From The Golf Journal Archives - 20 Years Ago – When Hogan Ruled

Aug 13, 2010

By Robert Sommers

(Note: This article originally appeared in the April 1973 issue of Golf Journal.)

With the Masters Tournament being played this month, we have reached that stage of the season when once more we begin to read of the prospects of one man winning all four of the principal professional tournaments, the “modern slam,” if you will – the Masters, United States Open, British Open and PGA Championship. We have been feeding on this prospect for 13 years now, ever since that electric period in 1960 when Arnold Palmer was reaching his peak as the most exciting golfer of the times.

As we all know, Palmer won the Masters in April, and then the Open in June with his inspired last round of 65, making up seven strokes on the leader, Mike Souchak. Then he went to Scotland for a go at the British Open at St. Andrews and was beaten one stroke by Kel Nagle, who eagled the 17th. He did not win the PGA that summer, either, and no one has come closer in those 13 years than Arnold. Jack Nicklaus began his 1972 season by winning both the Masters and the Open, but he, too, ran aground on the shoals of the British Open and lost by one stroke to Lee Trevino.

Some years before Palmer popularized the quest and inspired the four tournaments to be called the modern slam, Ben Hogan came closer than anyone to achieving it. And at the same time no one was further from it. In 1953 the British Open and the PGA Championship had overlapping dates and a man simply could not play in both.

This is the 20th anniversary of Hogan’s greatest year, a year in which he won the Masters with a record score of 274, the Open for the fourth time, and the British Open in his only attempt, setting a competitive course record of 68 at Carnoustie, in Scotland. This is an achievement that some believe transcends any in golf other than the Grand Slam of Bob Jones, when he won the Amateur and Open Championships of the United States and Britain in 1930. In the intervening years Hogan’s achievement has been approached only by Palmer and Nicklaus, and looking back one is left with the distinct impression of an inevitability about it all. Once Hogan destroyed all competition in the Masters we knew he would win the Open, and once he entered the British Open, we knew he would win that, too. We did not have that feeling about Palmer or Nicklaus; there was always the element of chance with them, but with Hogan it was predestined.

There have been times when the mere presence of a certain player tended to intimidate others in the field. It was true of Jones, it was true of Hagen, it is true today of Nicklaus, and it was true of Hogan. But there is a difference between the Hogan in 1953 and the Nicklaus of 1972. Even though he played in only 19 tournaments in 1972 and won seven of them, Jack’s winning percentage was lower than Hogan’s. Consider this record; Hogan played in only five full-fledged 72-hole tournaments in 1953, and he won them all – the Masters, Pan American Open in Mexico City, the Colonial National Invitation in Forth Worth, the Open, and the British Open. He played in only one other 72-hole tournament – the Greenbrier pro-amateur at White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., and finished fourth to Sam Snead, his old rival.

In those five full-blooded tournaments, no one came closer to him than three strokes. He won the Masters by five, the Pan American by three, the Colonial by five, the National Open by six and the British Open by four. Five-for-five.

When 1953 began, though, very few believed Hogan was capable of such dominance any more. He was 40 years of age and he would become 41 in August. Besides, he had won only the Colonial in 1952, and he finished badly in the Masters and the Open. His last two rounds at Augusta were 74-79, and his last two in the Open, played in Dallas, were 74-74. Some of the decisiveness had gone from his shots, and where he was once the finest holer of makeable putts in the game, he had begun to slip on the greens. And there was always the accident that almost killed him in 1949 and that left such lingering effects from the injuries that he would not subject himself to the grueling week-long agony of the PGA Championship, played at match play in those years. The accident left his left knee in such condition that it might collapse at any time.

But even if he never won again his place in golf history was assured. He had won the Open three times, the PGA twice, and the Masters once, in 1951 when he had another remarkable year, winning in addition, the Open and the Tam O’Shanter “World Championship” and finishing fourth in the Colonial.

