History Lessons

January 24, 2008

Mark Frost's book The Match.

The scorecard is background music when it comes to retelling the story of the epic 1956 battle Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson waged against Ken Venturi and Harvie Ward. The match pitted two legendary professionals against the two best amateurs in the world. It was a duel for honor, a prize bigger than any bet.

Hogan was six months removed from a playoff loss to Jack Fleck in the U.S. Open. Nelson, winner of 11 straight events in 1945, had been off the tour and on his ranch for a decade but still possessed one of the most dynamic swings in the game. Ward was a back-to-back U.S. Amateur champion who also had claimed the 1952 British Amateur. Venturi hardly brought up the rear: Just three months after the match, he came within a single stroke of winning the Masters.

The venue was spectacular Cypress Point, where over the rolling dunescape the four golfers broke from the starting gate and raced against each other like a quartet of elegant thoroughbreds. The shotmaking that day was as breathtaking as the scenery. In his best-seller The Match: The Day the Game of Golf Changed Forever, author Mark Frost brilliantly captures the action and its emotional impact. Not only is Frost an adept storyteller, but he takes us shot-by-shot around the course. For readers who have not had the joy of playing Cypress Point, Frost's description is a riveting walking tour. His words place us there for great golf played by great golfers and put the events of Jan. 11, 1956 in historical context.

But what about the numbers? While score is often secondary to the drama of match play, the numbers in this case are compelling. They are also in conflict. To be sure, the scorecard was bleeding red. In 18 holes the two teams combined for 27 birdies and an eagle. According to Frost, Hogan and Nelson shot a miraculous score of 57 -- 15 under par -- to nip Venturi and Ward, 1 up. The difference was Hogan's holed wedge shot for a 3 at the par-5 10th hole. Only three holes (Nos. 1, 11 and 14) were halved in par. And on the other 15 holes, a black pencil was needed only four times, when Venturi/Ward parred Nos. 3 and 7, and when Hogan/Nelson parred Nos. 4 and 8.

In all the commotion, however, Frost miscounted. If we analyze his account hole-by-hole, Hogan and Nelson shot 58. They turned the front nine in 31 (six under a par of 37). With Hogan's eagle to open the back nine, the professionals charged to the clubhouse with a closing 27 (eight under a par of 35). Add 'em up. The total is 58 (14 under), not 57.

Frost writes that Hogan shot 63 to tie his own course record, while Venturi shot 65, and Ward and Nelson each shot 67. Good stuff, to say the least.

But hold on a second. Walk back in time with one of the players and the scoring gets even better. In 1995, 12 years before the publication of Frost's book, the USGA produced a video titled "Heroes of the Game: Golf's Greatest Legends." It covers five spectacular careers: Bobby Jones, Hogan, Nelson, Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead. According to the segment about Nelson, he and Hogan shot a 55. The video credits the pros with birdies at the fourth and eighth holes, while Frost says they parred them. The video scorecard reads 29 on the front, 26 on the back (according to the video, the teams halved the 11th hole with birdies; Frost says they tied the hole with pars). The video total? Seventeen under par, thank you very much.

"I was privileged to have a friendship with Byron Nelson," says Sandy Tatum, a former USGA president and longtime Cypress Point member. "We played Cypress Point one day, and he had vivid memories about the match. He was insistent that there were only two holes where he and Hogan didn't break par. They were the first and the 14th. Seventeen under was Nelson's recollection, and it's the only score I ever recall being attributed to him and Hogan that day. It was 55 beating 56, a memory that would surely resonate forever."

The match -- which came about when San Francisco car dealer Eddie Lowery (Francis Ouimet's caddie in the 1913 U.S. Open) told his friend and fellow millionaire, George Coleman, that the two young amateurs, his employees, could beat anybody -- was hardly private. According to Frost's account, which is the most complete description written about the match, several thousand people saw at least a portion of the fabled round. And, yes, it was reported by the press. The following day, articles appeared in three San Francisco newspapers: the Chronicle, the Examiner and the now-defunct Call-Bulletin.

The news articles indicate Frost may have lipped out on details other than score. He writes that the match occurred on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 1956. According to the newspapers, the match took place Jan. 11. It was reported in the San Francisco papers the following day, Thursday, Jan. 12.

The controversy heats up when the reporters get to the scorecard. According to the news reports, Hogan shot 65, not 63. The three press reports tell of Hogan picking up on the eighth hole after driving into the sand. He was credited with a "newspaper double bogey." Even if one were to concede Hogan a "best ball" par and a total score of 63, how does one square Frost's description of (a) Hogan's drive landing in the fairway; (b) Hogan hitting the green; and (c) Hogan lipping the putt with the reporters description of him picking up?

