The enduring question about the only British Open Ben Hogan ever
played in is this: Why did he enter in the first place? After
all, he was 40 years old in 1953--an old 40 because of his car
accident four years earlier. "I'm getting awfully tired," he had
said that June after winning the U.S. Open at Oakmont. "Someday
there has to be a stopping point." He was sore, too. Tournament
golf sharpened and spread the chronic pain in his legs, shoulder
and back. And he was busy. In July he would open the doors of the
Ben Hogan Golf Company, in Fort Worth,
Texas, and machines had to be bought, employees hired and
Why play in the British Open? He certainly had nothing to prove.
Hogan had entered five official tournaments in 1953 and won four
of them. He'd taken the U.S. Open by six shots, the Masters and
the Colonial by five. To do well in the British Open, he'd have
to learn to play a different game, with a smaller ball and a
fiercer wind on a course--Carnoustie--that was to an American
country club what hockey is to figure skating. Winning would be
nice, but doing poorly might put at risk his lofty reputation,
which he would soon have to rely on to sell clubs.
An important logistical problem also made him hesitate. Although
he wasn't phobic about it, Hogan hated to fly. On his only other
trip to Europe, in 1949 as the U.S. Ryder Cup captain, he and his
squad had gone by boat. He'd rather float than fly if he went
again, but he knew there wouldn't be time for that. He had a
dozen reasons not to play, and with his physical problems, no one
would have blamed him if he passed.
July 13, 2003
Still, they pined for his presence in Europe. For example the May
issue of Edinburgh-based Golf Monthly had this headline:
HOGAN--THE MASTER--COME OVER. "In phantasy we see Hogan, the
enigma, silent, austere, resolute, battling out on the windswept
links of the Angus seaboard," the story read. "Do not leave it
too late, Ben, to take your place amongst the immortals of golf
and the supreme honour in the game."
Hogan waffled, then cabled his entry only a few days before the
deadline. For the press he recited an elaborate series of reasons
for doing so: His center-shafted putter, previously banned by the
R&A, was now approved; he had no schedule conflicts; with this
Open set for July instead of May or June, as it sometimes was, he
had a good chance of avoiding the cold temperatures that bothered
him so mightily; he'd heard that Carnoustie was one of the finest
golf courses--if not the finest--in the world; respected old
friends such as Bobby Cruickshank and Walter Hagen had urged him
to go; and so many other, unknown fans had wanted him to play
"that I feel it's my patriotic duty as an American to please
them," Hogan said.
Hogan delivered these thoughts like a legal brief, prefacing each
section with an ordinal "first ... second" and so on. But
something he said more casually may have been his deepest, truest
motivation: "I'd like to see how I can do."
When Ben and his wife, Valerie, arrived in Scotland on June 23,
with the Open still 13 days away, they rented a Humber, a big,
black banker's car, and hired a driver. It was a good thing they
did. Their room in the Bruce Hotel in Carnoustie turned out not
to have a bathroom, and Hogan needed his own tub for the nightly
soaking of his aching legs. Every other hotel in a 20-mile radius
"Let's go back to the airport," Ben said. But Valerie remembered
their backup plan, a rental house belonging to National Cash
Register, an American company with a factory in the area. So they
stayed in Dundee, 12 miles to the west, in a house called Tay
Park, in a room with a view and a bathroom. The Hogans went out
only twice during their long stay in Dundee, both times to the
movies. History does not record what they saw, but perhaps the
Hogans went to see their friend Glenn Ford, who'd played Ben so
unconvincingly in Follow the Sun. Ford was starring in The Green
Glove at the Reres Theater in nearby Broughty Ferry.
A handful of people tagged along the first time Hogan played a
practice round and watched him shoot a 69, one off Carnoustie's
competitive course record. Then the word spread: Hogan is here!
Some 600 fans showed up the second day and 3,000 the third,
though it was still 10 days before the shots counted. He was
popular in the U.S., but in Scotland, where golf was a religion,
he was a god. One measure of the mania is that Frank Sinatra came
out to watch--he had two shows at Caird Hall in Dundee--and
wasn't mobbed. All eyes, including Ol' Blue Eyes, remained on
Although Valerie would later describe their 2 1/2 weeks in
Scotland as a love-in, they weren't. The cloying crowds and the
unfamiliar conditions annoyed Ben. He argued with a TV cameraman.
A couple of times he left several thousand of his fans in the
lurch as he slipped off to practice at Panmure Golf Club, a
nearby private course. "You can't putt on putty," he said of
Carnoustie's greens, which were mowed only once a week. In a
practice round at Carnoustie's Burnside course, which would be
used in the 36-hole qualifying tournament, he refused to putt at
all. "Hogan showed how he felt about the crowds by walking off
the course after playing three balls to the last green," reported
the Associated Press. "He jumped glumly into his car and drove
away without any comment."
But the Scots liked his reticence and the wall of concentration
in which he enclosed himself. And for the most part Hogan acted
his hero's role admirably. He allowed his physical space to be
invaded by cute kids in school uniforms and by grown men in ties
and tweed. He signed autographs. He met the press out in the open
by the 18th green after his rounds. The Wee Ice Mon seemed bigger
than many people expected, but part of that was the full suit of
long underwear beneath his clothes. "He was very good-looking,
extremely well-dressed and so mannerly," recalls Bob Blyth, a
retired Carnoustie school teacher. "Did the women fancy him too?
