Someday someone is going to play the perfect round of golf. It will happen in about the same year that they discover a politician or a taxi driver who isn't on the hustle, or a shoelace that doesn't break when you are in a hurry. Until that perfect game of golf is played, the 18 holes that Ben Hogan turned in from tee to green in Houston the other day will have to do. Playing against Sam Snead in a TV exhibition called Shell's Wonderful World of Golf, Hogan hit 35 shots about as well as they could be hit. He also stroked 34 putts like a man with an advanced case of Parkinson's disease for a final score of 69 and a three-stroke victory over Snead. When it was all over, Gene Sarazen, who narrates the show for the Shell Oil Company, said, "Ben, from tee to green that is the finest round of golf that has been played in my lifetime." For reference, Sarazen won his first U.S. Open 42 years ago.
Just about anyone else alive could have said the same thing as Sarazen. Throughout the entire 18 holes, Hogan never hit a shot more than 10 feet off the line of flight he intended it to travel. He never once hit the ball into the rough or a hazard. On all 18 greens, he was putting for either a birdie or an eagle. If someone like Arnold Palmer or Billy Casper had been putting for him, he might well have scored in the 50s.
In these days when promoters outnumber sand traps, visions of a last great Snead-Hogan confrontation had been dancing in many a restless noggin. To any golf fan past the age of 35 it would be a kind of dream match, although the younger generation might rate its excitement potential on a par with a Norma Talmadge love scene. Nonetheless, these two ancients, each of whom is 52 this year, still give the current champions some uncomfortable moments in the few tournaments they enter.
The match was finally put together by Fred Corcoran, a New Yorker whose life is devoted to arranging such sporting climaxes. He caught up with Hogan in April at the Masters, where Ben had shot a brilliant third-round 67 and finished in a tie for ninth. Knowing that Hogan was then feeling fairly sanguine about his putting after a decade of yips, Corcoran persuaded him to give a TV match some thought. When Hogan eventually agreed, it marked his first venture into the business of televised matches—he had long avoided them.
June 7, 1964
Snead had played in many—perhaps more than any other golfer. All he asked was a chance to get in a practice round before the match. To make that possible, a Houston industrialist named Pierre Schlumberger (pronounced shlumbarejay) sent his company jet to pick up Snead at his home club of Greenbrier in West Virginia on a Sunday morning. That afternoon, Sam was out on the Houston Country Club course firing five and six balls on every hole from every position. Hogan was also on the course, as he had been for the previous two days. When he and Snead passed close to each other on adjacent holes, they did not even nod. They have never been particularly fond of each other.
The blunt fact is that two more antithetical types than Hogan and Snead could hardly exist. At the apex of his career, Hogan was about as convivial as a Trappist monk. He conquered golf with willpower, forcing his slight physique to its utmost. Snead was the carefree hillbilly, everybody's pal, a kind of Will Rogers of the fairways with his homey wit and hayseed yarns. The only thing the two men had in common was a total commitment to golf.
Snead and Hogan met in head-to-head matches—exclusive of team matches—only three times in their long and parallel careers, and Snead won them all. The first was in San Francisco in 1941, where Snead had a 66 to Hogan's 68. The next was a playoff at the 1950 Los Angeles Open, an event that marked Hogan's return to competition after an automobile accident that nearly took his life 11 months earlier. Snead won, 72-76. At the 1954 Masters they tied again after 72 holes, and Snead won again, 70-71. Hogan's supporters maintain that these were not true tests because Hogan must prepare himself mentally for a match, and once the four rounds are finished he has trouble cranking himself up for an epilogue. Put a club in Snead's hands, and he could hit the ball perfectly in the middle of Times Square on New Year's Eve.
As recently as 1962, Snead wrote in a book, "All I know is that it's true that Hogan and [Byron] Nelson won plenty of tournaments which I didn't, but any time Hogan and I met in a head-to-head playoff, I won. We met three times over the years when we were rivals. The score reads: Snead 3, Hogan 0."
Be all that as it may, the Houston match had the feeling of a final showdown. It began on Monday morning under ugly skies. As the two golfers warmed up on the practice tee, they scarcely spoke. Each was caparisoned in his sartorial trademark—Hogan in his white linen cap, Snead in his coconut straw hat. Hogan looked superbly fit, albeit a few pounds heavier than imagination and memory would have it. Snead, on the other hand, was beginning to overlap his trouser tops a bit.
When all the cameras were in position, Associate Producer and Commentator George Rogers gave a short speech through a portable electric megaphone to the several hundred club members who had showed up for the start of the match. He told them that a considerable amount of prestige and money was involved and please not to click their cameras while the players were hitting the ball. Then he introduced the contestants as if they were boxers: "Visiting from White Sulphur Springs, W. Va.—Sam Snead. And Texas' own Ben Hogan."
Lee Sholem, the director of the show, explained some of the ground rules of TV golf. When he gave the signal for the action to begin, the player hitting first was to select his club from his bag, tee up and hit. One of the forecaddies in orange coveralls would run out on the fairway and mark the position where the ball had come to rest. Only then could the other player select his club from the bag and make his shot.
