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Friendly Rivals
JAMES DODSON
April 02, 2012
By 1953, Byron Nelson was settling into retirement, but the competition to win majors between Ben Hogan and Sam Snead was heated as the Hawk kicked off one of the greatest seasons ever
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April 02, 2012

Friendly Rivals

By 1953, Byron Nelson was settling into retirement, but the competition to win majors between Ben Hogan and Sam Snead was heated as the Hawk kicked off one of the greatest seasons ever

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The fourth round was also a thing of beauty, a solid 69 that brought the vast Augusta gallery roaring to its feet with the final putt. Ben removed his cap and smiled, author of a 14-under-par total of 274, a record that would stand for a dozen years. Byron, who finished 29th, was among the first to shake Ben's hand. Sam, who shot 75 and finished 16th, also congratulated the winner in the locker room. Ben reportedly thanked him and offered to send him a copy of his next instructional book. And so it went.

Before Ben left Augusta, reporters asked him if there was any truth to the rumor that he planned to play in the British Open at Carnoustie that summer. That very week, both Jones and Sarazen had told him that he owed it to himself and the fans and the game to make a run at the claret jug, and he said that he would think it over. But the answer he gave reporters was typically Hoganesque—an emphatic "No."

Fearsome Oakmont was on Hogan's mind, the fourth U.S. Open title that would tie him, at least by the USGA's math, with the great Jones himself. By Hogan's own calculus a victory would be his fifth national championship, counting the disputed Hale America Open in 1942. Whatever else was true, he now had one more major title than Sam and two more than Byron.

Two weeks after the Masters, after riling fellow pros by demanding appearance money to play in the Pan American Open, Hogan won that event too. Seven days later, at the new Sam Snead Festival in West Virginia, he three-putted the final hole from 18 feet to finish third; fittingly, Sam won with a record 268. Fourteen days later, as questions about his British Open plans approached fever pitch in the national sports columns, Ben won his fourth Colonial National Invitational. Accepting the runner-up check, Cary Middlecoff quipped, "I feel honored to play in the Ben Hogan Benefit here once again."

"Do I get to keep it?" Ben asked Marvin Leonard upon being handed the trophy.

"No," his mentor replied, "but you already own it."

Snead wasn't in the field. In 1951 he had turned up for Colonial's pretournament champions dinner with a woman who was not his wife. This didn't go down well with his hosts, especially because he was the defending champion.

"Someone called her a professional debutante," recalled Leonard's witty daughter, Marty, "and my father and the other members were deeply embarrassed and insulted. Some thought it was a personal dig at Ben. Whatever it was, because of it the committee refused to invite [Sam] back for the next year. That was something to have to tell to a reigning tournament champion—you can't come back because of your behavior. But Sam was doing a lot of things like that in those days, I'm afraid. He seemed oblivious to what people thought of him."

Snead tied for 19th, left town immediately and never returned to Colonial.

In Hogan's mind, the year's only unfinished business before he got back to clubmaking awaited him at Oakmont, the unforgiving masterpiece built by steel magnate Henry Fownes on the bluffs of the Allegheny River, with its 350 "sand pits" and a well-earned reputation for having the toughest greens in championship golf. Shortly before Hogan and his wife, Valerie, set off for Pittsburgh, Henry Picard phoned Ben to give him a bit of strategic advice. "The only way to handle those greens is to play for the collars in front," Henry said. "Otherwise you'll have no chance."

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