GNN contributor Tony Dear released a new book this year called “The Story of Golf in 50 Holes” that tells the story of our game by looking at some of the seminal holes in its history. In this excerpt, Dear looks at the 18th hole at Merion East, site to one of golf’s greatest images.
If not for the memorable shots that have been played there to win major championships, it’s unlikely the 18th on the East Course at Merion would be particularly well known. Just the sort of hole to conclude a U.S. Open, it is a long par 4 that has little of the charm found elsewhere on Hugh Wilson’s magnificent course, but all the demands that separate champions from also-rans. Usually 463 yards from the members’ back tee, the hole gained an extra 58 yards in time for the 2013 U.S. Open. The drive crosses the quarry that affects the course’s closing three holes before falling downhill slightly to a fairway cantered from right to left. Players hanging back off the tee find the flat part of the fairway but are left with a long iron or hybrid to the dome-shaped green, while those that power a driver further down the hill leave a much shorter approach, but must deal with an awkward downhill lie. Any way you slice it (actually, best if you don’t), it’s a brute.
The year 1949 began in typical fashion for 36-year-old Ben Hogan. With 51 PGA Tour wins, including three major championship victories, he had established himself as one of the best players in the world alongside Sam Snead and fellow Texan Byron Nelson, and he added to his victory haul that winter by winning the Bing Crosby Pro-Am at Pebble Beach in January and the Long Beach Open at Lakewood CC ten days later when he beat Jimmy Demaret in an 18-hole playoff. A week after that, he finished runner-up to Demaret in Phoenix following another 18-hole playoff.
After what had been a successful road trip, Hogan and his wife Valerie were ready to go home to Fort Worth, Texas. From Phoenix, they drove 550 miles east to the small Texas town of Van Horn where they spent the night at the El Capitan Motel. The next day, Wednesday February 2, the couple made an early start on the remaining 480 miles.
Shortly after setting out on what is now Interstate 20, the Hogans’ Cadillac hit a thick patch of fog, reducing visibility significantly. Hogan slowed to 25 mph but was alarmed to see four headlights in the road ahead, two belonging to a slow-moving truck, the other two to a Greyhound bus overtaking it.
The head-on collision was inevitable. At the last second Hogan hurled himself across his wife in the passenger seat, saving her life and, as it turned out, his own as the steering column was shunted back as far as his seat cushion and would have crushed him. Valerie was dazed but Ben blacked out.
An ambulance, which took an hour and a half to reach the scene, took Hogan to the Hotel Dieu Hospital in El Paso, 120 miles back in the direction he had come from.
Hogan had survived the crash but his injuries were extensive – a fractured left collarbone, a double fracture of his pelvis, a broken ankle and a broken rib.
Still, his doctors were so impressed by his determination they said he could make a complete recovery within about two months. But while the bones were healing nicely, Hogan’s lungs began giving the doctors concern. Clots had formed in Hogan’s legs and it wasn’t long before his lungs were affected too. Abdominal surgery was performed to tie off the inferior vena cava and prevent the clot from reaching his heart. It meant another painful month’s stay in the hospital.
Hogan, only 137 pounds before the accident, lost 20 pounds while in El Paso before finally making it home to Fort Worth on March 29. He was still in a lot of pain and very weak, and his doctors were now unsure as to just how complete a recovery Hogan was going to make. His legs had atrophied significantly. There was a possibility he might not play golf again.
Hogan spent the rest of the year recuperating, though he was able to travel to Ganton GC in Yorkshire to serve as non-playing captain for the US Ryder Cup side which won the match 7–5.
In January 1950, with his legs bandaged to stop the swelling, Hogan made his highly anticipated return to the PGA Tour at Riviera CC where he had won the Los Angeles Open in 1947 and 1948, and his first U.S. Open also in 1948, after which the course came to be known as Hogan’s Alley.
Surely, it would be just a token effort though, a ceremonial outing to show the fans he was doing OK. He couldn’t possibly contend, could he?
Well, this was Ben Hogan, as gutsy a golfer as ever played the game, so perhaps no one should have been too surprised when he struggled through the pain and tied Sam Snead after 72 holes (he would lose the 18-hole playoff 72–76 after a week delay due to bad weather).
Hogan now set his sights firmly on Merion and the U.S. Open, always a physically and mentally demanding event, for which his calm, efficient, almost robotic game seemed perfectly adapted. To preserve energy before the first round, he played only 23 practice holes – none on Monday, 18 on Tuesday, five on Wednesday.
An opening 2-over 72 put Hogan in a tie for 18th, eight back of surprise leader Lee Mackey. A 69 in round two pushed Hogan up into a tie for fifth, two behind leader E. J. ‘Dutch’ Harrison. So far so good for Hogan, but would 36 holes on the final day prove too much?
At one point during the third round, Hogan did take the lead. But he faltered over the closing stretch to finish the round two behind Lloyd Mangrum, the 1946 champion. In the final round, Mangrum shot 41 on the front nine, making a bogey on six of the first seven holes, thU.S. Opening the door for several other players, one of whom was Hogan. As he reached the 15th green, the Hawk stood two clear and had a 25-foot putt for a birdie.
But he missed, and then he missed again from less than 2 feet. He made par on the 16th, but after another bogey at the 17th he came to the 458-yard home hole needing a par 4 to force a playoff with Mangrum, who had shot 76, and George Fazio, who had finished with a level-par 70 to complete the four rounds on 7-over-par 287.