"Do we have to do that on every hole?" Hogan asked.
"Yes," said the director.
"Whew!" said Hogan.
"By the 18th, you'll get used to it," the director told him. Hogan looked unconvinced.
The sound man blew his whistle, and the director beckoned to Hogan to begin play. Ben drew his driver out of his bag, said "We're off and running," teed up the ball and sent a perfect shot whistling far down the fairway. The gallery applauded. Next, Snead hit a drive with a slight draw on it, and it rolled 10 yards past Hogan's ball to the left side of the fairway. The gallery applauded again.
Out on the fairway, everyone had to wait about 10 minutes while cameras were unloaded from golf carts and regrouped near the balls. Farther down the fairway at the back edge of the green were a couple of trees that must have come from Burn-ham Wood, for they had not been there moments earlier. Peering through the branches of these trees were additional cameras. When all was ready, Hogan hit a lovely six-iron some nine feet to the right of the pin. Sam's seven-iron was 20 feet to the left.
The gallery now walked to the green, waited another 10 minutes for the cameras and watched as both men got their pars. The traveling trees went careening down the 2nd fairway like drunks on the town. As Hogan waited to drive off the 2nd tee, he looked at Snead's clubs and said, "Sam, I see you've got a new driver."
"Yeah," said Snead. "Since '57."
Hogan hit a virtually perfect drive. "Too far to the right," he said with a look of distaste.
"Yeah," said Snead. "Two feet."
Snead punctuated this comment by hitting his drive 30 yards past Hogan's.
Hogan used a three-iron for his second shot, and all the way it looked as if it might hit the flagstick, but it rolled 20 feet past. Snead pulled a six-iron slightly, and it stopped on the frog hair to the left of the green, but he got his par as did Hogan. Rain had begun to fall, hesitantly at first, during the half an hour consumed at the 2nd hole, but it came down in earnest as the two men finished putting. Everyone stood around under umbrellas, and the setting reminded one of the cemetery scene in Our Town. At last there was a letup, although thunder and lightning rumbled and crackled overhead. Hogan sent a fine drive down the middle of the 3rd fairway, a 510-yard dogleg right. Snead followed with an enormous drive over the bunker that guards the elbow of the fairway. By the time they reached their balls the rain was like water out of a fire hose, so everyone stampeded for the clubhouse. It was 10:30 in the morning, and only two holes had been completed.
Hogan and Snead waited in the golf shop for awhile, and someone reminded Sam that he was now facing the only three things he feared in life. "Remember, Sam?" the man asked. "Remember, you said one time that the only things you were scared of were lightning, aside-hill putt and Ben Hogan."
"Ah nev' said that," Snead drawled. "Mah old pal, Porky Oliver, made that up." Snead likes to think there is no man in golf who can take him when he is right. In his book, he had written, "After a quarter century of swinging, I'm not afraid to meet any man in the world in a head-to-head match, and that's because I've never let outside business turn me soft and paunchy. My measurements are almost the same as 20 years ago—185 pounds, a 33-inch waist and 43-inch chest."
The players moved inside the clubhouse for lunch, and afterward Snead took a nap in the steam room while Hogan sat with his wife, Valerie, and their friends. By 2:30 the rain began to ease off, and the producers decided to resume play.
When the golfers got back to the 3rd hole the gallery had grown to a thousand or so. Hogan's ball lay in the middle of the fairway, where he had left it four hours earlier. After such a long and frustrating delay, it hardly seemed likely that he could continue such precise golf as he had played in the morning, but once the cameras were turning again he struck a perfect three-wood to the green some 25 feet short of the pin. Snead. whose ball was 40 yards past Hogan's, hit a four-iron to the green, but he was 40 feet short. Both two-putted for birdie 4s, putting them one under par.
At the 4th hole, a moderate par 3, Hogan three-putted from 35 feet for a bogey 4, and now he was back even with par and a stroke behind Snead. He looked grim, a look that sent chills up the spines of his fellow golfers 10 or 15 years ago, and he got the stroke back with a birdie on 5. They halved the 6th hole in par, and at the 7th, Snead decided to gamble. This crescent-shaped par 4 is only 300 yards long, and the direct line from tee to green is over a high stand of timber. Hogan hit an iron straight down the fairway, but Snead decided to try to hit his tee shot over the tall trees to the green. It was a mistake. His drive struck a tree and rebounded to within 150 yards of the tee. Now his only shot to the green was to thread the ball through the woods, and he tried it with a five-iron, hooding the club to keep the ball low. Luck alone guided the ball safely through the thick foliage, and it stopped just off the green. From there, Snead was able to salvage his 4. As Hogan said later, Sam could have had a 10. Hogan's par was routine.
It was now close to 5 o'clock, and the light was getting too dim for color film, so the match was adjourned until Tuesday morning at 8. The players were all even so far at one under par, and each was in a comfortable frame of mind. Snead made light of his only two errors, then thought awhile and added, "Ben's playing very well."
Hogan said, "I'm hitting the ball as well as I know how." And he had the right word for his putting. He called it "a disgrace."
