June 25, 2007

Greatness transcends eras

There are geezers and codgers among us today, and some who came before us that have since departed—taken up residence with the Heavenly Host Pro, as they say—who believe and believed that Ben Hogan could never have been Ben Hogan if he'd had to play hickory shafts. This says, one assumes, that Ben would merely have been William B. Hogan, or William Hogan, or Billy Hogan.

In other words, instead of collecting majors and dominating the game and much of the conversation around the game, Billy Hogan or William Hogan, forced to use hickory, would have maybe won a Texas Open or a Miami-Biltmore every year, but he wouldn't have gained more stature than, say, your basic Emmett French or Al Espinosa.

Hogan couldn't have invented practice with hickory. That's the notion. Couldn't have worn out shag boys, beating balls, until he perfected the repeating swing, the overall game, that won him all those U.S. Opens and other gold medals and silverware. Why? Because, as every self-respecting lumber dealer knows, hickory wouldn't have stood up to such relentless toil. It would warp, bend, beg for mercy.

Thus, Hogan was lucky, they say. He didn't come along until the steel shaft came along, which was around the time that Bobby Jones was leaving. What popularized steel, of course, was Billy Burke winning the 1931 U.S. Open at Inverness with steel shafts. They'd been around since the late '20s, but people said they'd never last, like my granddad said TV wouldn't.

Geezers and codgers well remember how the first steel shafts were painted yellow or brown to resemble hickory. Sales tool. You can almost see and hear some marketing genius pointing his finger at his noggin, and yelling, "I've got it, we'll paint the steel to look like hickory so golfers won't think it's a sword."

That's a good theory about hickory and practice. Probably true. But while you're dwelling on it, you may count me among those who strongly believe that Ben Hogan—not Billy—would have found another way to become the Wee Bantam Hawkmon.

What I contend, although rarely go so far as to froth at the mouth when I say it, is that the great athlete's heart, skill and determination can transcend any era, prevail in any decade. I'll put it this way: Joe DiMaggio would make any Major League outfield today, Doak Walker would make any football team's backfield and become an All-American, Jesse Owens would run whatever it took to win the Olympic 100. So on and so forth.

As for hickory, it's deeply cemented in lore that a major championship was won with hickory as recently as 1936, five years after every touring pro and notable amateur in America had switched to steel.

It happened when a gentleman named John W. Fischer, who hailed from Kentucky, captured the U.S. Amateur at the elegant Garden City Golf Club on Long Island. You could say Fischer did it the old-fashioned way—not only with hickory but at match play. Here are a few of the somewhat glamorous dudes that hickory—uh, Fischer—dusted en route to the title:

He knocked off Chick Evans, who'd won both the U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur in 1916, won the Amateur again in 1920, and made the Amateur finals in '22 and '27.

He ironed out Gus Moreland, a Texas legend, a talented guy who'd won both the Western and Trans-Miss amateur titles in his prime, and consistently whipped up on any youthful Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, or Ralph Guldahl who came near him in the very early '30s.

Fischer upset Johnny Goodman in the semi-finals, the same Johnny Goodman who'd won the U.S. Open in '33—still the last amateur to win a professional major, and the guy who would win the Amateur himself a year later.

Then, Fischer's 36-hole final with Jack McLean, the Walker Cupper from Scotland, is still regarded as perhaps the most thrilling final in the whole history of our Amateur. One down with three to play, Fischer halved the 34th hole by laying a perfect stymie, halved the 35th with a birdie, evened the match with a birdie at the 36th, and won the match with yet another birdie on the 37th, the sudden-death extra hole.

Finally, as long as I'm buried in the past, it would be remiss of me not to mention one particular opponent whom Jack McLean defeated on his own way to that Amateur final in '36.

An old friend from England. Fellow named Henry Longhurst.