Hogan recognized in 1952 that his game was not what it had been, and so he worked on it. When he came to Augusta in the spring he had not played a full tournament in 10 months, but he had participated in some pro-amateur tournaments at the Thunderbird in Palm Springs, Calif., at Seminole in Palm Beach, Fla., and at the Palmetto Golf Club in Aiken, S.C. He had won none of them, but Hogan was after bigger game.

THE MASTERS

Hogan once said that the most important factor in winning golf tournaments was preparation, and so it was not surprising that he came to Augusta two weeks before the Masters began, and that in those two weeks he played 11 rounds. He must have been satisfied for he spent the day before the tournament began on the putting green.

By then it seemed likely that scoring would be exceptionally low for the Masters, provided the weather, always chancy during a Georgia spring, did not become too bad. Lloyd Magnum shot 63 in a practice round, a stroke lower than his own competitive record, and Julius Boros, the national Open champion, shot 67. There were even rumors that President Eisenhower shot 79, but that later turned out not to be true.

Hogan began with a 70, two under par, in the first round, and he was then in third place, two strokes behind Chick Harbert, and one behind Porky Oliver, who was a much finer golfer than he has been given credit for being; his physical appearance and his wit overshadowed an exceptionally sound game.

It was apparent almost from the start that Hogan would be mighty tough to handle. He was hitting his tee shots with his old authority and his irons with crisp decisiveness. He was obviously in good shape. Then, on the second day he took command and never was caught. He shot 32 on the first nine, four under par, lost a stroke with 37 on the second nine, but his 69 and 139 gave him a one-stroke lead over Bob Hamilton, the 1944 PGA Champion. Harbert had slipped to 73, and was tied at 141 with Ted Kroll. Oliver was a stroke further behind at 142.

Hogan and Oliver were paired together the next day and the spectators who followed them witnessed one of the classic moments in American golf. Here was the great champion at his best, hitting shot after shot with monotonous accuracy, dropping the putts he had to make or had the opportunity to make, and here was Oliver, the jolly fat man, as he was called, matching Hogan almost stroke for stroke. Oliver began by holing an eight-foot putt for a birdie on the first, both men birdied the par-5 second and they each made par 4s on the third. Two birdie 2s on the 224-yard fourth, and then Oliver made a mistake on the long par-4 fifth hole and made 5. Hogan made par 4 where Oliver bogeyed, and then birdied the par-5 eighth, a simple straightway hole in those days, and finished the first nine with another birdie, holing from 60 feet on the ninth. He was out in 32 once again, and he was five strokes ahead of Oliver, who by then was in second place.

Hogan birdied the 10th, and made par 4 on the 11th while Oliver was making two 5s and it all seemed over for Ben was then eight strokes up on Porky. After two par 3s on the 12th, Oliver began to make up some ground. They both carried the creek and reached the par-5 13th hole in two, but then Hogan three-putted for a par 5 and Oliver holed a 25-foot putt for an eagle 3 to pick up two strokes. Hogan birdied the 14th and both men birdied the par-5 15th. Oliver picked up two strokes once more with a birdie 2 on the 16th where Hogan once more three-putted, and he made up a further stroke with a birdie on 18 where Hogan made his par. Hogan had played the course in 32-34-66 and Oliver shot 34-33-67. These were the two best rounds of the tournament, and when the day was over Hogan had all but won. He had 205 for 54 holes and was four strokes ahead of Oliver, with 209. Hamilton shot a steady 70 in the third round and was next at 210, followed by Harbert, at 211.

