The Greatest Year Ever Ben Hogan won the second major of 1953 despite trouble at home, bad press and the complaints of other players

June 09, 2003

Seldom has an athlete cut a more vivid figure than Ben Hogan did
in the dramatic spring and summer of 1953. Just as birdlike legs
supporting a beer barrel of a torso in pinstripes shouted Babe
Ruth, a limp, flat cloth cap and a flat slash of a swing
unmistakably said Hogan. He had been successful for years--he won
13 tournaments in 1946, after all, and 10 events in '48--but now
circumstances had widened his appeal. And having rivals who were
themselves famous only sharpened Hogan's image. There was Sam
Snead in his straw hat, playing to the cameras the way Hogan
never would or could, and Lloyd Mangrum, he of the slicked-back
hair and the pencil-thin mustache, a riverboat gambler from
Central Casting.

Between his record-setting win in April at the Masters and the
U.S. Open at Oakmont in June, Hogan played in three tournaments.
Before their car collided with a bus in February 1949, Ben and
his wife, Valerie, had practically lived on the road. After the
accident, with both of them largely homebound, something went
sour in their publicly perfect marriage. "They argued
constantly," says Valerie Harriman, Valerie Hogan's niece, who
describes herself as the child Uncle Ben always wanted but never
had. Harriman was 10 when she and her mother, Sarah Harriman,
moved in with the Hogans after the accident so that Sarah could
help her sister take care of Ben. They stayed about a year--until
Sarah's divorce was settled--and moved in a second time during
the construction of their new house. In later years they always
lived near the Hogans.

"The phone would ring, and it would be Aunt Valerie saying,
'Sarah, you've got to help. We've had a terrible argument and
Ben's leaving,'" says Harriman. "Both my mother and [step]father
would rush over to try to calm the waters. That marriage was
volatile, and it stayed volatile." (According to friends, Ben
moved out in 1955, the first of at least three times that he
left. Valerie threatened suicide during one of these separations,
Harriman says, and faked a heart attack during another.) Whatever
the cause--the drastic change in their lives brought on by the
accident or, as Harriman suspects, a combination of suspicion,
anger and a need for control in Valerie that rose to the level of
paranoia--did the damage done to Hogan's most basic relationship
fill him with despair?

If it did, he kept it hidden. The Hogans' marriage was
complicated. Affection lived amid the friction, and both seemed
to get what they needed from the union. Valerie achieved an
identity as Mrs. Ben Hogan, and in a world that appeared to be
against him since he was nine, when he had watched his father
shoot himself through the chest, Ben had an unswerving ally in
Valerie.

Other conflicts in Hogan's life weren't as easy to hide, and they
began even before he had left Augusta after winning the Masters.
The day after the tournament, Hogan stuck around to tee it up
with Dwight D. Eisenhower, our golf nut president and Augusta
National member. When their game did not come off, Hogan had to
deny a report that he had backed out. "It is not true," Hogan
said. "It is absurd, it is preposterous, it is ridiculous." A
scheduling problem had merely caused a delay, and Ben, Ike, Byron
Nelson and club chairman Clifford Roberts played on Tuesday. But
Hogan's icy image made it seem possible that he had stiffed the
leader of the free world.

Ben and Valerie flew to Mexico City in late April for the Pan
American Open. As they got off the plane, the impeccably dressed
Hogans--Ben wore a gray suit, Valerie a dark dress and a white
pillbox hat--smiled as photographers snapped away. When reporters
asked for his reaction to yet another controversy, however, the
smile disappeared. hogan no quiso comentar headlined the
Excelsior. What Hogan had refused to comment on was Lloyd
Mangrum's withdrawal from the tournament. Mangrum had been miffed
when he learned that Hogan was guaranteed $5,000 while he, the
defending champ, had been promised nothing. "I've always been
friendly with Ben until the last two years or so," Mangrum said,
"but [lately] we haven't had much to do with each other. But
then, Hogan doesn't have much to do with anyone."

