June 25, 2007

One for the ages

Fifty years ago this young reporter covered a classic duel between Snead and Hogan

When you're a fledgling youth-type adult, it appears that all people in their 40s look old enough to be in a painting hanging on the wall of a stately home in England. It's not until you limp into your 70s that people in their 40s look too young to vote, and college cheerleaders closely resemble Yorkshire terriers.

I point this out to explain why I wrote what I did 50 years ago when I was a fledgling youth-type adult sportswriter for a Fort Worth newspaper covering the Masters in Augusta.

This is the 50-year anniversary of that particular Masters. The 1954 Sam Snead-Ben Hogan Playoff Masters. What I wrote so astutely was that this was undoubtedly the last time we would see these two wonderful immortals go head-to-head for a major championship, seeing as how they were so ancient. They were nearing 42, after all.

That same major, by the way, almost deserves to be remembered as the Billy Joe Patton Masters.

Billy Joe was the obscure fledgling youth-type adult amateur — obscure at the time — who dominated that Masters both on the course and in the news until the back nine on Sunday when he suddenly and impulsively tossed it into the hands of the Slammer and the Wee Bantam Ice Hawk.

Because it goes with geezerdom, it so happens that I remember the peculiar '54 Masters a lot more vividly than I remember last year's tournament. Who won it last year, anyhow?

In case you're wondering, the place seemed just as cathedralish back in the '50s, in its elegant cathedral of pines kind of way. I should add that it was just as pastorally emerald as any baseball park back then.

The big change has been in the greens. While not as firm, today's bent is much speedier than the old Augusta rye, although at the time the Masters rye seemed quicker than anything outside of Merion or Oakmont.

The competitors used to talk about how you could "hear" the putts on the scratchy old rye. I was privileged to play the course a few times in those days and can offer the testimony that a long putt had the faint sound of bacon frying, or maybe it was more like tape being peeled from a wound.

The course played tougher than it ever has that week. The weather was sunny-brisk, cloudy-cool, breezy-windy throughout, and those greens held nothing. Result: The 289 with which Ben and Sam tied has been equaled only once ('56) as the highest winning total on record.

When Patton's 70 tied Dutch Harrison for the first-round lead, he was written off as a quaint first-day story. Even after Billy Joe led at 36 holes — by one over Hogan — the prediction was that he'd falter. And at the 54-hole stage it looked as if he had indeed disappeared. Ben's 69 put him up by three over Snead, and Billy Joe's 75 left him five back, tied for third with two other stars: Cary Middlecoff and Tommy Bolt. What chance did the unknown have in that hammock?

None. Until he made a miraculous hole-in-one at the sixth on Sunday and was three ahead of everyone going to the 13th hole looking very much like the first amateur to win a major in 21 years, or since Johnny Goodman in the U.S. Open of '33. Huge story now, no longer quaint.

While Sam made a steady string of blustery pars on the way to a 72, Hogan blew it on the 11th, where he hit his second in the water and made a double-bogey 6, which led to a 75. This was the shot that inspired his famous locker-room quote that's lived on: "If you ever see me anywhere near the pin on No. 11, you'll know I hit a bad shot."

Only moments later, Billy Joe was studying his second shot at the 13th hole. His ball was just off the fairway on the right. He was contemplating going for the green with a 4-wood. There were fans who hollered at him to play safe, lay up, the tournament was his.

But that's when he said to the crowd, and a few of us writers on the scene, "I didn't get where I am by playin' safe."

Whereupon, with his lightning-like swing, he promptly struck the ball into the creek in front of the green and made a double-bogey 7.

While Patton's closing 71 was among the best rounds of the day, a routine par at 13 would have won him the Masters. Just as a routine par at the 11th would have won it for Hogan.

Just as a chip-in for a birdie 3 at the 10th in the Monday playoff won it for Sam by a stroke over Ben, 70 to 71.

The chip-in only cost me $100. Being a person of infinite historic knowledge, I'd eagerly bet on Hogan with a press-room buddy who knew nothing. Nothing, I'm telling you. Meanwhile, I knew that Hogan, starting in '46, had won nine of the past 18 majors he'd played. Fifty percent, for goodness' sake. He'd won eight of the past 12, and five of the last seven, and coming off the Triple Crown, he was going for his fourth major in a row.

All Sam had was a good nickname. Ben was a mortal lock. It was the best bet I ever made.