Fergus Bisset looks back at Ben Hogan's heroics in the 1950 US Open – one of the most impressive Major victories of all time
en Hogan was something of a late bloomer as a professional golfer. Born in 1912, just months after Byron Nelson and Sam Snead, the early part of Hogan’s career was tough in comparison to his famous rivals, both of whom had won more than ten tournaments by the time Hogan claimed his first.
Hogan turned pro in 1930 at the age of 17, a year before Snead and two years before Nelson, but it wasn’t until 1940 that the Texan won his first individual professional event. He spent his first years in the paid ranks as a poorly remunerated club pro and more than once found himself flat broke. But he had great support from his girl, and from 1935 wife, Valerie, who always believed in him. Without her support he might have been inclined to throw in the towel.
But he persevered and, after that first victory, the floodgates opened. Hogan won at least four events on the circuit every year he played between 1940 and 1948 (he served as a US Army Air Forces pilot stationed at Fort Worth between 1943 and 1945). In 1948, Hogan established himself as the dominant figure on the US professional scene. He won an incredible ten tournaments, including the US Open and the USPGA Championship.
The following year looked set to be another belting season for ‘The Hawk’. At the start of 1949, he won the Bing Crosby Pro-Am and the Long Beach Open in a play-off against Jimmy Demaret. Amazingly, he had won 11 times in 15 starts. The following week in the Phoenix Open, Hogan once again found himself in an 18-hole play-off with Demaret, one that he narrowly lost.
But the play-off was significant as it delayed the Hogans’ drive home to Fort Worth by 24 hours. If that hadn’t happened, they might not have faced foggy, and possibly icy, conditions on the high road between Van Horn and Kent, and they wouldn’t have encountered impatient Greyhound bus driver Alvin Logan who decided to try and overtake a lorry on a blind corner and ploughed headlong into their Cadillac.
When Ben saw the headlights coming towards him, and there was no way of avoiding collision, he threw himself over Valerie’s lap to protect her from the impact. He did so effectively, and she suffered no serious injury. He, however, didn’t fare so well: a broken pelvis, collarbone, ankle and crushed rib plus multiple cuts and bruises.
Seeing the condition of the wrecked car, early eyewitness reports suggested Hogan had died. He hadn’t, but he wasn’t in good shape. Fellow pro Herman Keiser went to see him the following day and on first sight believed his colleague wasn’t going to make it. He was given more cause for optimism when Hogan managed to whisper a few words: “Herman, would you check on my clubs?”
Despite the severity of his injuries, Hogan made good progress in his recovery. But things were set back considerably when he suffered a blood clot that required emergency surgery and left him with his largest vein, the vena cava, permanently closed. Hogan was consigned to a lifetime of poor blood circulation to his legs. He would have severe difficulty walking, let alone playing, 18 holes.
Road to recovery
He was a man of incredible determination, though, and possessed a profound desire to get back to the sport he had worked so hard to forge a career in. He was chipping and putting by May 1949 and it would later emerge that he had sent a pre-emptive entry form for the 1949 US Open, although there was no chance of him recovering sufficiently to make it. In late 1949 Hogan captained an understrength US Ryder Cup team to victory at Ganton and, on his return from the UK, he began to hit full shots.
Despite this, many believed Hogan would never play competitively again. In December Jimmy Demaret told the press at the Miami Open he felt Hogan wouldn’t make a comeback. A month later, Demaret was playing with Hogan in practice for the Los Angeles Open.
Incredibly, despite having been away from competition for almost a year, Hogan finished four rounds at Riviera in a tie for first place with Sam Snead. Although he lost the 18-hole play-off, it was a phenomenal effort for a man who could still barely walk those 18 holes. If one considers Tiger Woods’ struggles to return to form following injury, the magnitude of Hogan’s achievements in 1950 are put into some sort of perspective.
By the time of the 1950 US Open at historic Merion, there was no doubt that Hogan was back and could still be competitive – he had finished in a tie for fourth at The Masters and won the unofficial Greenbrier Pro-Am by ten shots. He was mentally ready, but would his body stand up to the rigours of a US Open around an extremely difficult golf course?
Before each round at Merion, Hogan soaked for an hour in a hot bath filled with Epsom Salts. After that he wrapped each leg in bandages (which reduced the swelling but made him extremely hot in the sweltering conditions) and then took Aspirin to dull the pain. But he tried to keep the discomfort to himself, as he didn’t want to show weakness.
In round one at Merion, Hogan opened with a two-over-par 72. It left him in a tie for 18th, fully eight shots behind unattached, unknown pro Lee Mackey from Alabama. Mackey shot a tournament-record 64 and was swamped with requests for interviews by newspaper and radio.
The pressure of being thrust into the limelight proved too much for Mackey and he followed up with an 81. He faded back into obscurity and played just twice more in the US Open.
Hogan moved in the other direction in round two. His 69 put him just two shots off PGA Tour stalwart Dutch Harrison’s lead at the halfway stage. However, his legs were cramping terribly and he faced 36 holes the following day. It later emerged he told Valerie he feared he would be unable to finish.