Ed. note: This look back at the 1950 U.S. Open – during the week that the 120th edition had been scheduled at Winged Foot – is the third in a series of remembrances of memorable years in tournament history.
Ben Hogan needed four days, five rounds and 356 strokes to capture the 1950 U.S. Open on the East Course of the Merion Golf Club outside Philadelphia. It took every ounce of energy, every fiber of his being, to get the job done.
That’s because the Hawk was a broken man. Just 16 months before, the car he was driving collided head-on with a Greyhound bus on a fog-shrouded highway outside the West Texas town of Van Horn, almost killing Hogan and his wife Valerie. Even after setting the broken bones in his pelvis, collarbone and left ankle and treating blood clots in his lungs, doctors expressed serious doubts about the 36-year-old golfer ever walking again. Though he was able to beat those odds, Hogan was still so damaged that he needed long, warm baths in Epsom salts before each round as well as extensive leg rubs. He also wore elastic bandages that ran from his groin to his ankles.
As for playing 36 holes in a single day, which is what the U.S. Open required for the third and fourth rounds in those days, that was a burden for even the fittest tour professionals. Given how lame he was coming into Merion, Hogan wasn’t sure he could finish the championship. Winning seemed like wishful thinking.
But he somehow managed to do just that, taking his fourth major (in a career that would have him win a total of nine) in a three-man, 18-hole playoff.
It is arguably the greatest comeback in sports history.
Hogan dominated the pre-tournament conversation leading up to the 1950 Open. In spite of his accident and long layoff, some prognosticators regarded him as a favorite. They remembered that the Hawk had won the last Open he had entered, at Riviera in 1948. They also liked the way he played in the first months of the 1950 season. His year started at the Los Angeles Open, also at Riviera, and Hogan put on a good show, tying Sam Snead at the end of regulation before losing in a playoff.
A tie for fourth at the Masters three months later got the golf world buzzing again, as did Hogan’s stellar performance in the Spring Festival of Golf at the Greenbrier in early May, where his 21-under triumph tied the PGA Tour’s 72-hole scoring record.
Ben, it appeared, was back.
It also seemed likely that he would contend at Merion, even though Hogan had been complaining to his friends on tour about how much and how often his legs hurt – and how he relied on hot baths and chilled martinis to heal up after competitive rounds.
The par-70 East Course measured just less than 6,700 yards, and the 2-over 72 with which Hogan opened would have garnered more attention had it not been for the utterly unexpected 64 that Alabaman Lee Mackey fired that first day.
A second-round 69 put Hogan in sole possession of fifth place, just two shots off the lead.
That seemed to leave the Hawk in excellent shape for a final-day charge. But according to Jim Dodson in his best-selling biography, Ben Hogan, An American Life, the golfer doubted whether he would even be able to complete all 36 holes. He admitted as much at a dinner the evening before to Valerie and his friend, Frank Sullivan, saying that he “dreaded the next day’s infamous, double-round finisher.”
Hogan posted another 72 on Saturday morning, which left him tied for third place, just two back of the 54-hole leader, Lloyd Mangrum. Dodson wrote that the Hawk consumed a bowl of soup for lunch, sitting with Valerie at a table under the club’s covered terrace before heading out for the second 18 holes of the day. Dr. Cary Middlecoff was his partner.
Moving gingerly and in obvious discomfort, Hogan managed a 1-over par 37 on his outward nine. That was good enough to give him the lead, but it was not at all clear that he would be able to hold it. Hogan frequently stopped to grab his legs and rub them. His gait became halting and stiff. On a couple of occasions, Middlecoff reached into the cup to pull out the ball Hogan had just holed and hand it to him. After hitting his drive on the 12th, Hogan’s legs nearly gave out, the Hawk almost falling to the ground.
Legend has it that Hogan turned to his looper at that point and said he was finished and going in. But the caddie, who worked at the club, was having none of that.
His caddie teed up his ball on the short, par-3 13th, and Hogan managed to make a par. But he almost collapsed again as he walked off the green, the muscles in his legs cramping badly.
Legend has it that Hogan turned to his looper at that point and said he was finished and going in. But the caddie, who worked at the club, was having none of that. He turned to his golfer and said: “No, Mr. Hogan. You can’t quit. I don’t work for quitters. I’ll see you on the 14th tee, sir.”
The Hawk possessed a three-shot lead after 11 holes of the second round that Saturday. But he had lost that cushion by the time he limped onto the 18th tee. The finishing hole on was a brutish 4-par, measuring 458 yards this day and compelling golfers to smack a blind drive more than 220 yards over what had once been the edge of a quarry to a flattish landing area. Hogan summoned enough strength to hit one of his best tee shots of the day, and it settled in the middle of the fairway, roughly 200 yards from the flag that flickered on the 18th green (the USGA having replaced Merion’s famous wicker baskets with standard pennants for the championship).
As Dodson tells the story, Hogan was “gray-faced and winded” by the time he got to his tee shot. Once there, the old pro “pondered what kind of shot he needed to hit to get safely home in two” as he held “a smoldering cigarette” in his hand. He calculated that he needed birdie to win, and par to tie. Clearly that last play was the smart one. But the prospects of having to endure another 18 holes the following day were almost too painful to imagine. As for which club to hit, the choice was between a 4-wood, which Hogan wielded as well as anyone on tour, and the 1-iron. Desperate not to be long and end up in the gnarly rough that grew behind the green, the Hawk opted for the iron. The decision made good sense as far as ensuring that his approach shot stayed on the putting surface. But no club is harder to hit than a 1-iron. Even for top tour professionals, and especially under pressure.
By the time Hogan addressed his ball, a Life magazine photographer named Hy Peskin had settled into a spot behind the golfer. Resting his camera lens on another member of the gallery, he implored the person not to move as he waited for the Hawk to hit. Bare-handed and wearing his signature white, linen hat, Hogan made his swing. Just as he did, Peskin snapped his shot, catching Hogan’s near-perfect follow-through, his right heel up, his club nearly parallel to the ground. There is no hint of the physical agony Hogan felt at the time. Or the mental anguish that came from competing so hard for so long, and in such pain. No evidence of drama or despair, either. Remarkably, the Hawk looks calm and collected, like he knew he was big enough for that very big moment.
Hogan’s ball landed on the green and rolled to a stop some 40 feet from the hole. Two putts later, he had his place in the next day’s playoff, against Mangrum and George Fazio (the uncle of celebrated golf course designer Tom Fazio).
Equally as impressive as Hogan’s 1-iron was the shot Peskin had just made with his camera. It is pure art, brilliantly composed and deftly timed. Even more amazing is that it was the only picture he took of Hogan that afternoon, even after following the Hawk for the entire round. It was the only time he felt compelled to do so.
The result, of course, is the most famous golf photograph ever taken.
The playoff did not start the following day until 1 p.m. that Sunday, so Hogan was able to sleep in before heading to the course. The 69 he posted handily beat Mangrum (73) and Fazio (75) for the championship.
A week later, production of the film, Follow the Sun, began. It was the Ben Hogan story, with Glenn Ford playing the golfer and Anne Baxter his wife, Valerie.
Thanks to what the Hawk had just done at Merion, the producers had their Hollywood ending.
Top: Ben Hogan’s 1-iron approach shot to the 72nd green of the 1950 U.S. Open is one of the game’s iconic images. Photo: USGA Museum, from the Hy Peskin Collection
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