24 hours. Still not enough recovery time for the still aching Hogan, "Slammin' Sammy" beat him 72-76 to take the title. Talking to reporters afterwards, Snead admitted: "There are only three things I fear on a golf course – lightning, a downhill putt and Ben Hogan." Invited to play in the Phoenix Open a week later – almost precisely 12 months after his career-threatening accident – Hogan understandably declined. Out of respect, the organisers renamed that year's tournament, the Ben Hogan Open. HK GOLFER・JUN 2013
His game unrecognisable, Hogan sensibly played down speculation about a return to tournament golf, telling one reporter who telephoned his home, "Don't waste your time writing about me ... people are tired hearing about Ben Hogan."
Old Golf Images
Cemented: the plaque commemorating Hogan’s 200-plus yard approach to the 72nd hole during the 1950 US Open (top); “The Hawk” and his wife (opposite) following his victory that year 58
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In May, Hogan got his revenge on Snead by winning the Greenbrier Open in the Slammer's own back yard at White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. Matching the all-time world record score for a 72-hole tournament of 259 (21-underpar), he said: "I'm picking up where I left off ... " Nobody was arguing, least of all Sam Snead. The comeback was all but complete. All that was needed now was a fairytale ending, and the 1950 US Open at Merion in June seemed a perfect fit. Having finished in a tie for fourth at The Masters, Hogan was immediately installed as the “fans favourite” to win the second major of the year. Famous for his meticulous preparation, he surprised everyone by spending the weekend before the championship playing in the “National Celebrities (Pro-Am) Golf Tournament” in Washington DC. Happy to play the straight man to Hollywood stars like Bob Hope and Danny Kaye, he was introduced to the crowd by Attorney General Harold J McGrath who praised him for having completed “the most courageous comeback in sports ...” Arriving at Merion Golf Club, 11 miles west
of Philadelphia, Hogan became annoyed when reporters pestered him with questions about his legs. "I feel fine" was his stock reply. But in the privacy of the home he rented off Ardmore Avenue, he expressed genuine doubts whether his limbs would hold up. In the three days leading up to the tournament Hogan rarely ventured onto the treelined East Course. With the final two rounds played on the Saturday, and hot weather predicted for the week, he restricted the amount of practice holes to just 18 on the Tuesday and five holes on the Wednesday in an effort to preserve his strength. Predictably there was growing speculation in the press that he had not acquired enough knowledge to make a credible challenge. What few of them knew was the “Hawk” had spent four days before his trip to Washington DC secretly mapping every inch of the testing 6,694-yard layout. Billed as a “Battle of the Giants” between Hogan and top US money earner Snead, interest was intense. With record crowds expected the USGA took the unprecedented step of raising the total prize money from US$10,000 to US$14,900 on the eve of the championship. Not that it made any difference to the determined 37-year old Texan. Having been denied the chance to defend his title 12 months earlier he would have played for shirt buttons given the chance. Leading the field by a single stroke after rounds of 72 and 69, Hogan cut a lonely, almost isolated figure. Striding down the Merion fairways with his eyes fixed firmly on the ground ahead of him, he rarely uttered a word to anyone other than his caddie. “He was a cold, detached artisan on the course likened by some observers to an undertaker weaving a shroud of defeat for his adversaries,” wrote author Will Grimsley some years later. Just 16 months since his brush with death Hogan played each shot as if it were his last, which for once had a resonance of truth. “Close up you could see his face grimace with pain,” said British golf writer Percy Huggins who followed the action in 1950. “And with two rounds played on the final day, it just got worse and worse ..." A slight stutter in his normally metronomic HKGOLFER.COM
long game on Saturday morning, saw Hogan (72) overtaken at the top of the leader board by Lloyd Mangrum (69). After a short break for lunch, part of which Hogan spent re-adjusting the thick bandages which encased his increasing aching legs, he stepped onto the first tee of the final round knowing that he could afford few mistakes. With 15,000 fans swarming across the Pennsylvanian course, American star George Fazio was the first to post the clubhouse lead with a seven-over par total after a 70. Mangrum, the former war hero, struggled home in 76 to match him but neither man considered that enough to shut out the prowling Hogan. But “Bantam Ben” had his own problems. Coming off the 11th green he led by three strokes with just seven holes to play. The tournament was his for the taking but struggling badly, the Texan star fell forward after his tee shot at the 12th. Gesturing to his friend Harry Radix to join him, he clung to his shoulders like a drunk around a lamppost saying: “My God, I don't think I can finish.” Later describing how his “legs had