Hogan went off the tee with Byron Nelson in that last round and his game was almost as flawless as it had been the day before. To reach the green of the second he had to play a hook around some trees that protruded into the bend of the right-to-left dogleg. The shot came off perfectly and the ball scooted through the opening between bunkers and onto the green, narrowly missed hitting the flagstick and rolled dead 20 feet past the hole. Two putts for a birdie. The hole of the fourth was directly behind a big bunker that bites into the front edge of the green. Hogan’s iron almost hit the flagstick once more and the ball stopped a foot away for another birdie. And so it went, hole after hole, pars and birdies with that same monotony, until finally he reached the 18th green. He played another graceful iron 12 feet from the hole, and as he walked onto the green the great crowd applauded and cheered. Hogan took off his white, peaked cap in acknowledgement and then holed the putt. He had played rounds of 70-69-66-69—274, beating the old record by five strokes.

“This is the best I’ve ever played for 72 holes,” he said. Years later Bob Jones was to say much the same of these four days, just after Jack Nicklaus broke the Hogan record with 271 in 1965.

THE OPEN

After the Masters Hogan took a few weeks off and then went to Mexico City for the Pan-American Open. He shot 286 at the Club de Golf and finished three strokes in front of Dave Douglas. A few weeks later he shot 282 at the Colonial and won by five over Cary Middlecoff and Doug Ford. This was mere interlude, though, for everyone knew Hogan was really stalking the Open, played in 1953, as it is in 1973, at the punishing and unforgiving Oakmont Country Club in the rolling Pennsylvania hills outside Pittsburgh. Oakmont was a graveyard for scoring. In 1935 when the Open was last played there, Sam Parks was the only man in the field to break 300. He shot 299 and won. Tommy Armour won with 301 in 1927.

Oakmont had over 200 bunkers and each of them looked like a plowed field ready for spring planting, for since the club’s beginning the bunkers were dragged with a deep, wide-toothed rake that created furrows in the sand. A ball that settled in those furrows was the same as buried; accurate recovery was more chance than skill. Recognizing this, the USGA prevailed on Oakmont to adopt a somewhat more shallow rake, and so some of the sting was taken from those bunkers. How much effect they had on the scoring is open to question for Hogan once more was nearly flawless, although he had some rough spots. Hogan played the first nine of the first round in 33 and the second nine in 34 for an opening 67. At Oakmont, this leads. He was three strokes ahead of George Fazio, his old adversary from the 1950 Open whom he beat in a playoff, Walter Burkemo, and amateur Frank Souchak, a member of the Oakmont club. When he birdied three of the first four holes in the second round it looked as if the game was up, but then Hogan showed he was mortal after all. He lost two of those strokes with bogeys on the fifth and the brutish, 244-yard par-3 eighth and made the turn in 36, one under par 37. He was back to two under after another birdie at the shortish par-4 14th, but lost that stroke when he missed the green of the long par-3 16th, and another with a bogey 5 at the 18th. He finished in even-par 72 for 139, and when he looked back, there lurked Snead, who had picked up three strokes on Ben with 69. He was then in second at 141 and coming on.

Two rounds were played on the last day back in 1953, and Hogan was off the first tee ahead of Snead by about five holes. It was again one of those moments in golf history when great players duel on the great occasion, for these two were without question the best players of the time. By the end of five holes, Snead had picked up four strokes on Hogan to move two ahead, and at the end of nine he was still a stroke in front. His lead lasted no longer. He lost a stroke at the 10th, and at the end of 12 he was trailing Hogan once more. He was playing marvelous shots, but as usual he was not holing those short putts that are so necessary to win national championships. For instance, he drove the 17th hole, a short, uphill, 292-yard par 4, and with a chance to take the lead with a birdie, he three-putted for his par. Hogan earlier had birdied the hole and finished with 73. Snead shot 72, and when the final round began he was just one stroke behind Hogan.