Hogan shot 72-72-68-74 to win by three in Mexico City, a victory
worth 30,000 pesos ($2,604). The next week he played in the
Greenbrier Pro-Am, on Sam Snead's home turf in West Virginia.
Hogan shot 67-68-68-69 and tied for third, which was notable
because the Greenbrier was the only tournament he entered in '53
that he didn't win. Then another controversy bubbled to the
surface. Someone had leaked to the press that Hogan had accepted
$1,500 to play in the 1952 National Golf Day tournament, a
charitable event in Dallas. Hogan said he had turned the money
over to his church, but beyond that, as usual, he had no comment.
Still, the sniping must have been annoying, and it would reach
its peak at the U.S. Open.

With a final-round 67 on May 24, Hogan won the Colonial National
Invitation by five. The next day he sent a cable to the Royal and
Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews: After months of saying he had
no plans to enter the British Open at Carnoustie, he had changed
his mind.

Taken by itself, Hogan's victory at Oakmont didn't resonate as
powerfully as the middle two of his four U.S. Open wins. Merion
in '50 was defined by the one-iron shot to the 72nd hole, a
moment immortalized by Hy Peskin's photo of Hogan in full
follow-through. At Oakland Hills the following year, the winner
declared that he felt glad to have "brought this course, this
monster, to its knees." Lacking a lasting image or catchphrase,
the center leaf of the Hawk's triptych of majors in '53 has been
underappreciated. But proud, puzzling Oakmont matched its
champion perfectly. It was the Hogan of golf courses.

Nine days before the first round, Ben arrived at Oakmont by taxi
from his downtown Pittsburgh hotel. He hit balls for two hours
that afternoon and walked a few holes, commenting that Oakmont
had "the widest fairways I've ever played." He began a more
serious dissection of the course the next day.

Oakmont is a charmingly handmade course, opened in 1903 with none
of the bulldozed smoothness of, say, Augusta National. But the
150 men and two dozen mule teams that built Oakmont created a
place that was as much obstacle course as golf course. Architect
Henry Clay Fownes had wished to dole out severe punishment for
the slightest mistake. Perfect for Hogan.

Having agreed to play a practice round, Jimmy Demaret asked for
strokes for his amateur partner, Don Cherry, in their match
against Hogan and Cary Middlecoff. According to Middlecoff's
caddie, James (J.P.) Pernice, who overheard the exchange, Hogan
exhaled a cloud of smoke and said, "Tell him to go find another
game." Says Pernice, 91, an Oakmont employee since 1921, "[Hogan]
was the best golf engineer I ever saw. He knew more about the
course after playing it a few times than I did after 30 years."

Hogan's caddie was Carl Nassa, a thin young man of 16 whose
father had just died. "They needed money real bad," the
white-haired Pernice says, sifting through his memories recently
as he sat at a table outside Oakmont's pro shop. Nassa's
assignment meant both a large potential payday if the favorite
won and lots of extra work, what with all those practice rounds.

After a 36-hole qualifier, in which Hogan, nonsensically, had to
participate, the tournament began and, as usual, Hogan's body
hurt, particularly his back. He slept on a heating pad and when
he showed up on the 1st tee, he was the only one on the grounds
wearing a sweater on that warm, sunny day. He missed only one
green and one fairway and shot a five-under 67, possibly his best
effort to grab a major by the throat in the first round. Three
pretenders were three back, but the real competition--Demaret,
Snead and Mangrum--were four, five and six shots back,
respectively. Before shooting 73, Mangrum called the course "an
idiot's delight," its bunkers "a disgrace" and its greens "a
runaway freight train."