After a good drive to the left centre of the fairway, Hogan faced a slightly uphill shot of about 220 yards from a slightly downhill lie. A gallery five or six deep ringed the entire length of the hole, craning to see what promised to be one of the greatest comeback stories in all of sport. Hogan’s legs still gave him tremendous pain – he would later say he had considered walking in from the 13th hole – so catching the ball cleanly and powerfully enough to send it all the way to the green was a little too much to ask.
With one final, enormous effort, Hogan summoned perhaps the best swing of his career, catching the ball flush and sending it safely onto the green, about 40 feet from the hole. He two-putted for par, to tie with Mangrum and Fazio on 287.
Given the circumstances – final hole of a U.S. Open needing a par to have any chance, uphill 1-iron, sore, aching legs – Hogan’s approach to the 18th ranks among the very greatest shots ever hit. But it would have been largely forgotten had it not resulted in victory.
The following day’s 18-hole playoff was a tight, tense affair all the way to the 14th tee. At that point, Fazio began dropping strokes and would eventually finish with a 75. On the 16th green, Mangrum, just one stroke behind Hogan, was assessed a two-stroke penalty when he marked, lifted and cleaned his ball after noticing a bug on it. In the preceding years, players had been allowed to lift and clean on the greens at PGA-run events, but at the time the USGA said a ball could only be lifted if it interfered with another player’s line. Mangrum apparently forgot the rule momentarily and was given the penalty by USGA official Isaac Grainger as he left the green. Mangrum fell to 3 over par, giving Hogan a three-stroke cushion for the final two holes.
Mangrum’s reaction was characteristically stoic for a man who understood the triviality of golf. The Texas native had earned four Battle Stars and two Purple Hearts fighting in the 9th Division of General Patton’s Third Army during World War Two. He landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and was one of only two people from his platoon to survive the war. The story goes that after Grainger had spoken to him, Mangrum calmly put his putter back in his bag, shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘Well, at least my kids will eat tomorrow,’ or words to that effect.
Hogan then made a birdie at the short 17th and the lead was four. He made a 4 at the last for a round of 69 and a four-stroke victory. The fairytale comeback was complete, ensuring Hogan’s shot from the day before could now receive the recognition it most assuredly deserved.
Hollywood made a movie depicting Hogan’s life and comeback called “Follow the Sun” which premiered in March 1951 and starred the hopelessly miscast Glenn Ford, who was far too soft and smiley to play a man with the cagey reticence and frosty detachment of Hogan.
Ben Hogan wasn’t the only person doing something extraordinary at the precise moment he hit the 1-iron to the 18th green. Hy Peskin, a photographer for Sports Illustrated and Life magazine, was also busy, ensuring the moment would never be lost.
Peskin, the son of a Russian immigrant, was an intense, volatile man, a law unto him himself and described as something of a renegade. He took his first pictures at a low-key boxing match shortly after World War Two and was so nervous about running out of film he pressed the shutter release button only three times. All three pictures turned out perfectly, however, and he was able to sell them to the editor of Look magazine – a general interest biweekly for which a young Stanley Kubrik was a staff photographer.
Peskin shot hundreds of covers for sport publications, but he also took a very famous picture of John Kennedy and his then fiancée Jaqueline Bouvier on a sailboat near Cape Cod that appeared on the cover of Lifemagazine in July 1953.
In the final round of the 1950 U.S. Open, Peskin followed Hogan for all 18 holes, mindful that history – significant, momentous, immortal history – was very much in the making. But he didn’t take a single photograph until the 18th hole, apparently unconvinced anything he saw was worth shooting. As Hogan prepared to hit his approach to the final green, most of Peskin’s colleagues, competitors and contemporaries rushed ahead to photograph Hogan’s face post-impact. But Peskin held back, wanting to catch the entire scene.
The picture he took (with what he supposed was a Graflex Speed Graphic camera – standard issue among press photographers at the time) became one of the best-known golf photographs ever taken. Hogan has hit the shot and the ball is on an unerring path to the green. He stands perfectly balanced at the end of what was clearly another well-executed swing – weight on his left foot, right foot on tiptoe, hips fully cleared, a small divot on line with the green, the Stars and Stripes floating in the background, the gallery not yet aware how great a shot they are watching.
The 1950 U.S. Open was the only time the wicker baskets that Merion GC attaches to the end of its standards were absent, the USGA insisting flags be used instead. Though numerous weird and wonderful stories have been offered to account for why Merion chose baskets over flags 100 years ago, the club admits their origin ‘is a mystery to this day’. What is known is that the superintendent William Flynn, who would go on to become a fine course architect (see p.114), received patent approval for his basket design in the summer of 1915 and that the club has used them ever since (apart from the 1950 U.S. Open).
The USGA was applauded for agreeing the baskets be used at the 2013 U.S. Open, but one player wishing they hadn’t was Lee Westwood, who hit the basket on the 12th green during the opening round. Westwood, tied for the lead at 3 under par, found the rough to the right of the 403- yard par 4 and, after hacking out, was left with a 60-yard uphill pitch shot for his third. Today’s top players are pretty accurate with their wedges, so it was no great surprise when the Englishman hit the basket and had to watch helplessly as his ball rebounded 30 yards back down the fairway. His next pitch wasn’t much good and he missed his first putt, eventually winding up with a double-bogey 6.
Another striking feature of the course is its distinctive bunkering. Known as the ‘white faces of Merion’, the bunkers here, like those on all good championship venues, are genuine hazards and really best avoided.