This is the 17th in a series of 18 stories reviewing every USGA championship and team competition held at 2013 U.S. Open site Merion Golf Club, which until 1942 was known as Merion Cricket Club. This story is excerpted from a recently released book by the USGA entitled Great Moments of the U.S. Open (Firefly Books). For more information and to order the book, click here.
Ben Hogan’s victory in the 1950 U.S. Open was not simply the story of a man playing better than his competition or mastering every element of a difficult course. Just 16 months earlier, Hogan had survived a head-on collision with a Greyhound bus that had left him severely injured. When doctors assessed his condition, it became clear that he might never walk again, let alone play golf. But through sheer force of will, Hogan overcame the terrible odds and summoned a heroic performance at Merion, accomplishing one of the most inspiring feats in the history of sports.
By early 1949, Hogan’s tenacity, perfected swing and devout practice regimen had made him one of the game’s iconic figures. He had become a dominant force in professional golf in the years immediately following World War II and, at age 36, was arguably the greatest player in the game. Hogan was coming off a year in which he won 10 tournaments, including two major championships. It seemed as if nothing could slow him down.
But on Feb. 2, 1949, Hogan and his wife, Valerie, were driving back to their home in Fort Worth, Texas, after the Phoenix Open. On a fog-shrouded Highway 80, just east of the small Texas town of Van Horn, the driver of a Greyhound bus was speeding in the opposite direction while attempting to pass a slow-moving truck. Unable to avoid the head-on collision, Hogan instinctively threw his body across the front seat of the car to protect Valerie, and the force of the impact with the 10-ton bus drove the steering column of his Cadillac into the rear seat.
Valerie escaped unharmed, but Hogan suffered a shattered left collarbone, a double ring fracture of the pelvis, a broken left ankle, a broken rib and several deep cuts around his left eye. News of the accident broke across the national wire services, including some erroneous reports that Hogan had died. In the days that followed, blood clots developed in his legs and began to move toward his chest, threatening to take his life. They necessitated emergency surgery that kept him in the hospital until April. The question seemed to be whether Hogan would survive, not if he could play championship-caliber golf again.
In March 1949, he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “You work for perfection all your life, and then something like this happens. But you can bet I’ll be back there swinging.”
Amazingly, he was. He walked within months. Within one year, he returned to professional golf. In the 1950 Los Angeles Open, his first competition after the accident, Hogan walked Riviera Country Club with his legs bandaged from hip to ankle to control the swelling. Despite being in tremendous pain, Hogan played well and finished regulation tied for the lead with Sam Snead. Though Snead prevailed in the playoff, Hogan was lauded for his gritty performance. Sportswriter Grantland Rice wrote, “His legs weren’t strong enough to carry his heart around.”
Because of the pain, Hogan played a limited schedule in 1950, with his focus squarely on the U.S. Open at Merion. The U.S. Open always seemed to suit Hogan’s game. With fast greens, narrow fairways and dense rough, the typical U.S. Open setup meshed with his emphasis on pure shotmaking and accuracy.
Hogan had won in his last U.S. Open appearance – in 1948 at Riviera Country Club – but due to his injuries was viewed as more of a sentimental favorite, while the press favored the likes of Snead, Jimmy Demaret and defending champion Cary Middlecoff. While there was some question whether Hogan could endure playing 72 holes over three days, including 36 on Saturday, Snead, for one, told the Associated Press that, “Hogan is the man who might make some trouble. He’s the man I’ve got to beat.”
The weather was cold and wet during the week leading up to the championship. Hogan didn’t play a practice round until the day before the U.S. Open started, reasoning that he only wanted to play the course in championship-like conditions. He went so far as to say, “I think anybody who plays this course before Wednesday is crazy.”
After 18 holes, many of the main contenders were still in the mix, but it was unheralded Lee Mackey who led the U.S. Open. In fact, Mackey was such a surprise leader that one Philadelphia newspaper headline proclaimed, “Jobless Unknown Shoots Record 64 To Lead Stars in National Open Golf.” Mackey
used 11 one-putts to shoot the lowest score in U.S. Open history to that point. Hogan, using a collapsible chair between shots to rest his legs, shot a 2-over 72 that left him in a tie for 18th.