The next day was a beauty—not a cloud and an amiable breeze to take the scorch out of the Texas sun. The players finished the first 9 in par, and by then Hogan told Sarazen, "Those putts scare me to death. If it keeps up, I'm going to have to quit playing golf."
Without a doubt, Hogan's putting was atrocious. His head was swaying forward as he stroked the ball, and he was sweeping at it with his arms like any Sunday hacker. When his Bullseye putter struck the ball there was a dull thunk as if the clubhead were made of wood. Even so, Ben was in a remarkably serene mood. He had adjusted his game to the slow tempo demanded by the cameras and seemed far less impatient than Snead.
The first really wild shot of the match came when Snead sliced his drive into an adjoining fairway on the 11th. He scrambled back for his par, and going down the 12th fairway he said to a friend, "This would be a very dull match if it weren't for me. Everything would just be straight down the middle."
At the 12th hole, a 570-yard par 5, Hogan hit a superb nine-iron approach from a downhill lie on the fairway to within 10 feet of the pin and sank the putt for a birdie 4. A great big smile lit up his face. Snead missed an eight-foot putt for his birdie, and Hogan took the lead for the first time. Ben missed an eight-foot putt for a birdie at 13, but he picked up another stroke when Snead three-putted the 14th green. At the 15th, Ben sank another eight-footer for a birdie 3, building his lead to three strokes. Even so, the strain of the long day was getting to him. "I'll never do one of these again," he said to no one in particular as he waited at the 16th tee.
It was getting past noon, and the question came up as to whether they would break for lunch or finish the match and then eat. Director Sholem decided to continue. "We have never played a match on this show that went so smoothly," he said. "With golfers like this, there is no problem. They hit the ball so perfectly that we can get both their shots with one setup most of the time. Just think, not once have we had to go into the rough, and we have averaged better than two holes an hour. It's incredible."
The match was running out on Snead. They set off down the 17th with Hogan still holding a three-stroke lead and hitting every shot as if it were on a string from the tee to the hole. In the middle of the 17th fairway, Hogan made a joke with Director Sholem before hitting his second shot, and Fred Corcoran, watching from the sidelines, said, "School's out. Ben just laughed." Snead then hit a gorgeous nine-iron to the 17th green, and it floated down like a feather only six feet from the hole. He sank the putt for a birdie 4, leaving him only two down as the players headed for 18. The deficit was not insurmountable. Hogan, stopping to chat with a friend on the 17th green, said, "Want to trade a set of nerves? I'll trade anyone, sight unseen."
Snead had just about given up, though. Standing on the 18th tee, he glared sourly into the distance. Director Sholem inquired politely if anything out there on the fairway bothered him. "Only thing bothers me is catching that plane this afternoon so I can get a little farther up north," he said.
"What are you complaining about?" a man in the gallery called out. "We have to live down here."
That made Sam smile, and he began telling some of the people around the 18th tee about the charms of West Virginia. "There's a cool breeze comes up the valley," he said,"and them deer walk right past your house, and all you got to do is get you a little .22 and—phttt—you got your dinner."
"I've been contributing to you," said one of the gallery. "I just bought a set of your woods."
"Send them to me," Sam answered. "Mine ain't working so good. Now, if the good Lord would just give me a 2 on this hole, maybe everything would be all right."
It was Snead's turn to drive first, and he creased the middle of the fairway with a screamer. Then, as he sometimes does when things are not going well for him, he walked off the tee, climbed into a golf cart and started up the fairway before Hogan had hit his shot. It is a form of rudeness that fails to endear Snead to his competitors.
Hogan pursed his lips and hit a drive that was even beyond Snead's—and just as straight. He was showing he could drive the ball as far as Snead if he really cared to.
Snead had to get down in two from where his ball lay on the fairway if he had any hope of gaining a tie, and even then Hogan would have to three-putt. Sam hit a six-iron to the green, but he pushed it wide to the right, and he was 12 inches short with the 30-foot putt he needed for a birdie. In fact, he even missed the 12-incher in his haste and disgust. Hogan two-putted for his 69.
Afterward in the locker room, Snead told the handful of sportswriters who had followed the match, "The 72 wasn't so bad, but I didn't hit the ball well. My irons just weren't any good. I changed my irons and played with this new set I just got from the factory, and I only had a couple of practice rounds with them at Greenbrier before I came down here. But that's as well as I've ever seen Ben play—from tee to green."
Hogan echoed the thought a few minutes later. "That's as good as I can play," he said. "But it was just like going through the miseries of hell out there on the greens. I thought I had been putting pretty well for the last few months, and I thought maybe I might have that thing licked, but it was terrible. I was planning to play some of the tournaments this summer—I don't know which ones—but now I don't know. There's not much point to it if I can't putt."
Be that as it may, Ben Hogan had proven that he could beat Sam Snead head-to-head. Unfortunately, it was for nothing more valuable than the $3,000 winner's share of a $5,000 purse and the championship of some ephemeral TV hour next winter. Oh yes, for one other thing, too: for the pride of an always proud athlete.