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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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Outside Oakmont's elegant timbered clubhouse, reporters peppered a departing Hogan with questions about playing at Carnoustie, widely regarded as the toughest and most unforgiving course on the British Open rota. On the eve of play at Oakmont, Hogan had finally ended the suspense by announcing his intention to play the British Open, and one reporter pointedly demanded to know why he would want to subject himself to that. What Hogan chose not to say was that wily Walter Hagen had tracked him down by phone and told him his greatness would never be assured until he won the oldest championship in golf—a feat Sir Walter had done four times.

"Oh, I don't know, fellas," Hogan replied almost jauntily, eager to deflect any glimpse into his thinking. "Maybe because Sam probably won't be there."

Ben bought cashmere long johns from Abercrombie & Fitch for the trip abroad. Sam briefly considered going too, but instead went home to focus on the PGA Championship.

Late on the afternoon of June 23, the Hogans arrived at their fully staffed private manor house in Dundee called Tay Park, an estate house arranged by Ben's Wall Street friend Paul Shields and owned by the National Cash Register Corporation. A Humber automobile and driver would chauffeur Ben wherever he chose to go, and during the 10 days before the Open he made daily trips to reconnoiter vaunted Carnoustie and reacquaint himself with links-style play at Panmure Golf Club, safely insulated from the rapacious British press. Meanwhile, Valerie was looked after by the staff at Tay House as if she were visiting royalty. On the recommendation of amateur Pinehurst stars Dick Chapman and Harvie Ward, Ben also secured a local caddie named Cecil Timms, a talkative young man everyone called Timmy.

Perhaps sensing the historic nature of his undertaking—and its valedictory implications—Ben invited John Derr to follow him through every step of his preparation and the tournament itself. The broadcaster's bosses at CBS had initially balked at the idea of footing the bill for a fortnight in golf's holy land, but eventually they sprang for the airline ticket and the hotel when an executive realized the potential bonanza of having their man on the scene if Hogan somehow accomplished the impossible. A deal was quickly hatched to use BBC equipment and engineers to transmit Derr's daily evening updates back to the States.

At the height of British summer, with daylight lingering until 10 o'clock, Ben spent several evenings practicing on the Panmure course with Timmy and Derr as his sole companions. He never hit a ball, the latter remembered, from the gorse or heather. "Anyone who hits into that," he explained, "won't be contending anyway." Among other adjustments, he nipped shots off the firm wind-seasoned turf and hit low runners onto the greens using the smaller British balls he had recently begun practicing with back home in Texas, also adjusting upward or downward in club selection depending on the strength and direction of the wind.

"I saw a new Ben that first week," Derr recalled, "or maybe it was the kinder and gentler Ben Hogan I had heard really existed beneath his tough public reputation. I had known him a fairly long time, and perhaps because Sam and I were close—and Ben liked Sam and felt much closer to him than to Byron by that point—he felt he could open up and tell me a few things going on in his head. For instance, I learned this was likely to be his final championship before he announced his retirement, and that he intended to go into the equipment business very soon, although he didn't yield many details."

What Ben did relate, however, during one brief interlude, were several fundamental things he believed were essential for every golfer to master in order to play his best golf. He planned to feature these essentials, he said, in a new instructional book he had agreed to write with Herbert Warren Wind of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. Said Derr, "He made it clear that because every golfer was different—owing to variables in weight, height, build, strength and so forth—he had to develop his own game based on these fundamentals. The day after he told me this, he asked me not to share this secret with anyone until he was finished with tournament golf. Naturally I assured him I wouldn't. It would be our secret until he was ready to tell the rest of the world."

Hogan made no secret of his grave respect for Carnoustie, a proud, tough, straightforward public seaside links course whose local sons prided themselves on being heirs to a distinguished line of players and teachers that included Tommy Armour and a host of fabled teaching pros who had immigrated to club jobs in America from the Firth of Tay, among them Jones's mentor, Stewart Maiden. Claiming to date from 1500—supporting local assertions that Carnoustie was even more ancient than the Old Course at St. Andrews—it had at any rate been shaped by three of golf's greatest figures: laid out initially by Allan Robertson in 1850, improved by Old Tom Morris two decades later, then brilliantly reconfigured in the early 20th century by James Braid.

Carnoustie was, in sum, a fitting stage for an incomparable player's final performance, a noble 7,200-yard brute draped in glorious history and impossible gorse, so intimidating that a host of American contenders cabled their regrets to Carnoustie officials at the last moment, choosing to stay home. A few claimed later that they wanted Ben to have the stage entirely to himself, though that didn't quite wash, nor did it prevent volatile Frank Stranahan and Tam O'Shanter gunslinger Lloyd Mangrum from showing up and shooting a pair of nimble 66s in a final practice round that created the first media buzz of the championship. The other missing Americans, including Sam, were off in Michigan the week before, playing in the PGA Championship at Birmingham Country Club. With three Wanamaker trophies already on his shelf, Sam figured his odds of gaining ground on Hogan's total majors would be greatly improved on home soil. (Snead would lose in the second round of the match-play event.)

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