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.
The next day the El Paso Times ran a story on page nine about the road the Hogans traveled; the Times was an evening paper, so Ben could not have read it over breakfast. "Highway 80 has long been regarded as dangerous due to the lack of markers," Mrs. Tom B. White of La Tuna, Texas, told the Times. She was one of the signers of a petition to improve the safety of the forerunner of I-10. By "markers" Mrs. White meant signs urging slower drivers to keep right, allowing faster cars and trucks to pass.
And faster buses. As Ben Hogan motored slowly east, Al Logan drove impatiently west. Both the golfer and the pilot of a tardy Greyhound were slowed by fog clinging to the hollows and depressions on the desert floor. It was very cold; there may have been a bit of ice on the road. At about 8:30 a.m., 29 miles east of Van Horn, Logan pulled out of the haze to pass an 18-wheeler. Wham! The bus slammed into Hogan's Cadillac, which instantly resembled a giant stepped-on beer can. The truck jackknifed. Four more times screeching brakes and popping sheet metal pierced the dead-quiet morning, as four cars crashed into the truck.
There is no plaque to mark the spot, and they plowed up Highway 80 in 1959. But 29 miles east of Van Horn looks precisely like 39 or 49 miles east of Van Horn: a discouraging expanse of creosote bush, mesquite and sand.
"Ben threw himself in front of me to protect me," Valerie said in her first interview a few hours after the accident. Every paper in the country picked up the quote, and the cornerstone of the Hawk's new image as a hero had been laid. Years later, over drinks, Hogan stubbed out another cigarette and told a friend: "That was a bunch of bull----. I was trying to get out of the way of the bus."
An ambulance took the battered man and his frantic wife 150 miles west, back to El Paso and its red-brick, slate-roofed Hotel Dieu hospital. Like the El Capitan, Hotel Dieu was purported to host a ghost, a phantom in a stovepipe hat who patrolled the corners of the operating room at night. From next door, the hourly strike of the bells of Saint Patrick Cathedral provided a somber sound track. Low mountains across the Rio Grande were something to look at -- better, at least, than the brick and stucco funeral parlor on the corner.
The pros played their event in Tucson. Mangrum won again. Afterward, some of them paused on the long drive east to visit their fallen comrade. Demaret, Jack Burke Jr., Toney Penna, Herman Keiser, Cary Middlecoff, George Fazio and Mangrum beheld a broken, motionless man, all white bandages amid white sheets. Hogan had been creamed on his left side by that 331-cubic inch engine hurtling into the passenger compartment. Head, shoulder, clavicle, knee, ankle, eye, ribs, pelvis -- the head hurt the most.
He got better; he got worse. Hogan's broken bones and bruises healed at the usual rate, but a month into his recovery he had to have emergency surgery to correct a problem with blood clots. "Like a knife, grinding and twisting," Hogan said later to Sport magazine of the mass that settled in his right lung. Dr. Alton Ochsner, the best vascular surgeon in the business, flew in from New Orleans. Ochsner incised the patient's abdomen and tied off the inferior vena cava, which required two hours and a massive transfusion. "Another clot could have been fatal," said the surgeon post-op. The Little Man had almost died a second time. He lost weight and looked like hell. He remained in the hospital for 59 days.
Meanwhile, fan mail poured in. Hogan was dumbfounded. He didn't care about people; why did they suddenly care about him? He had a lot to think about.
after his near-fatal accident, Hogan made his return to
competitive golf (right) at the 1950 Los Angeles Open at
Riviera CC. Photo: AP Photo
"UP TO NOW, I haven't taken a swing, but miracles may happen," Hogan wrote in a note accompanying his entry into the 1949 U.S. Open. "The doctor tells me walking is the only cure for my legs, so that's my daily thought and effort."
No miracle occurred -- Ben would play no more tournament golf in '49 -- but with the single-mindedness that was his primary characteristic, Hogan walked. Around the bed, around the house, then, finally, he left anxious Valerie behind at their house on Valley Ridge Road and trudged all the way to Colonial. There were long intervals with no sidewalks but neither were there many buses to give him the willies.
Month after month the walking man traversed leafy, well-tended Westover Hills, his Fort Worth neighborhood, which was fragrant and lush when the hikes began and desiccated and hot in the long Texas summer. Down tree-lined Valley Ridge to Westover Road, left on Byers, a quick switch up to Bryce, and right on Montgomery, just south of the art-deco buildings of the Will Rogers Memorial Center, where they held the rodeo and stock shows. Left on Vickery, right on Rogers, with the railroad's clickety-clack and air horns and the low roar of giant diesel locomotives. Colonial came into view. Hogan walked. The five miles must have felt like 50.
In September, the sentimental choice for Ryder Cup captain trudged on board the Queen Elizabeth and sailed for England. With Mangrum in the anchor position, Team USA won the final four singles matches, and needed them, for a 7-5 victory.
In December, Hogan played his first round since the accident, at Colonial -- but he didn't walk, relying instead on a jury-rigged precursor of a golf cart. His totally unexpected return to the tournament trail a month later proved a couple of things. First, the limping man plainly inspired fans and melted the reserve of writers. And it was equally obvious he could still control himself and a golf ball like no one else. Hogan almost won L.A. and Colonial in his truncated schedule, and shot four hot rounds to win the Greenbrier Pro-Am in Sam Snead's backyard. But his most telling moment in the first half of 1950 might have been on Sunday at the Masters. One stroke out of the lead after 54 holes, he shot 76 and fell to T-4. Long walks and hills bothered him. He was in pain.
