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Bantam Ben’s Phantom Major

Ben Hogan took the golf ball and pressed it into Joe Dey’s palm.

“This is for Golf House, Joe,” said the Hawk.

Dey knew why. Ben Hogan had just conquered the field, and The Olympic Club, to score his fifth United States Open title.

Except Jack Fleck was still on the course, equaling Hogan’s 287 after NBC television signed off. Using a set of Ben Hogan irons, Fleck beat the great man himself in the following day’s playoff.

That left Hogan with four Open titles.

Or is it five? Hogan’s backers, starting with fellow Fort Worth native Dan Jenkins, will tell you Hogan already had five Opens before that 1955 Open at Olympic.

“Remember Ridgemoor,” they say.
Ridgemoor? The leafy country club on the northwest edge of Chicago never has hosted a U.S. Open. But barely six months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and 70 years ago this week, it hosted the Hale America National Open Golf Tournament.

Ben Hogan just happened to win it. And he just happened to receive his gold medal, one closely resembling the U.S. Open champion’s medals that he would receive four times in the future, from George Blossom, a Chicagoan who happened to be the president of the USGA.

Jenkins thus wrote, “I say a man who owns five gold medals for winning U.S. Opens has won five U.S. Opens.”

On the surface, that rings true. Dig a little for the secret, as Hogan did for countless hours in practice, and differences appear.

The Hale America was created as a substitute for the U.S. Open – then often called the National Open – less than two weeks after Blossom’s USGA canceled the Open and its other three 1942 championships.

Blossom agreed with CDGA president Thomas McMahon that the CDGA’s Chicago Open could be expanded into a wartime substitute for the U.S. Open, and arranged the USGA to tab Chicago, accessible by train, as host.

Fred Corcoran, boss of the PGA of America’s tournament series, gave the CDGA the U.S. Open’s dates, ensuring the Tour’s stars would play. The USO and Navy Relief Society were selected as charities by the three presenting golf groups.

Ridgemoor was picked because it was reachable by streetcar, and because its fences would discourage gate-crashers.

The field was stout – only Sam Snead, who that week commenced Naval training, was missing among big names – and bolstered by the first non-Masters appearance of Bobby Jones since his Grand Slam triumph of 1930.

Grantland Rice, sage of sportswriters, arrived and called the Hale America, “Ben Hogan’s last chance in 1942 to rake in his first major victory.”

But while 1,541 entered qualifying (the U.S. Open record was 1,402) and the USGA administered the rules, the Hale America was hardly Open-like.

There was no cut. The action took place across four days, eliminating the Open’s 36-hole Saturday grind. There were trick shot, long drive and skill exhibitions. Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were given exemptions, though Crosby was unable to reach Chicago, and Hope only played an exhibition match with Jones on Wednesday. The “Old Guard” division featured players who had competed in the U.S. Open 20 and more years earlier.

Hogan, as the 1941 Chicago Open winner, was installed as the defending champion. Craig Wood, the 1941 U.S. Open winner? He was just another guy in the field.

Finally, Ridgemoor’s 6,519 yards were nudged by light rough, conducive for birdies.

Players came off the course smiling, starting with first-round co-leader Otey Crisman, whose 7-under 65 matched the course record – and would have been one stroke better than the U.S. Open standard of 66.

This was no U.S. Open. More than half the field breaking par in the first round of an Open?

“I don’t think it had the mood of an Open,” said Carol McCue, hired by the CDGA a few weeks before and the association’s executive director for four decades. “It was fairly modest compared to the Open in later years. There was much more excitement when Bob Hope and Bing Crosby came to Edgewater for an exhibition. But Hogan claimed it as a fifth Open, as did many others on his behalf.”

Crisman faded on Friday, and Hogan ascended. Scoring 10-under 62 will do that. Hogan’s sterling round, still among the best in Chicago golf annals, featured 13 fairways and 17 greens hit in regulation, only 26 putts, and matched the tour scoring record. He opened birdie-birdie-eagle and barely slowed, holing 133 feet of under-par putts.

Tommy Armour, playing alongside, called it “the nearest thing possible to a perfect round.”

Hogan, who had whiffed on a tree-hindered left-handed stroke in the first round, remained three strokes back of Mike Turnesa, who shared the lead with Crisman after one round and now held it outright at 13-under 131. By Saturday night, Ben had tied Turnesa for the lead at 13-under 203. So it would be Hogan and Turnesa, the least-known of the golfing brothers, chased by the field on Sunday.

As was customary before television arrived, the leaders were scattered about. Hogan went out 20 minutes before Turnesa. Jimmy Demaret was out early and making birdies, tying Hogan and Turnesa before they teed off. The large gallery roared when Demaret holed his wedge for an eagle 2 on the par-4 13th. Hogan and Turnesa knew something was afoot.

Demaret, sporting a red-white-and-blue tam, stood 17 under after a birdie on the par-5 14th, three strokes ahead of Hogan and Turnesa.

It was his tournament to lose.

He lost it during a half-hour in which he made three bogeys and Hogan made two birdies, taking a lead he would not surrender. Hogan, scoring three birdies in his last six holes, finished at 17-under 271, three strokes ahead of Demaret and Turnesa.

Hogan had won the Hale America.

Not a U.S. Open, but something unique in the game. Wrote Gayle Talbot of The Associated Press, “Little Ben Hogan, some 138 pounds of pure whipcord, finally crashed through to win that major golf championship which eluded him so long while he was busy winning most of the money and otherwise establishing himself as the uncrowned king of the links.”

Whatever the title, Hogan knew he’d accomplished something.

“What difference does it make?” he said of the name. “If this wasn’t an Open championship, I don’t know what could be. Everybody was in it. I’m glad to win, whatever they call it.”

Just call it a major accomplishment.


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