No one was getting past Valerie, of course. "I guess my only real
hobby is Ben," she told a writer. As was her habit, she remained
in the clubhouse while her husband played, and she rarely saw a
shot. She knitted. "Only socks," she said. "My husband says he
plays better in hand-knitted socks. They're nearly always gray or
natural. He doesn't like bright colors."
On Wednesday, July 8, the biggest crowd in Open history turned
out at Carnoustie, and much of it surrounded the 1st hole and
waited for Hogan. The Hawk arrived at the 1st tee, just a few
hundred yards from the North Sea, shortly after one o'clock. He
wore three sweaters--the outermost was a blue cardigan--a
checkered wool cap and gray trousers, and he had a simple game
plan: Avoid Carnoustie's bunkers, burns and rough no matter what.
He also had a secret: He wasn't feeling well. (The next night the
flu would land on him with full force and his temperature would
spike to 103°.) But his first drive flew down the middle like a
white bullet against that dark background, a sight many of the
estimated 10,000 witnesses never forgot. As he stepped off the
tee, six Scottish policemen walked in formation around the grim
little man, protecting him from handshakes and conversation with
the free-ranging gallery.
A cold gale blew across bumpy, burnt-out Carnoustie all day.
Frank Stranahan, golf's first weightlifter, shot the best score,
a 70. Hogan had a 73 and complained about his putting and his
bogeys on 16 and 17. "I was outdriving Ben by 30, 40 yards in
practice," recalls Stranahan, who won the '48 and '50 British
Amateurs and who bore a strong resemblance to Arnold
Schwarzenegger, in both face and build. "Hogan says, 'Yes, but I
can make my ball stop where I want it to.'"
It rained during the second round. Then the sun came out. Then it
rained again. Hogan's huge gallery smelled like wet wool. He shot
a 71 and was within two of the halfway lead.
After a shot of penicillin he began Friday's concluding double
round at 10:27 a.m. If he was worried or ill, he kept it hidden,
as usual. But he bogeyed the 4th and 5th holes by missing short
putts, and on the 6th tee frozen pellets of hail or sleet briefly
fell from the sky. As the ice storm subsided, a legend was born.
The 565-yard 6th at Carnoustie scared a lot of players into
hitting an iron off the tee, and an iron on their second and
third shots as well. White out-of-bounds stakes loomed on the
left, nasty Carnoustie rough and a shallow burn waited on the
right, and in the center of the narrow fairway was a pot bunker
that looked like a big open mouth. As legend has it, Hogan took a
driver and smashed his ball into the tiny corridor between the
sand pit and the O.B. stakes, a daring shot that indicated he was
in complete control of himself and his swing. From there he
banged a brassie up to the edge of the green. He smoked a
cigarette, chipped, putted and had his birdie right when he
needed one most.
Some swear that this version of events never occurred, that he
played safely to the right of what came to be called the Hogan
Bunker and not through what came to be called Hogan's Alley. But
no one disputes that his aggression on the 6th changed his
momentum. More birdies followed, so that despite a double on
Island--the wicked par-4 17th--Hogan shot a two-under-par 70. He
and Roberto Devicenzo were tied with 18 holes to go.
Neither man could hide his emotions during the short break
between rounds. Several writers referred to a "glum, fatigued"
Hogan. For a moment, Devicenzo wept. He and Hogan had played
practice rounds together, and Roberto hit his tee ball so long
and so straight that in interviews the Hawk picked the gentle man
from Argentina to win. "Carnoustie has sand traps at 240 yards,"
recalls Devicenzo. "I could carry them, he couldn't. But then, I
putt like my grandmother." The hopelessness of beating the
relentless Hogan overwhelmed him briefly and caused the tears.
An international cast battled it out: two Argentinians (Devicenzo
and Tony Cerda), two Americans (Hogan and Stranahan), Dai Rees of
Wales and Peter Thomson of Australia. Stranahan was the first to
finish. His 69--with one-putts on the last six greens--gave him a
286, two under par. Rees and Thomson tied him, but Devicenzo
faded, as he had feared. With 10,000 fans watching every swing,
every mannerism, Hogan chipped in from the edge of a bunker on
the 5th and later called it the key shot. Then he birdied the 6th
again, perhaps from his Alley, perhaps not. After he hit the
green on 16, a vicious par-3 of 235 yards, he looked at John Derr
of CBS Radio and said, "You can go in and set up for your
broadcast. This tournament is over." As Hogan walked the final
fairways, his fellow competitors came out to watch. Like everyone
on the grounds that day, they suspected they'd never see him
again in the Open.
Hogan shot a 68, a course record, and his 282 won by four over
Cerda, Rees, Stranahan and Thomson. In wind and rain and over
7,200 yards of bumpy terrain, Hogan didn't miss a fairway in four
rounds. "Who shall say he's not the best of all time?" asked
Leonard Crawley in the Daily Telegraph.
Ben and Valerie flew to Paris and spent a week there, then took a
boat to New York City. On July 21 the hero rolled down Broadway
seated on the rear deck of a black Chrysler convertible. Ticker
tape poured down from the sky. So ended the greatest season in a
great golfer's life. Who shall say it wasn't the best of all
After Hogan practiced, the AP reported that he "jumped glumly
into his car and drove away without any comment."
On 16 Hogan told CBS Radio's Derr, "You can go in and set up for
your broadcast. This tournament is over."