turned to stone” Hogan only needed to play the final four holes in one-over par to win. Suffering from poor circulation since his accident, the limp which was barely visible at the start of the week now became pronounced. Exhausted by having to play 36-holes in one day in what was only his seventh tournament in nearly a year and a half, he bogeyed 15 and 17 in quick succession. Encouraged to “buck up” his ideas by the caddie appointed to him for the week, Hogan arrived at the 448-yard 18th hole needing a par to match Fazio and Mangrum in the clubhouse. Finding the centre of the fairway with his drive, he summoned all his skill and experience to strike a perfect 1-iron approach over a grassed-over quarry into the heart of the raised green. “It was,” said 1949 US Open winner Cary Middlecoff, “the purest stroke I've ever seen.” Two putts from 40 feet gave him a 74 as excited fans ran onto the green in an effort to grab his golf ball as a souvenir. Matching the 287 total of Mangrum and Fazio, an 18-hole play-off was scheduled for the following day. As for Snead, he finished the week seven strokes back and was back in Virginia giving lessons by the time they teed off. After such drama, nobody expected – or indeed wanted – Hogan to fail. Fairytales simply do not have rotten endings, and why should this be different? But the signs were not good. The first problem facing Hogan was that someone had stolen his trusty 1-iron (or 2-iron if you believe some accounts) from the Merion locker room over night. The golf shoes he had worn all week had also gone missing and, despite an investigation by the caddie master, neither could be located. HKGOLFER.COM
Finding the centre of the fairway with his drive, he summoned all his skill and experience to strike a perfect 1-iron approach over a grassedover quarry into the heart of the raised green. “It was,” said 1949 US Open winner Cary Middlecoff, “the purest stroke I've ever seen.” Stolen equipment aside, the biggest problem that concerned Hogan were his legs. Swollen and aching, he spent most of the previous evening soaking them in warm salt water to ease the pain. (Hogan later admitted the most tiring part of the entire week was getting over and under the gallery ropes). Chatting with Jimmy Demaret on Sunday morning, Hogan seemed more positive. He was still tired but his legs felt better. He even outlined a game plan which included breaking his rivals’ spirit over the front nine and hopefully cruising to victory before his physical strength gave out. True or not it worked with Fazio who ultimately fell away with a 75. But Hogan's famous cold stare fared less well with the more experienced HK GOLFER・JUN 2013
Old Golf Images
Laughing it off: Hogan shares a joke with Jimmy Demaret (above) after the latter wins the Phoenix Open. This photo was taken just hours before Hogan's date with destiny along a fogbound Highway 80 60
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Mangrum. Still in contention with three holes to play, “Mr Icicle” trailed Hogan by a single shot standing on the 16th green. Looking to make a strong finish he noticed a fly clinging to his ball. Reaching down he picked it up and blew the insect away. Under PGA tournament rules, which he had been playing all year, cleaning the ball was allowed. Unfortunately for Mangrum, under the USGA rules which governed the US Open it was not. Hammered with a soul crushing two-stroke penalty, it widened the gap to three and his race was run. “Fair enough,” he said afterwards. “I will eat tomorrow no matter what happens ..." Holing a 50-foot bomb for a birdie on the 17th to go even further ahead, Hogan’s dominance was complete. Finishing with a 69, he beat Mangrum by four and Fazio by six. The first time in US Open history that pros who made the halfway cut were assured of receiving cheque, Hogan collected his US$4,000 before retreating to a private room to remove the bandages which by now had become almost unbearable. “He was in quite a bit of pain,” recalled Fred Byrod of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “He even admitted at one point he didn't think he'd be able to continue.”
Lifting the same trophy he had claimed before his accident must have given him pause for thought. His place in golf history assured, Hogan continued to pay a high price for that fateful night in Van Horn. After Merion, he played no more than seven tournaments a year because his legs could not take the physical stress of walking 18-holes. Swelling up every time he walked any great distance, his left shoulder caused him pain right up until his death in 1997. Despite this, the record books show that he won 63 tournaments, including nine major championships – six of which came after his crash. His inspirational life story was captured on film when Glenn Ford agreed to play him in the 1951 movie Follow the Sun. Recreating the crash and his comeback from injury it proved a popular choice at theatres all over America. Sixty-three years on and the United States Open returns to Merion and the scene of perhaps his greatest ever triumph. As the drama unfolds on Sunday afternoon, one can only speculate if Hogan’s ghost will be looking down and wondering: “How would I have got on against these modern stars?” My bet is very well indeed ... HKGOLFER.COM