I'm one of those golfers who love trying out other players' clubs -- on the range, on the course, in the back yard -- anywhere. So, days after joining the USGA staff in 1978, I didn't think it was a big deal when I approached the legendary curator of the USGA Museum, the late Janet Seagle, to ask if I could remove Billy Casper's mallet putter (1959 U.S. Open, Winged Foot) from the champions' club-display case and roll a few putts on the Golf House hallway carpet. Janet's quick, harsh reaction made me thankful I'd not asked to try out Arnold Palmer's driver (the one he used to drive Cherry Hills' par-4 first hole in winning the 1960 Open) at the USGA's test range.
Of all the clubs in the USGA's possession, none was more intriguing than Ben Hogan's 1-iron. To refresh memory, Hogan's club was stolen at the 1950 Open at Merion, sometime after the great man had used it for his approach shot on the 72nd hole, the subject of Hy Peskin's iconic photograph taken from behind Hogan on his follow-through. The 1-iron remained missing until a collector found it and sent the club to Mr. Hogan in 1983. Hogan did a thorough inspection of the implement, focusing on the positioning of the cord-grip trademark and the wear pattern on the clubface, a sweet spot about the size of a quarter, close to the heel. Even though he'd not seen the club for more than 30 years, Hogan pronounced it to be the club, and, shortly thereafter, he sent it to the USGA Museum for display. It immediately became one of the main visitor attractions.
In 2005, the U.S. Amateur was played at Merion, and NBC Sports planned an on-site feature on the 1-iron. Though museum director Rand Jerris was understandably reluctant to send the club on the road trip to Ardmore, Pa., he relented on the condition that the club be entrusted to his most responsible boss: me.
When I drove my car to the museum's entrance, Rand came out holding the 1-iron as if it were King Arthur's Excalibur. Rand protested when I casually slid the club into my golf bag to join my 14. But no worries, mate. After all, the club had the weight and sturdiness of a sword, and it was sharp enough to break up arctic ice floes. Besides, I hoped that the magic of one of Hogan's clubs might wear off on mine during the two-hour drive.
I was spending the night with a good friend (Steve Smith, a Merion member) who lived in nearby Bryn Mawr. During dinner at a local pub, I got Steve's full attention when sharing the news about the 1-iron.
I'm fuzzy about who made the suggestion (I'll blame Steve), but shortly after dinner we found ourselves on a Bryn Mawr College playing field across the street from Steve's house. It was dark, with the only light coming from a street lamp. After probing the ground with a kitchen fork to make sure the lush grass was stone-free, and using a tee for each shot, we spent the next 15 minutes swatting balls with the historic 1-iron. Apart from the grip having the texture of used sandpaper, the club had a great feel. Even though our dispersion pattern was decidedly un-Hogan-like, we both scored a few satisfying shots, even convincing ourselves that we'd each hit that tiny sweet spot a couple of times. Because it was dark, we didn't pick up the balls, which Steve whined were his new/near-new Pro V1s.
The next morning, while Steve was gathering the golf balls (he found about half), I worked at the kitchen sink with a toothbrush and toothpick, cleaning the dirt and grass from the clubface. It took me about a half-hour to remove the evidence. I had a huge smile on my face, reliving the previous evening's 1-iron joy ride.
I don't know if there's an afterlife, but if there is and I happen to share the same clubhouse with Janet Seagle, I know there'll be hell to pay.
After 32 years with the USGA, DAVID FAY* is writing a monthly column for Golf Digest.*