Hogan, Carnoustie and the most unlikely Open win of all

Ben Hogan Main

The morning of February 2, 1949, was cold, wet and foggy as the sun rose on the outskirts of the small Texan town of Van Horn.

Ben Hogan and his wife Valerie were driving home to Fort Worth from Phoenix in neighbouring Arizona. They had logged 500 miles in their Cadillac the previous day but still had another 500 to go. For the Hogans, this was life. By the end of January 1949, they had already logged more than 3,000 miles for the year, travelling to four golf events. Ben had won two of those and was leading the money list.

Still, the hours on the road were taking their toll. “I want to die an old man, not a young one,” Hogan told Time magazine.

How chillingly prophetic those words so very nearly were.

Ben Hogan Extra 1

Beginning the second leg of their thousand-mile journey home, the Hogans were heading east along the two-lane Highway 80. They were only ten miles into their drive when the fog became increasingly dense.

Hogan reduced his speed to 25 miles per hour. Suddenly, he saw what he later described as ‘four lights winking at me’. A Greyhound bus was trying to overtake a truck and had come into Hogan’s lane. The collision was inevitable.

Instinctively, Ben threw himself across Valerie as the bus ploughed head-on into their car. As it turned out, his attempts to save his wife ended up saving him. The steering wheel and part of the car’s engine were driven through the driver’s seat. Had Ben stayed where he was, he would, in all likelihood, have been crushed to death.

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That’s not to say he avoided harm entirely. Upon being taken to hospital in nearby El Paso, in an ambulance that took 90 minutes to arrive, he was diagnosed with a broken collarbone, a double fracture of his pelvis, a broken ankle and a chipped rib. Fellow pros who visited him later spoke of seeing a prone Hogan, strapped to a hospital bed and covered in gauze.

His condition worsened when doctors discovered a blood clot that had formed in his legs – the result of being bed-bound for an initial fortnight after the accident – had travelled into his lung.

That required several blood transfusions, followed by life-saving abdominal surgery and another month in hospital. By the time he was discharged on March 29 – a whole 56 days after the accident – Hogan’s weight  had plummeted by over a stone-and-a-half to just under eight stone and there was a legitimate concern that his career was over. Doctors even speculated he might never walk again.

Ben Hogan Extra 2

All of which makes what happened next all the more remarkable. In June of 1950, just 16 months on from the accident, Hogan won the US Open in what became known as the ‘Miracle at Merion’. It was the second of his four US Open wins and the fourth of his nine major championships.

Buoyed by that remarkable win – achieved after an 18-hole play-off, no less – Hogan went on to dominate golf like never before. He defended his US Open title the following year, just a matter of weeks after having won the Masters.

It was 1953, though, where Hogan would have the most remarkable season of his career. He disagreed, of course. He is on record as saying that he was “better in 1948 and ’49 than I’ve ever been”. However, to most observers, what he achieved in 1953 remains one of the most impressive feats in post-War professional golf.

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After cantering to five and six-shot wins in the Masters and US Open respectively, Hogan did something he had never done before – he crossed the Atlantic to compete in the Open Championship.

Legend has it that the then 41-year-old only committed to take part after much persuasion by his good friend Gene Sarazen. A seven-time major winner in his own right, Sarazen got Hogan’s attention when he told him he could not be considered a true great of the game until he got his hands on the Claret Jug.

Determined to do just that, Hogan arrived in Scotland two weeks before the championship got underway to acquaint himself both with links golf and the smaller British golf ball

Ben Hogan Plaque

At that time, the R&A and USGA had differing views on what the minimum size of a ball should be. The former set its minimum limit at 1.62 inches; the latter, by comparison, went for 1.68 inches. Not a huge difference on paper – but enough to cause problems for the likes of Hogan.

Arrangements were made for him to practise at Panmure, just two miles from Carnoustie, and he and his caddie Cecil Timms used the time to the full.

Of course, in those days, there were no exemptions for the Open. Every player had to earn their place and so Hogan had to go through the rigours of a 36-hole qualifier just to make the field.

After safely negotiating that hurdle, he opened at Carnoustie with a one-over 73, a score bettered by only six players on that first day. The American amateur Frank Stranahan led the field on two-under.

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Hogan bettered his score, despite putting struggles, the following day, carding a 71 in round two. Scotland’s Eric Brown and Dai Rees of Wales took the lead from Stranahan, with Hogan just two shots back.

The closing two rounds both took place on the final day. A tall enough task for Hogan given the enduring physical issues he faced following the car crash, but even more considering he was almost floored by a bout of exhaustion and influenza that struck him when he woke up on the final morning of the championship.

He dug deep, recording a 70 in the morning’s third round to move into a share of the lead with Roberto De Vicenzo.

What followed that has justifiably taken its place in folklore as one of the great Open Championship rounds.

Hogan Trophy

‘Deathly tired’, he chipped in for a birdie at the fifth. He added another at the sixth, taking (as he had done in each of the previous three rounds) the tight driving line between the fairway bunkers and out of bounds fence down the left of the hole. The story goes that his afternoon tee shot finished in his divot from the morning round. The hole was later renamed ‘Hogan’s Alley’ in recognition of his bold, aggressive play.

By the 13th, he had established a two-shot lead. When he saved par at the 17th, his win was virtually assured. Another birdie at the final hole saw him post a new course record of 68, bettering the mark set in the morning’s third round by Antonio Cerdá. To this day, Hogan remains one of only four Open champions to have improved his score in each round.

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That stunning 68 also gave him a four-shot victory, a cheque for £515, the Claret Jug, and an unprecedented third consecutive major victory. It is a feat that was subsequently emulated only by Jack Nicklaus until it was bettered by Tiger Woods in 2001.

Had he not been forced to miss the US PGA Championship due to a clash of dates – it finished the day before the Open got underway and, in any case, Hogan had chosen not to play the event since his accident on account of the gruelling playing requirements of the then matchplay event – there is a legitimate possibility he could have won all four major championships in a calendar year… something no golfer has ever done. The open-top, ticker-tape parade and City Hall reception that he received in New York on his return to America from Scotland was richly deserved.

It proved to be Hogan’s only Open Championship appearance. But what an appearance; what a champion; and what a man.

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This article first appeared in issue 164 of bunkered (June 2018). For more information on stockists and subscriptions, click here.

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