Ben Hogan, winner of 9 major championships including, in 1953, The Masters, US Open and The Open in one calendar year, was a miracle man in the same way that Tiger is now. His return, like Tiger’s, to competitive play after an horrific automobile accident is recounted in this wonderful story written, while Hogan was alive, by Henry Longhurst. Six of Hogan’s major championship wins were after this accident.
“How strange that the toughest character I have ever met should be connected not with wartime deeds of violence and daring, nor even with the fraternity of peace, but with the sedate, pedestrian game of golf.
Ben Hogan is what is known as a “hard case” a very hard case indeed. He hails from Texas, which is the home of hard cases. He is a small man, normal weight no more than 140 pounds, height about 5 feet 9 inches with smooth black hair, wide head, wide eyes and a wide mouth which tends, when the pressure is on, to contract into a think, straight pencil line. You could see him sitting at a poker table saying, expressionless “Your thousand – and another five”. He might have four aces or a pair of twos.
Those who watched professional golf in recent times have noted that most of the current American “aces” are big husky fellows. Given the same degree of skill, a strong big ‘un will hit the ball further than a strong little ‘un. Hogan, a very little ‘un indeed, set himself to find some method by which he could keep up with the big fellows. In the end he found it. This kept him up with his rivals. How could he beat them? How could. He, as the Americans so graphically put it, “get the edge” on this hard-bitten crew?
Coldly and deliberately, he decided he would do it by superior powers of concentration. The process took some years, but he did it. He got his mind into such a condition that nothing, neither idiotic spectators, nor unlucky breaks, nor the trembling thought of “this for $5,000” (or $500,000,000 had he been playing today on the LIV Tour…) nothing, ever, would put him off, ever. Nothing prevented him playing at crucial moments the same sort of shots he could so easily unloose on the practice ground.
In one tournament he stood pondering over a shot, cigarette midway between thin pursed lips. Then he flipped the cigarette to the ground, coldly drew out a club rather as a dentist picks an instrument from his tray, and hit the ball a colossal clout to the middle of the green. He did the same at the next, in each case about 10 yards from the hole, the sort of distance from which ordinary mortals hear small voices whispering “three putts”. It was clear, however, that any voice that might whisper to Hogan at such moments would talk more in terms of “one putt?” He took great pains in examining the line, picking up tiny obstructions and such-like, and then, again flipping away the cigarette, whose smoke curled silently up beside him in the still summer afternoon, he hit the ball firmly at the hole. Up and up it came “right between the eyes’ as it were, and at the last moment faded off amid the groans of the gallery to lie two inches awa. He tied, of course, and then won the play off. Looking. Back, I realised from the moment I set eyes on him it never occurred to me that he wouldn’t win. Thus Hogan reached the top, qualifying for a place among those whose names have become legends in the annals of sport.
Then in February 1949, Hogan and his wife Valerie, a pretty, dark, understanding woman who supported him on the tournament trail, drove off one sunny morning from the border Texas town of El Paso for the next tournament. A little way out they ran into a patch of ground mist. Fifteen seconds later they were lying in a tangled mass of metal on the roadside, given up for dead.
A bus had come out of the mist, bearing down on them in overtaking another car. Hogan threw himself to his wife’s side and the steering column passed through the seat in which he had been sitting. He was badly mangled about the hips and legs. As to the driver of the bus, without even returning to the car he telephoned the police that two people had been killed.
Such was the story Hogan told (to Henry Longhurst) on board the Queen Mary on his way to Britain later. For some weeks he had lain pretty well at death’s door, and when at last a few intimate friends were admitted to his bedside they were hard put to keep from their expressions the shock they felt upon seeing the pale, gaunt little figure now diminished to 110 pounds.
Largely due to the mental powers he had developed on the golf course, Hogan won his battle for life and was eventually taken home. Seven months later he was on his way to Britain as captain of the American Ryder Cup team. He was still wearing full-length elastic stockings and could walk only for about half an hour at a time. One talked of his being “temporarily out of the game” and so on, but I think there was only one man in the world who at the time thought Hogan might seriously play golf again, and that was Hogan.
It was in December that one of those highly coloured, pinch of salt American news agency reports filtered through to the effect that Hogan had not only played a round of golf, but he had holed the Colonial Club’s course at his home town of Fort Worth, Texas in 71 strokes.
Telephone calls poured in. Hogan’s reply was “Nonsense! He had hardly hit any long shots and had used a cart to get about on. They were “only newspaper scores” he said. Then, just a yar after his accident, the news went out that Ben Hogan was to try his hand once again in the Los Angeles Open.
Nine thousand people turned up to give the little man a sympathetic and emotional cheer. The other 128 players, said an American writer “roamed the course unmolested”. They included Sam Snead who had jumped to the top as Hogan, literally, fell by the wayside.
Right at the start there was trouble. Sharp words with the photographers seemed to show that Hogan’s steely control was no longer what it had been. For a while stewards carried a sign “No cameras, please – player’s request”, but the irate photographers prevailed and the sign was withdrawn. Pursued by his vast gallery, and seating himself between shots on a shooting stick. Hogan got round in 73, well down the field.
Next day he shot 69 and his position improved. On the final day bigger crowds than ever swarmed over the course. Hole by hole, as he kept up the 4’s and 3’s, the tension increased. Another 69. One more like this and he might not only finish once more with the leaders. He might even win.
Golf, perhaps through its very slowness, can reach the most extraordinary heights of tenseness and drama. Of all the great rounds ever played I would as soon have watched this last one of Hogan’s. After a dozen holes he was well in the hunt, still shock-proof as ever but now clearly close to physical exhaustion. Overweight at over 150lbs and hitting the ball less far than before, he was under pressure from all sides. I can see him so well – the tightening of the lips, the discarded cigarette, and one more shot dispatched on its way. Amid scenes of excitement unusual on a golf course, Ben Hogan finished once more in 69 for a total of 280.
As the day wore on, only Snead, the man who had stepped into his shoes, had a remote chance to catch him. At the 17th hole he holed a very long putt. On the 18th he sank an even longer one, this time almost semi circular to tie. Snead won the playoff, of course, but that was an anti climax no one cared about. The glory was Hogan’s, for what is perhaps one of the most stirring comebacks in sporting history.
Among his comments in an interview afterward with Joe Williams of the New York World Telegram was: “This much I can tell you for sure, Joe. There’s nothing about death that will ever frighten me again..”
In the meantime, as they say, he had settled with the bus company for $250,000 (around $6 million today) free of tax.
And if that doesn’t prove he is a hard case, nothing does!”