Ben appeared to be struggling as the final round began after lunch, and he made the turn for home in 38, one over par, with eight pars and a bogey on the par-4 seventh. It seemed like a perfect opening for Snead, but Sam was never up to it in the National Open. Instead of gaining ground, he lost and his chance was gone forever, for Hogan was about to play some of the most crushing golf of his career. Pars on 10, 11 and 12 settled him down, and then he ran in a big putt for a birdie 2 on the par-3 13th. Another par on 14, and then a bogey on 15, a magnificent par 4 of 458 yards, when a well-hit approach caught a bunker. That was the last mistake Hogan made; the rest of his round was perfection. He dropped his tee shot on the 234-yard 16th in the center of the green and his putt just grazed the edge of the hole for an easy par.

In previous rounds Hogan had never tried to reach the 17th green from the tee, but this time his drive flew straight at the opening, skipped between the bunkers that narrowed the front of the green, and rolled dead hole high. Two putts and a birdie. He had the Open in hand by then, and he hit such a powerful drive on that final hole, a 462-yard par 4, that he needed only a 5-iron for his second shot. It was an inspired 5-iron and floated down soft as a whisper 10 feet from the hole.

Spectators were seven deep around the green and they craned to see Hogan play the final stroke of the Open. The putt rolled true and Hogan had joined Bob Jones and Willie Anderson as four-time winners of the championship. He played the second nine in 33 for 71 and finished the 72 holes in 283, the lowest 72-hole score ever shot at Oakmont under championship conditions. Snead was left far behind at 289 after shooting a disappointing 76 in the last round. Hogan’s 71 was beaten only by Pete Cooper and matched by Clarence Doser.

BRITISH OPEN

Americans had dominated the British Open during the 1920s and early 1930s, winning all but one from the time Walter Hagen broke through in 1922 until Henry Cotten snapped the string in 1934. But they stopped coming after that for a number of reasons. First, the Depression made the trip too expensive, then the war made it impossible: the championship was suspended in 1939 and was not played again until 1946. Snead won that one, but with the revival of the American tour following the war and the rapidly climbing purses, Americans in general preferred to stay home.

Consequently, the British Open had lost some prestige. Still, it was being said at the time that it would be a shame if Hogan did not attempt to win this grand old championship which for so many years had been the principal prize in all of golf. They said it would leave a blank in his record and that he owed it both to himself and to the game to at least play.

Hogan was convinced. He said in the spring that he would play if he could find suitable accommodations close to Carnoustie, the site of the championship in Ayrshire, Scotland. He found them, and so he filed his entry. But Hogan in those days did not play if he did not plan to win. Typically he arrived at Carnoustie two weeks early, and on his first day he spent two hours simply hitting balls and becoming acquainted with the characteristics of the small British ball.

He played practice round after practice round, hitting three balls from each tee – one to the left of the fairway, one to the right, and one to the center, trying to find which spot on the fairway best opened the green for the approach. He also learned that he would have to adjust his swing and avoid taking a big divot, for the ground was so terribly hard that he hurt his wrist whenever he dug deeply into the turf. He began taking the ball more cleanly, and Sir Guy Campbell remarked that he was taking the ball exactly as the great Scottish golfers had done so many years before.

By the time of the opening round, Hogan was ready. He had learned Carnoustie not only by playing practice rounds, but also by walking the course during the evening twilight and he knew that Carnoustie was distinctly different from American courses. For instance, on a number of holes the green slanted away from the approach, and so the run-up shot had to be played. He also knew that he must be careful judging distance because the course had very few trees that could be used as markers.

Frank Stranahan, the amateur, led the first round with 70. Hogan was a stroke below par after 15 holes, but he faltered on the final three and finished with 73.

He started the second round by making birdies on two of the first four holes, but he lost both those strokes by the ninth and finished the day with 71, leaving him two strokes behind Eric Brown and Dai Rees, the leaders with 142.

