CLASSICS OF THE CENTURY

When Ben Hogan won the US Open at Merion, it was such a feat, it was barely believable

By Dermot Gilleece

Even 50 years on, the memories of those horrific moments remained vivid for Valerie Hogan. Memories of a head-on collision with a Greyhound bus near the small town of Van Horn, Texas on February 2nd 1949, when her husband Ben had flung himself across her in the front seat of their Cadillac, in an instinctive reaction to save her from injury.

"He was saying 'Get out! Get out, Valerie! We've got to get out,', she recalled in a 1999 interview with American golf-writer, Ron Sirak. "He was thinking about fire. He knew with the gasoline the car might burn. How he could know that, I
don't know."

She went on: "He was trying to push me and I said, 'Please don't', because I had a bad ankle. I finally got the door open and held onto it to lift myself out. I didn't see anything except land. Then I saw these people up on the highway. I started waving at them and saying, 'Oh please, get my husband out of the car, he's badly hurt.'"

The extent of his injuries were later assessed in hospital. Hogan had sustained a broken collarbone, a broken pelvis, a broken ankle, a broken rib and damage to his bladder. Two weeks after the accident, when he was expected to be released from hospital, a blood clot moved from his bruised leg through his heart, into the pulmonary artery, then into his right lung. His condition became so critical that another, larger clot would have killed him.

Against this background, it hardly seemed credible that only 16 months later, on June 11th, 1950, Ben Hogan would capture the US Open at Merion, beating Lloyd Mangrum and George Fazio in an 18-hole play-off for the title. It came to be acknowledged as the most astonishing comeback from injury in the history of golf.

Evidence of the price he paid in pain for that comeback, is preserved in his locker at the Shady Oaks GC, where the so-called Hawk would practise his craft in quiet isolation. Stacked neatly on one side is a variety of muscle-ache creams and ointments, including Chinese Tiger Balm and another, obscure medication identified by Japanese writing. And at the rear, behind four of his trademark caps, is a knee brace.

When he died in July 1997, he and Valerie had been married 62 years. She remembered how, in the autumn of 1949, she reluctantly agreed that he could go out to Shady Oaks, but only to look. "No," he responded, "I'm going to take some of my clubs." And seeing her concern, he insisted: "This is something I've got to do."

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On December 10th, he played his first full round since the accident and a month later, he made a competitive comeback in the Los Angeles Open, where an aggregate of 280 looked to be good enough for victory. With birdies at the last two holes, however, long-time rival, Sam Snead, forced a play-off and went on to take the title a week later, when it was postponed because of rain.

At that point, Hogan began looking towards the US Open which was, in fact, the 50th staging of the event. Though he practised endlessly, he played sparingly so as to save his legs which were wrapped from ankle to groin with heavy, elastic athletic bandages to control swelling and cramps.

Meticulous in his tactical planning, he decided there were no seven-iron shots for him on the relatively short, but notoriously tight Merion stretch. So he left it out of his bag to make way for a one iron, which he rarely used in competition.

In the US Open that year, Merion had an overall length of 6,694 yards for a par of 70. And with the last three holes (with pars of 4-3-4) measuring 445 yards, 230 and 458, Hogan felt sure the one iron would become an invaluable club.

In the event, rounds of 72 and 69 left him strongly in contention, two strokes behind the leader, Dutch Harrison (72 and 67) at the halfway stage. But serious doubts remained as to whether his legs could survive 36 holes in one day, which was what the tournament schedule demanded at that time.

After a third round of 72, he was still two strokes off the lead, now held by Mangrum, who was playing an hour ahead of Hogan. In the event, Mangrum collapsed to a final round of 76 for 287, where he was joined by Fazio. In an amazing turnaround, Hogan found himself leading the championship by three strokes as he stood on the tee at the 400-yard 12th. Such was the throbbing pain in his legs, however, that he couldn't be sure of finishing.

Robert Sommers in his marvellous book "The US Open: Golf's Ultimate Challenge", tells us how, when powering his drive away at the 12th, Hogan's legs locked and he almost fell. Then, fearful of losing his balance, he struggled towards a friend named Harry Radix, who happened to be standing at the edge of the tee. "Let me hang on to you Harry," he gasped. "My God! I don't think I can finish."

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But he did, even with the pain that persisted when the spasm had eased. By the time he reached the 18th tee, however, his lead had evaporated and he was faced with a difficult second shot, knowing he needed a par to tie. It could be either a cut four-wood or a safe one-iron.

He chose the one iron, so creating one of golf's most iconic photographs _ published in 'Life' magazine _ as the club lay across his shoulders at the completion of a perfectly-balanced swing. Two putts from 40 feet and he was in a play-off.

The last nine holes had been agony. "This was something I did not expect," said Valerie. "When we went to bed the night before the play-off, his eyes were in the back of his head. I'd never seen him look as tired in my life. I could tell he was exhausted.

"I ran a tub and ordered dinner. When I saw the circles under his eyes, I never thought he would make it in the morning. I had already convinced myself he would not be able to play."

Even his most ardent admirers would have readily understood, had Hogan decided to opt out of the extra round against Mangrum and Fazio. And to make matters worse, a construction crew spent much of the evening operating a jackhammer outside the hotel window.

"I never slept a wink, but he slept like a baby," Valerie went on. "I couldn't believe it. The next morning he got up and looked just as fresh. It was like a miracle."

After rewrapping his legs, Hogan set off for Merion and the play-off for the title. As things turned out, Fazio made little impact, finishing with a 75, but Hogan was only a stroke clear of Mangrum on 445-yard 16th. In the event, Mangrum missed the green and chipped weakly, leaving himself a difficult eight-foot putt for his par.

Satisfied as to the line, he was about to execute the shot when he noticed an insect crawling over his ball. Without thinking, he placed the head of his putter next to the ball to mark its position, lifted it, blew the bug away, replaced the ball and holed the putt. And he walked away from the green, believing he was still one stroke behind Hogan.

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So it came as a hammer-blow when, on the way to the 17th tee, he was informed by Ike Grainger of the US Golf Association that he had incurred a two-stroke penalty for cleaning his ball on the green. "You mean I had a six instead of a four?" said Mangrum incredulously. "Yes," Grainger replied.

Whereupon Mangrum gave the official a withering glare. Within seconds, however, he had regained sufficient composure to remark: "Well, I guess we'll all eat tomorrow." Effectively, the play-off was at an end, from a competitive standpoint.

Two strokes clear with two holes to play, Hogan holed a huge, 50-foot putt for a birdie two on the 17th and went on to complete a 69 for a four-stroke victory margin over Mangrum's 73. Despite the terrible injuries inflicted by a near-fatal accident, he had proved he was still the best player in the world.

"I knew he was special," said his devoted widow. "He worked harder than any golf professional I've ever known and from what others say, harder than anyone anybody has ever known."

There would be two further US Open victories, at Oakland Hills in 1951 and at Oakmont two years later. In terms of raw courage over adversity, however, neither could quite compare with the unforgettable triumph of Merion.

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