Saturday, August 2, 2014
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Ben Hogan's Merion Comeback

Less than 18 months after a collision with a bus crushed his legs and nearly killed him, Ben Hogan won the U.S. Open at Merion GC.

Ben Hogan's Merion Comeback

With the AT&T National underway at Aronimink Golf Club, here’s the fourth in a series of blog posts on other noteworthy tournaments in Philadelphia’s golfing past.

1950 U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club

They finished the 1950 U.S. Open with 36 holes of golf on Saturday. That was about 35 more than Ben Hogan ought to have been able to play.

As he walked up Merion Golf Club's 18th fairway, the 37-year-old golfer paused to assess his situation. He had squandered a 3-stroke lead on the back nine and needed to par this difficult 448-yard hole to tie.

His legs throbbed. He was exhausted. And once again, he felt he couldn't go on.

 

 

``His caddie wouldn't allow him to quit. `Buck up, Mr. Hogan,' he told him,' '' said Curt Sampson, biographer to Hogan, who died at 84 in 1997.

The caddie pulled out the 1-iron that Hogan, unlike many of his competitors, insisted on carrying. To do so, Hogan had played the tournament without a 7-iron. ``There are no 7-iron shots at Merion,'' Hogan said.

The hole's narrow fairway was flanked by heavy rough, with out-of-bounds to his left. Deep, tufted bunkers guarded the green.

``He was exhausted, in great pain, and disgusted with himself after losing a lead,'' Sampson said. ``It was a long shot, very easy to mishit. He needed a 4 to tie, and he had to hit a perfect shot.''

Hogan did. A cut 1-iron, with a little fade, to the center of green.

``It was,'' said fellow pro Cary Middlecoff, ``the purest stroke I've ever seen.''

Hogan limped up the hilly fairway to the green. He 2-putted for the tie. That Sunday, in a playoff with Lloyd Mangrum and George Fazio, he shot a 69 and won his third and most remarkable Open.

``Most people didn't even think he'd ever walk again,'' Sampson said. ``And then he goes out and wins an Open, at Merion no less.''

On Feb. 2, 1949, Hogan and his wife, Valerie, were driving back to their Fort Worth home from a tournament in Phoenix. Early that morning, in the tiny town of Van Horn, Texas, just east of El Paso, a Greyhound bus driver passed a truck he had been tailing in the fog.

He pulled his vehicle into the oncoming lane and almost immediately rammed Hogan's black Cadillac. Just before impact, Hogan threw himself in front of his wife. She escaped with minor cuts and bruises, and his action probably saved both their lives.

The golfer's legs were crushed, and he was bleeding profusely when an ambulance arrived.

``He almost died at that scene,'' Sampson said. ``Then that week in the hospital, he had blood clots that almost killed him. Eventually, doctors knotted an artery to stop the clots.'

 Months of rehabilitation followed. Hogan was in a wheelchair and then needed crutches. Finally, he was able to drag himself around a golf course, and by April 1950 he entered his first postaccident event, the Los Angeles Open at the Riviera Country Club.

Hogan tied Sam Snead at the end of 72 holes, but lost in a playoff. So stunned was the public at this courageous comeback that Hollywood immediately commissioned a film. Follow the Sun would star Glenn Ford, a gregarious actor terribly miscast as the solemn Hogan.

 

The producers never dreamed that, in two months, Hogan would top that.

He played in another tournament or two and then came to Merion.

``The thinking in golf and outside golf at the time of the accident was that Hogan was done,'' Sampson said.

Hogan actually led most of the way at the old course along Ardmore Avenue, but by Saturday's final round he could barely walk on his bandaged legs. A 3-shot lead vanished.

And then he hit the shot most golf experts still rate as one of the greatest in Open history.

Not long afterward, Hogan lost the 1-iron. Thirty years later, a golf collector came across it at a sale and sent it back to Hogan. The golfer, by then prosperous from his golf-equipment business, donated it to the Hall of Fame.

After that Open victory, Hogan, in considerable pain, confessed that he had nearly given up.

``The press interview was rather short because he didn't want to sit around,'' recalled Fred Byrod, who covered that tournament for The Inquirer. ``He was in quite a bit of pain. He had a little room to himself in the clubhouse [away from the interview room]. I went over to him and asked, `Ben, I have a couple of more questions for you. Do you mind?' And he said, `I have to go over and get these bandages off my legs. Come along with me.'

``We sat and talked for 30 or 40 minutes,'' Byrod said. ``We talked about a lot of things, particularly how much pain he was in. He said he reached one point where he didn't think he'd be able to continue.''

The movie was nearly finished by the time Hogan returned to Texas. The producers were kicking themselves. They inserted a brief reference to Hogan's Merion victory at the picture's end.

``They could not have imagined that this invalid could win an Open,'' Sampson said.

 

 

Frank Fitzpatrick Inquirer Sports Columnist
About this blog
Reporter Frank Fitzpatrick, a 2001 Pulitzer Prize finalist, is covering his eighth Olympic Games and has yet to win a medal in anything except caffeine consumption. He has also been the beat writer for the Phillies, Eagles and Penn State football.

Frank Fitzpatrick Inquirer Sports Columnist
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