Venturi believes Hogan shot 63, as Frost writes, but admits he doesn't recall the events of the eighth hole, other than the pin being located in the back-right portion of the green.

Hogan and Nelson combined for a better-ball score of 60, according to the newspapers. And as for individual scores, the papers also vary from Frost's account: Hogan (65), Nelson (68), Venturi (69) and Ward (70). The articles do not reveal the amateurs' better-ball score. "I wasn't paying attention to what Harvie and I were scoring," says Venturi, now 76 and the only living member of the foursome. "We were focused on beating those guys."

Of course, no one knows if the reporters were actually there. (The news reports themselves are suspect because one of them says Hogan sank a 20-footer for eagle on No. 10 instead of the 85-yard wedge shot everyone else vividly remembers.) Given journalistic traditions in the sports world at the time -- especially in the golf world -- the scribes may well have been downing whiskey sours at Pebble Beach while the four men worked their magic and learned about it later. Could their source have been the ebullient Lowery? One can picture him bragging to everyone that both teams had broken 60. How good a story would that have been? "There were no reporters there," contends Venturi. There wasn't much of a gallery either. "People were not allowed onto the golf course," Venturi explains. "Even if they came over from Pebble, people couldn't have found us." Venturi estimates "about 700 or 800" people were gathered by the 18th green when the match concluded. According to Frost -- who relied on caddiemaster Joey Solis -- the gallery around the final green numbered about 5,000.

As for the newspaper accounts of a better-ball 60 by Hogan and Nelson, and individual scores of 65, 68, 69 and 70, Venturi is clear. "I think that's baloney," he responds. He also asks a question: "How can you have 27 birdies and an eagle and shoot scores that high?"

While it's one thing to dispute a press account, quite another when two eyewitnesses -- two participants -- disagree about what the score was. Nelson says 55, Venturi's shot-by-shot account adds up to 58. This was the dilemma confronting Frost when telling the story. "It speaks to the instability of memory," Frost says. "There were things people saw differently. When I found that, I tried to go with the preponderance of the evidence." Frost says he attempted to track down news accounts but came up empty. He views the manuscript as a living thing, and in later editions of The Match there may be a few corrections.

Perhaps the most interesting footnote to the match is that there was a second match. Ten days after the battle at Cypress Point, in a benefit for local flood relief, the two amateurs once again squared off against professionals and once again against Byron Nelson. The only difference was that this time Nelson partnered with Fleck at San Francisco's Harding Park.

With more than 7,000 fans watching, Venturi and Ward were 3 up through 12 holes and defeated the pros, 2 and 1. Venturi led the group with a four-under 68, while Fleck shot 73, Ward 74 and Nelson 78. The fans lined every fairway and every green. That they were unrestrained by ropes is remarkable by today's standards. Nelson called it the best behaved gallery he had ever seen. (Although it was match play, the players had stipulated, for exhibition purposes, to putt everything out.)

The match at Harding Park was widely publicized and reported in the San Francisco press. There were several practice rounds, a hole-in-one contest and a general "exhibition" atmosphere all week leading up to the actual competition, which occurred on a Saturday. Sure enough, one of the local sports columnists made note of the best-ball 60 fired by Hogan and Nelson at Cypress Point the week before. There was no talk of anyone shooting in the 50s, nor any correction of the earlier news accounts.

So here we are, a half century later, still in awe and still wondering about the day, the date and the score. Questions such as those will linger in the fog of history as long as there is whiskey at the bar. Was it 55 or 58, or was it 60 as reported the following day?

The most vexing question is whether the numbers really matter. After all, The Match is not really a story about calendars or scorecards. It is a tale of desire, competition and experience versus ambition -- about bragging rights. It was the clash of swords that made the day heroic, not the scratches of a bookkeeper's pencil.

Maybe it's best to stop counting and simply raise a glass to the memory of the men who made it happen and to the glory of one of the greatest days the game has known.

The confrontation between Hogan, Nelson, Venturi and Ward could have been a western scripted by John Ford. Picture four fabled gunfighters facing each other on the same dusty street. Two mythic marksmen in the twilight of their time staring down a pair of young bucks with the talent to match their swagger. Perhaps the answer to all this comes from Ford himself, specifically from one of the final scenes of his cult classic "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," when Jimmy Stewart asks a reporter if he is going to set the record straight. The reporter tears up his notes and says, "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."