While Mackey ballooned to an 81 on Friday, Hogan, off in the morning wave, started strongly, birdieing four of his first 10 holes to move into red figures. He was still at one under for the championship when he three-putted for bogey at the 16th and missed a 4-foot putt for another dropped shot at the 17th. Hogan’s 69 left him in fifth place, two strokes behind the leader, E.J. (Dutch) Harrison.
In the third round, Hogan again surged to the top of the leader board with birdies at the 10th and 11th, but bogeys on three of his next four holes left him two behind Lloyd Mangrum, the 1946 U.S. Open champion, with just 18 holes to play on Saturday afternoon.
Playing an hour before Hogan in the final round, Mangrum faltered, shooting a 5-over 41 on the front nine to let several players back in the championship. One of the players who took advantage was George Fazio, who previously had never finished better than 25th in the U.S. Open. Fazio began the final round six strokes off Mangrum’s pace, but an even-par 70 gave him a total of 7-over 287. Mangrum steadied his game on the back nine for a 76 to match Fazio’s total of 287.
Hogan stood on the 15th green ahead by two strokes, seemingly in control of the championship. But he three-putted from 25 feet, missing a par attempt from 30 inches. Still, three pars would win him an improbable second U.S. Open. Hogan parred the 16th but found a bunker on the long, par-3 17th and failed to get up and down. Now he needed a par on Merion’s uphill 458-yard, par-4 18th hole to force a playoff. After a perfect drive, Hogan hit a 1-iron onto the green within 40 feet of the hole – a moment captured by photographer Hy Peskin that remains one of golf’s iconic images. Hogan two-putted for par to force a playoff with Fazio and Mangrum.
Despite nearly winning the U.S. Open in regulation, Hogan had performed so poorly on the greens during the final round, needing 38 putts, that he considered changing putters for the playoff. His younger brother, Royal, who was still living in Texas, sent one of Hogan’s old brass putters to him. It made it to Merion on Sunday morning, but not in time for Hogan to practice with it. In the end he stuck with the putter he had and fared better on the greens during the playoff.
Through 13 extra holes Hogan held a one-stroke lead over both Fazio and Mangrum. Fazio faded down the stretch with four bogeys in his last five holes, but Mangrum hung tough, bouncing back from a bogey on the 14th with a birdie on the 15th to remain within one stroke.
On the 16th hole, Mangrum marked his ball so Fazio could finish out, but once he replaced his ball on the green, a bug landed on it. Mangrum then re-marked, blew the bug off and holed the putt for what he believed was a par to stay within one. As he was about to tee off on the 17th, USGA Rules official Ike Grainger informed Mangrum that he had incurred a two-stroke penalty for incorrectly marking his ball a second time. In 1950, the PGA Tour allowed a player to mark his ball at any time while on the green, but in USGA championships, marking a ball on the green in stroke play was only permissible when it was in another player’s line. Now three shots clear of Mangrum, Hogan made a 50-foot putt for birdie at the 17th and parred the 18th to seal his unlikely victory.
Interestingly, the 1-iron used for his approach to the 72nd hole was not in Hogan’s bag for the playoff. That night, several items were stolen from his locker, including the club that had helped him reach Merion’s final green. For more than three decades, the club’s whereabouts remained a mystery. Finally, in 1982, the 1-iron was rediscovered. An anonymous man wandered into a golf collector’s shop in Williamsburg, Va., owned by Bob Farino, looking to sell a full set of Ben Hogan signature MacGregor clubs. Farino bought the clubs for $150, but he noticed the 1-iron was marked “personal model” and did not match the rest of the set. Through some friends, Farino was able to get the club to Hogan’s Fort Worth office in 1983, and according to Doug McGrath, the former vice president of sales for the Ben Hogan Company, Hogan looked at the club, verified its authenticity and said, “Good to see my old friend back. Give it to the USGA.” The club is now displayed in the "The Comeback Age" gallery at the USGA Museum in Far Hills, N.J.
In his career, Hogan amassed nine major championships, including four U.S. Opens, but it is this win at Merion in 1950, just 16 months after his near fatal car accident, that best exemplifies his courage, tenacity and determination. Hogan’s story had particular resonance to an entire generation of Americans – golfers and non-golfers alike – who were impacted by crippling injuries sustained in World War II. Everyone seemed to know someone, be it a relative, a friend or a neighbor, who was affected by the war. Against this backdrop, Hogan’s personal battle and recovery from injury had even greater significance to the nation.
Michael Trostel is the senior curator/historian for the USGA Museum. Email him at email@example.com.