Snead came back on Friday, making every putt and chipping in on
18 for a 69. Trudging along on tired legs, Hogan bogeyed 16 and
18 to finish with a 72, giving him a two-shot lead over Snead and
George Fazio going into Saturday's double round. Did the press
and the competitors savor the impending confrontation between the
two dominant figures in pro golf? They did not. All anyone wanted
to do was complain. "I want to see what they do to Ben Hogan this
afternoon," said Clayton Heafner, one of an unhappy group of
players the USGA had put on the clock for slow play. "We played
in 3 1/2 hours.... It took Hogan 4 1/2 hours yesterday. I told
one official I was going out to clock Hogan this afternoon and
see how fast he played."

Snead, Mangrum and Middlecoff led another round of whining on
Saturday, about their starting times. Again, the carping was
really about Hogan. Ben began the third round at 9 a.m., Mangrum
at 9:30 and Snead at 10. "It's unfair, and I don't think it's
accidental," said Middlecoff of his 10:48 slot. "The late
starters have to play on a course that's chopped to pieces by
10,000 people." Middlecoff started late but finished early. He
hit his second shot on the par-4 10th into a bunker by the green
and told his caddie, Pernice, to hand him his seven-iron. "I
thought, What the hell is he going to do with a seven-iron?" says
Pernice. Ignoring the green, the 1949 U.S. Open champion took a
full swing and hit his ball onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which
cuts through Oakmont like a river gorge. He paid Pernice $110 and
stalked off to meet the press.

Snead, 41, and Hogan, 40, slugged it out like two old
heavyweights, fighting themselves, each other and history. In his
dozen previous U.S. Opens, Snead had never won, an odd failing
for someone with his enormous talent. Hogan had won it three
times and desired a fourth. Snead led by one after 45 holes; Ben
led by a shot after 54. At lunch--a simple plate of fruit and
vegetables--Hogan commented to Lincoln Werden of The New York
Times that he felt sorry for anyone needing a birdie on the last
four holes. "That's the toughest part of the course," he said.

When he came to that crucible in the final round, Hogan bogeyed
the par-4 15th. Sixteen was a 234-yard par-3, with a green that
looked as if it didn't want a golf ball landing on it. Hogan cut
a brassie onto the surface and two-putted for par. Seventeen ran
292 yards straight up a hill. On his tiptoes the 5'8" Hogan could
just see the top of the flag. It was possible to drive the green
and putt for eagle or miss it and land in one of the bunkers
shaped like an animal footprint, from which a 5 or 6 could easily
result. Hogan had been playing the hole conservatively, to the
left. This time, with the U.S. Open on the line, he went for
it--and made it.

In the hush of 5,000 fans Hogan then holed a six-footer on the
462-yard 18th for a 3-3-3 finish. He removed his cap and smiled
as the gallery roared. Snead could not keep up. He shot 38 on the
last nine to Hogan's 33, almost all the difference in Ben's
six-shot win over his nemesis. Mangrum finished third, nine shots
back.

Hogan paid his fatherless caddie $500 and then gave his victory
speech. "I would like to thank my wife, Valerie," he said. "We
are a team. She works harder preparing me for these tournaments
than I do."

Ten days later Team Hogan arrived in Scotland.

The third and final installment of THE GREATEST YEAR EVER will
appear in the July 14 issue of SI Golf Plus.

B/W PHOTO: JOSEPH SCHERSCHEL/TIMEPIX HITMAN Between Augusta and Oakmont (above), Hogan was accused of stiffing Ike and shaking down a charity event.
B/W PHOTO: AP (OPPOSITE) [See caption above] B/W PHOTO: CARL MYDANS/TIMEPIX COMPLICATED Friends say Ben walked out on Valerie at least three times but always returned. B/W PHOTO: AP FAST START Hogan topped the leader board after the first round, missing only one fairway and green en route to a five-under 67. B/W PHOTO: AP SECOND BEST Snead, who would never win a U.S. Open, lost this one to Hogan on the final nine holes.

"The phone would ring, and it would be Aunt Valerie saying,
'We've had a terrible argument and Ben's leaving.'"

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)