Memorable for an iconic photo of Ben Hogan on the 72nd hole, the 1950 U.S. Open at Merion was a post-accident reminder: The little man could still win on the big stage.
In gauzy sunlight late on a June afternoon, an injured man fought to keep his lead in the final round of the U.S. Open. He faltered, came off the ropes, then staggered again. Ten thousand fans hung on every shot and every step taken by the stoic little pro in the flat white cap. No one could forget that he had almost died 16 months earlier. Could he hold on?
"I remember how silent it was," recalls Whip Buck, a teenager in the gallery at Merion GC in 1950 and the future co-owner of the Philadelphia Phillies. "It was like we were watching a no-hitter. Or like church."
On his 36th hole of the day, and at the end of his mental and physical rope, Ben Hogan calmed his mind and steadied his cramping legs enough to get a drive into the fairway. Most photographers were waiting around the green for the usual shot but one, Hy Peskin, shooting for Life magazine, was following Hogan and looking for a special one. Hogan took a club, inhaled a Chesterfield, threw it down. Peskin fiddled, framed, adjusted the aperture. Hogan struck a strong long iron and followed through in perfect balance. Peskin clicked the shutter release, exposing the moment on black-and-white film and creating one of the best sports pictures ever taken. Hogan limped to the green. Two-putted, barely. Playoff.
The next day, the same question: could he hold on?
Sixty-three years later, we still have not wearied of the details of Hogan's rise and fall and resurrection at Merion. To try to get a feel for how he did it, we walked a few miles in Hogan's custom-made shoes. Not very big shoes; of his many nicknames, the most apt for the 5-foot-7, 137-pound Hogan was The Little Man.
From El Paso to Merion: Hogan and brother Royal (left) in his Texas hospital room after the near-fatal crash; (right) Hogan playing out of the sand on Merion's par-4 12th hole during the third round of the 1950 U.S. Open in Ardmore, Pa. Photos: AP Photo
EVEN BEFORE un-Gentle Ben trudged into a three-way playoff for the 50th U.S. Open, a mid-century media hurricane ballooned his tailored trousers and ruffled his perfect hair. He didn't like it. Time magazine had put his handsome face on its Jan. 10, 1949, cover. Within the year, Hogan was unenthusiastically cooperating on a movie of his life, a rare (and to him, dubious) honor. And for about five weeks, from Groundhog Day in '49 until early March, he achieved a ubiquity without precedent for an athlete when his picture and a report on his outlook regularly made front pages, not only sports sections.
Like it or not, Hogan had earned the Time cover by winning 35 times (including three major championships) in three-and-a-half years since the end of World War II. But what made "slim, wiry, Ben Hogan, 36, of Fort Worth" fodder for the front of a national news magazine lay in how he did what he did. With his scientific slash of a swing and the force field of his personality, Hogan stood out every time he teed it up. And after competing like a Navy SEAL on a mission, he would wear an incongruous movie-star grin at the end when they gave him the trophy and the check.
For the Hogan story, Time assigned 29-year-old Jim Murray to do the heavy lifting of writing and research. "Hogan was my idol, he could do no wrong," the future Pulitzer Prize winner admitted much later, but a puff piece was impossible. For even if Murray and Time sports editor Marshall Smith were to discover that this hard case had a soft creamy center, that was hardly the point. Everyone could see that "Little Ice Water" was a driven man, with a chip on his shoulder as big as a car tire. "Winning the  U.S. Open did not improve his disposition much," wrote Murray. "He was still brusque with waiters and photographers." Murray witnessed and reported an embarrassing moment, when Hogan bitched to a server about the preparation of his eggs. "He plays the course as if there were nobody around," Murray wrote, and quoted but did not name a pro who went on and on about how little fun it was to be paired with Hogan. Yet the takeaway from the story was positive: Here was a truly dedicated man who had earned his success with his sweat.
A few weeks after the issue hit newsstands and mailboxes, everyone recalled one particular line from the Time piece. "It isn't the golf, it's the traveling," Hogan said. "I want to die an old man, not a young man."
More portent: A few pages after the cover story appeared, there was a sober, all-text ad for "the world's most beautiful and distinguished motor car," the 1949 Cadillac. Hogan had one.
Besides owning a $4,500, 14-miles-per-gallon, 3,900-pound V-8 sedan, the tour's leading money-winner had a new home in Fort Worth. "How much is that one?" Ben had asked realtor Dan Greenwood, who looked at a piece of paper and said a number. "I'll take it," Hogan said -- to Greenwood's amazement, because Mrs. Hogan was not in the car at the time. But Val apparently loved the four-bedroom colonial five miles from Colonial, the club where Ben played and practiced. Due to their desire to get back to the house they had only bought three months before, Hogan had decided to skip the last tournament of the season-opening, five-tournament western swing. The couple would rest and acclimate for a week before hitting the road again at the Texas Open in San Antonio.
Hogan told Murray he would not win the first event of the new season, the Los Angeles Open. He didn't; Lloyd Mangrum did. But Hogan won the next two, almost the next three. At Phoenix, after a very good bounce off a spectator on the second-to-last hole of regulation, Jimmy Demaret tied his friend Ben and won the Monday playoff but blew the quote. "I feel like a race horse beating Citation," said Demaret. He meant a plow horse or a draft horse overcoming the Triple Crown winner, but everyone knew what he was saying.
The rest of the boys drove south and stopped in Tucson for its Open, but the Hogans headed east on Highway 80. Of all the travel challenges facing the car-bound touring pros of the 20th century -- the monotonous hum of tires on asphalt, road food, too much time to think -- none were bigger than the Chihuahuan Desert. Early February meant a drive east through an airy arid expanse on an endless two-lane ribbon with Mexico on your right and unfiltered sun overhead.
On Tuesday, Feb. 1, the Hogans rolled diagonally through Arizona then straight across southern New Mexico and into Texas, leaving El Paso in the rear view as the sun set, observing on the way hundreds of miles of nothing much. The Caddy had a radio in its metal dashboard; we wonder who twirled the dial to find a station. The Hogans finally glided to a stop at a surprisingly nice but supposedly haunted hotel in tiny Van Horn, Texas. "I've seen the ghost three or four times," says Castulo Luna, an employee of the recently revived El Capitan, whose grandfather worked at the hotel in the 1940s. "A tall dark form about yea high." Within the sunbaked stucco of the U-shaped hotel were tile floors, clean, comfortable rooms and a good restaurant. It was $4.50 a night -- not cheap -- but the nomads were now within 500 miles of home.