Then came the U.S. Open at Merion.
TWO MEN, both strangely similar to Hogan, emerged to share the drama. The first of these, Francis W. Sullivan, was a Merion member. His behind-his-back nickname was "The Little Counselor." "Not the jocular type," recalls Eddie Merrins, the famous Bel-Air teaching pro who was an assistant at Merion beginning in 1957. "Once when we were playing, we came to a ball and I said, 'Is that me?' Sullivan said, 'No. But it is your ball.' "
"Not a tall man," says an attorney with whom Sullivan practiced. No, not tall at all: The Little Counselor stood 5-6 and weighed about 125 pounds. "Not a fast player," says Bill Kittleman, the head pro at Merion from 1970 to 1996. "A loner, but when he had company, it was always with a pro or a celebrity: Bob Hope, Gene Sarazen, Middlecoff, Vince Lombardi. A very demanding guy … in a restaurant, a finger snapper."
What Hogan wanted at Merion was privacy and ease and a big bathtub, because soaking his aching body had become part of his pre-game ritual. Sullivan made the arrangements to ensconce Ben and Valerie in the thick-carpeted, glass-chandeliered luxury of the Barclay, the best hotel in Philadelphia. Sullivan, who lived around the corner, drove the Hogans back and forth to the course, about 30 minutes each way.
Like Hogan, Mangrum was an up-the-hard-way pro from small-town Texas. Both had won a U.S. Open. Neither was a master of public relations. Both could laugh at a joke, but neither could tell one. More than his inspirational Ryder Cup captain, Mangrum was a hero: four battle stars and two Purple Hearts earned in the Normandy Invasion and as Allied troops closed in on Berlin. Offered a job giving lessons at an Army base golf course, Mangrum chose to fight instead.
That's what it was at Merion in 1950, a fight. On a course with major trouble off the tee, Hogan had a real advantage: the skill to shape a shot with a driver to a fairway as if he were hitting to the green of a par 3. But then again: Saturday. Until 1964, when Ken Venturi almost passed out from the exertion and heat, the U.S. Open concluded with a double round. Thirty-six holes seemed a lot to ask of Hogan's wounded knees. The training walks to and from Colonial were a breeze compared to ambulating the maze of hills and valleys at Merion.
The legs started talking back in the second round, on the 11th green, when startling pain from cramps caused Hogan to gasp. Same thing or maybe worse on Saturday. At least twice Ben felt electric shocks in calves and thighs. Merion legend has it that in either the third or fourth round, he told his caddie after holing out on No. 13 -- the cutest par 3 in golf close to the clubhouse -- that he was through. Put the clubs in the car.
(far right), Hogan accepted the trophy for his 1950 Merion
victory from USGA president James Standish.
Photo: AP Photo
"No, Mr. Hogan, you can't quit," Ciocca is said to have replied. "I don't caddie for quitters."
"Sounds just like my dad," says Ciocca's daughter, Connie DiLisio; he would say something similar when she became discouraged when he was teaching her to drive. "He was never afraid to give you his opinion on the golf course or anywhere else," adds Sam DiLisio, the caddie's grandson.
At any rate, Hogan trudged on. Off his 72-69-72, he was within two of Mangrum's lead. This was superb golf; high rough made Merion very tough, and the greens were so firm and fast that Hogan made a policy of not soling his putter at address, so as to avoid having to count a stroke if the ball decided to move on its own. "Uncle George told me that they all concentrated on leaving every shot short of the hole," says his nephew, Tom Fazio, the architect who tweaked Merion for this year's U.S. Open. "No one wanted a downhill putt."
Saturday afternoon "panic began to sweep the course," wrote the New York Herald Tribune's Al Laney. "Strong men began to do foolish things." The heretofore unflappable leader opened his final round with six bogeys and a birdie. Mangrum finished an hour before Hogan -- but disgustedly, with a 76, for 287.
With seemingly every eye on him, Hogan three-putted Nos. 12 and 15, and could not get up and down from a bunker on the 17th. He was suffering now. Tied with one to play. Pain, fatigue, a pause, smoke; a smoked 1-iron to the center of the target. Hogan's 74 earned a playoff with Mangrum and a rallying Fazio (70) the next afternoon. It would be held late, 2 o'clock, because of Pennsylvania blue laws.
Fazio bogeyed four of the final five holes and took himself out of it. Mangrum shot himself in the foot shockingly. After a birdie on the 15th, he had closed to within one of Hogan. On No. 16, a flea, fly or ladybug -- accounts vary -- landed on his ball as he was about to putt from 15 feet for par, so Lloyd marked his spot with his putter, held the ball up to his mustache and blew (he made the putt). The Rules then prohibited marking unless your pill interfered with someone else's line. Mangrum might have been confused because, for a while, the tour had allowed marking, or he might have thought that removing a bug was OK in any case. That'll be two, USGA official Ike Grainger said on the next tee. Ben 69, Lloyd 73, George 75, a conclusion that satisfied.
"The crash and comeback," wrote David Barrett in Miracle at Merion, "lifted his 1950 U.S. Open victory to mythic proportions, making it an inspirational event that will be celebrated for generations to come."
Hogan's ghost, if he has one, must surely prowl the ground he hallowed. Merion.