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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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Heading east, the Hogans stopped briefly in Cincinnati so Ben could meet with Cowan, who showed him the results of detailed tests conducted on the new Tourney golf ball using a state-of-the-art mechanical robot—a prototype that the USGA would later refine and use for its own equipment testing, the aptly nicknamed Iron Byron. Ben wasn't persuaded.

When Cowan angrily demanded to know how he could possibly deny all this scientific data, Ben reportedly looked at him and said, "If it's so good, I recommend you enter that machine in the U.S. Open," and walked out. Unknown to anyone outside his close circle, Hogan had already leased a 15,000-square-foot building in Fort Worth. He had also hired two talented clubmakers, who were improving the prototypes that had gotten him in trouble at the Masters.

Facing a wave of new stars including Burke, Bolt, Middlecoff and Julius Boros, Ben predictably didn't alter his Open preparations one iota. He arrived at the club at nine o'clock sharp, signed a few autographs, then put on his spikes and walked with his caddie to a remote corner of the practice tee, where he smoked an entire pack of Chesterfields and went through his bag hitting every club for 10 minutes. He also played practice rounds with Bolt, Burke, Souchak and George Fazio, whose golf swings and personalities he liked. "One reason he liked us," Souchak said years later, "was that we played fast and said little. Nobody wanted to be the guy who got in Hogan's way. We were all in awe of him."

As the players made their usual howls about Oakmont's difficult setup, Ben went out on a pleasant sunny opening day dressed in a gray sweater and his signature white cap, carving a 67 out of the course and seizing a commanding three-stroke lead. Every other big name, it seemed, had a rough beginning. Boros, the defending champion, three-putted three of his last four holes for a 75. Sam shot a 72. Meanwhile, a skinny, hard-swinging and somewhat unorthodox young amateur from nearby Latrobe, who had qualified while on leave from the Coast Guard, also had a great deal of difficulty battling Oakmont's murderous rough. In his Open debut, Arnold Palmer slashed his way home in a discouraging 84 strokes.

In the second round, Sam recovered some of his old touch and needed only 11 putts on the back nine to shoot 69, edging three strokes closer by the end of the day to Ben, who shot 72 and took more time than usual over short putts as the tournament unfolded, oblivious to the slow-play penalties being handed out by officials.

Oakmont produced even slower play on Saturday, and the chorus of complaints grew louder. At one point a disgruntled Middlecoff hooked his drive onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike, picked up his tee and stalked off the course. By then Hogan was already in the clubhouse with the lead, having a light lunch of ginger ale and fruit salad in hopes of losing some of the 15 pounds he'd put on since the [1949 car] accident.

Sam, meanwhile, shot another 72 that allowed him to pick up another stroke on Ben, grabbed a sandwich and went to the pro shop to look at putters. "I was kind of agitated with my putting," he remembered, "but I was mostly worried about, well, the usual thing—the [U.S. Open] hex, the jinx, whatever you want to call it. Something always got me in the final round. I figured this might be one of my last good shots at the thing. And I was hoping Ben and I would be paired together that afternoon."

Most everyone else on the grounds was probably hoping for the same thing. "It was shaping up to be a classic U.S. Open in which the two reigning titans of the game, Hogan and Snead, would have the ultimate one-on-one for the biggest championship of them all," Al Barkow noted. "Sam's record against Ben in such situations was better than anyone else's in golf. In the three head-to-head major championship matches they had in their careers, Sam won all three. Joe Dey, an unapologetic Hogan fan, knew this. His personal dislike of fellow Virginian Snead was perhaps the worst-kept secret in golf."

When Sam arrived at the 1st tee for the afternoon round, he was dismayed to see that Ben had been sent out almost 90 minutes ahead of him. Snead's heart sank, and his temperature rose.

What followed that afternoon was unforgettable for fans of both men. Ben fired a 71 for a 283 that bettered the Oakmont tournament record by 11 strokes and tied him with Jones, whereas Sam was once more undone by the demons of self-doubt and staggered home with a 76 for his fourth runner-up finish in the Open. During the presentation, Ben playfully pushed the trophy toward Sam, who grabbed it and pretended to swoon, rolling his eyes. "I never felt worse than that moment," he said years later.

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