The stars aligned when Hy Peskin caught his indelible image of Ben Hogan at Merion in 1950 — a confluence of events that will likely never be replicated
Photographing a golf tournament can be hot, sweaty work or cold, rainy work, the creative payoff rarely equaling the physical exertion. Golf is the rare sport in which the person behind the camera moves around as much as his subject, five miles or more, depending on the design of the course and plot of the leader board. Marshals, cap brims, television cameramen and signage can sabotage a composition, not to mention phlegmatic players who greet a spectacular stroke with a shrug.
I photographed 40 or so major championships during the 1980s and 1990s, so I speak from the experience of having captured thousands of ordinary moments, several dozen very good ones and a couple that golf aficionados, if pressed, might even remember. Larry Mize breaking Greg Norman's heart at the 1987 Masters, and Costantino Rocca rousing all of St. Andrews at the 1995 British Open come to mind. So does the sad double-chip by T.C. Chen at the 1985 U.S. Open, where his wedge, waist-high, is striking the ball a second time. Sometimes, all the effort was worth it.
For anyone who has photographed much golf-tournament action in the last half century — I think of a talented cadre including David Cannon, Darren Carroll, J.D. Cuban, Dom Furore, Scott Halleran, Rusty Jarrett, Leonard Kamsler, Brian Morgan, Jim Moriarty, John Mummert, Stephen Szurlej, Fred Vuich and the late Phil Sheldon — the bar for excellence was set extremely high before most of us were even born.
I scarcely went out on an assignment without thinking about what Hy Peskin achieved on June 10, 1950, and I doubt my contemporaries have either. Peskin's image of Ben Hogan — just 16 months removed from a car accident that nearly killed him, playing his approach with a 1-iron to the 18th hole during the fourth round of the U.S. Open at Merion GC — is a masterful study of a legend.
"At boarding school, other kids had semi-nude girls or Rod Stewart on their walls," says Cannon, a veteran British photographer for Getty Images. "I had Tony Jacklin and Tom Weiskopf and that Hogan photo. Years before I started taking pictures in the late-1970s, I knew that one."
Golfers know it the way we know Francis Ouimet and Eddie Lowery walking toward an upset victory at the U.S. Open in 1913; Bobby Jones (1927) and Seve Ballesteros (1984) triumphant in St. Andrews; Arnold Palmer exuberantly finishing off his lone U.S. Open win at Cherry Hills in 1960; Tom Watson chipping in at Pebble Beach in 1982; Jack Nicklaus turning back the clock at Baltusrol in 1980 or Augusta National in 1986; Payne Stewart's unbridled joy at winning the 1999 U.S. Open; Tiger Woods reacting after somehow finding a way to get it done on the 72nd green of the 2008 U.S. Open.
Yet Peskin's photograph of Hogan stands out from the rest, a peerless merger of "technical excellence and historical significance," as summed up by my friend and former golf photographer, Larry Petrillo.
"To me, it is the most famous picture in golf history. It's a magical picture," says legendary sports photographer Walter Iooss Jr. "A lot of times, history goes by and makes something interesting. Other times, it was a moment that was perfectly captured. Peskin's Hogan shot is one of them. It just has everything, and that's what makes a picture stand out and stand the test of time. It's like the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima. It's a picture everybody knows."
Peskin's Hogan photograph was originally published in the June 19, 1950 edition of Life magazine, amid stories about gambling in America, the thoroughbred Citation and a plane crash in the Atlantic Ocean that killed Puerto Rican farm workers. The cover story, "Children's Sand Styles," was a pictorial about swimsuits for little girls. There were advertisements for Ipana toothpaste, A&P super markets, Lucky Strike cigarettes and Armour pantry-shelf meats. Hogan was featured in an ad for Pabst Blue Ribbon beer on page 112 — "Ben's nose is teased by the delicate and inviting fragrance of the finest malt and hops" — but the image that resonates more than 60 years later of the golf champion, that came to define his pluck and precision, ran six by nine inches on the bottom of page 28, sharing a spread with photos of spectators hopping a stream on the ninth hole, the three playoff participants and a dog interrupting Johnny Bulla's shot.
"Anticipation is the key word in the coverage of all sports," Peskin later told biographer John Thorn for A Life in the Shadows: The Sports Photography of Hy Peskin. For his seminal shot of Hogan, Peskin had thought ahead about what the scene would be like on the 18th hole when the sun was low, the gallery was large and the championship was in the balance. "Hy Peskin didn't accidentally end up behind Ben Hogan," says Neil Leifer, whose superb sports photography from the 1960s and 1970s helped define the genre. "He obviously had a picture in mind. The great sports photographer plans, and then he executes. Peskin executed it perfectly."
Hogan, his weak, bandaged legs fading over the final nine holes of a double-round Saturday, had lost a three-stroke lead. He needed to par the 18th hole to make a playoff with George Fazio and Lloyd Mangrum, who had already finished at seven-over 287. Hogan drove up the left side of the fairway, his tee shot leaving him more than 200 yards to an elevated green. Peskin, who was 34, a few years younger than Hogan, hustled into position behind the star's ball, securing a place amid spectators that included some of Hogan's fellow pros who also wanted a glimpse of history.