The weather on that last day is what one would expect in Scotland, cold and windy with occasional rain and some sun. Spectators came from all over the island to see the visiting American who already was of legendary scope. An estimated 20,000 fans were there and it seemed as if they were all following Hogan. He was grouped with Hector Thompson, a good British pro, and it soon was evident that Thompson was not in Hogan’s league. While Thompson was constantly playing his second shots from uphill, downhill or sidehill lies, Hogan’s ball flew straight to the level spot of the fairway. One young fan was confounded by Hogan’s luck, until the sheer monotony of it finally convinced him that Hogan was playing that accurately. He was struck by one other feature. On the shortish par 4s, Thompson was even with Hogan from the tee, but when they came to a long 4 or to a par 5, with no apparent extra effort, Hogan flew his drive 20 to 30 yards farther than Thompson.

He was four under par with two holes to play in that morning round, but once more he had trouble at the finish. His approach to the 17th caught a bunker, and he three-putted for a 6, losing two strokes. Still, he had climbed into a tie for the lead at 214 with Roberto DeVicenzo, who had shot 71 with a ball out of bounds on the ninth. Rees, Antonio Cerda, and Peter Thomson were a stroke behind, while Stranahan and Eric Brown were three strokes back.

Hogan began that last round with pars on the first four holes while Cerda, playing behind him, birdied the third, and so they were even. The fifth hole is a mild 388-yard par 4 that bends slightly to the right. Hogan’s approach hit a bank above a bunker and spun back toward the sand. It did not quite make the sand, but it hung over the edge, “held by two blades of grass,” Hogan said later. He was 35 feet from the hole and he had an awkward stance, one foot in the sand, the other up the slope. He played a 9-iron, chipped it cleanly, and the ball ran for the hole. Too hard, it seemed, but the ball hit the back of the cup, jumped about six inches, and then disappeared down the hole. A birdie 3 where it looked as if he might make 5, and that was all the inspiration he needed. He lashed a drive well over 300 yards on the 567-yard sixth, then a brassie to the edge of the green, a chip to four feet and one putt for a birdie. He played the next three holes in par and finished the first nine in 34.

When he rolled in a 14-foot putt for a birdie 2 on the 168-yard 13th, he had a four-stroke lead over Cerda, who had fallen back to even par after a bogey 5 on the 12th. He played the next four holes in par and closed out with a birdie 4 at the 18th for 34 and 68. His 72-hole score was 282, four strokes below Cerda, Stranahan, Rees and Thomson.

Hogan had left the British dazzled, and Bernard Darwin, the great British essayist, was certain it was as much a victory of character as it surely was of skill. “If he had needed a 64 on his last round,” Darwin wrote, “you were quite certain he could have played a 64. Hogan gave you the distinct impression he was capable of getting whatever score was needed to win.”

Frank Pennink, a fine player of an early period, wrote in the British magazine GOLF MONTHLY that Hogan and Bob Jones now sit on twin thrones. Of Hogan’s game he had this to say:

“Unexpectedly there was no obvious exertion of great power, and even when he unleashes his extra reserve of length – such as the sixth hole where four wooden club shots totaled some 1,000 yards on the final day and two 4s were his – there is no impression of almost swinging himself off his feet. His irons, like all but a few of his drives, were unfailingly exact, and it came as a surprise if he were more than five yards to the right or left of the flag.”

Hogan slipped quietly out of Scotland the next day, and when he returned to New York he was greeted with a ticker tape parade. There was little question at the time that he had done just about what Bob Jones had done in 1930 – that is, win every major competition he was able to enter.

This was the last time Hogan would dominate golf. He never again won any of those three tournaments, although he lost twice in playoffs – once in the 1954 Masters to Snead, again in the 1955 Open to Jack Fleck. He never played in the British Open again.

But for that one brief moment there was no one who could play golf with Ben Hogan.

Ben Hogan at the peak of his career, in a motorcade through Manhattan following his victory in the 1953 British Open, which climaxed his greatest year. (USGA Museum)


Hogan won the Masters by five strokes, the Open by six, and the British Open by four. (USGA Museum)


His victory in the British Open was legend almost from the time he accepted the trophy. (USGA Museum)