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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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Three thousand spectators trailed Ben through the championship's two required qualifying rounds, a one-under 70 followed by a 75 that made him question if he had the stamina for the duration. Complicating matters, the wind off the firth had shifted and cold rainy weather was forecast.

The next morning, July 6, wrapped in two cashmere sweaters, Ben started his Open quest. With no ropes holding back spectators, a dozen Scottish policemen needed to keep his path clear through the masses of fans. Unknown to Ben, the staff at Tay House had placed personal good-luck trinkets and amulets in the bottom of his golf bag—personal notes, an ancient British coin, a treasured family locket—that indicated their growing affection for this American the local papers were calling the Wee Ice Man. Owing to Ben's scratchy throat, the cook even gave him a packet of hard lemon drops to keep his throat moist.

Ben missed several short putts on the outward nine, causing the lanky and expressive Timmy to bend over and hold a hand over his eyes. At one point, Ben ordered Timmy to knock off the histrionics and stand perfectly still, and to quit eating all his candy. Ben's opening 73 left him three strokes behind Stranahan and one back of Roberto De Vicenzo, Bobby Locke, Dai Rees and Peter Thomson, who would win the first of his five Open titles a year later.

Following a morning downpour, Ben shot a second-round 71 that could easily have been three strokes lower. Still, he was only two behind Rees and Scotland's Eric Brown.

At Tay House on the eve of the 36-hole finale, the head cold that had been sneaking up on Hogan for days erupted with a fury, shooting his temperature to 103° and allowing only fitful sleep. In the morning his feet were numb, his head dizzy, prompting Valerie to insist that he withdraw. When Derr heard about his condition, he chose not to alert his live radio audience back home. "We weren't even sure Ben would come out to play," he remembered. "But there he was at the start of round three, dressed in his sweaters and ready to attempt two rounds on the hardest course in Scotland in weather that had turned frightful. Valerie was worried out of her mind—and, truthfully, so was I."

A shot of the new wonder drug penicillin seemed to help a bit. Ben plodded under alternately rainy and sunny skies to a third-round score of one-under 70 that tied him for the lead with De Vicenzo. Afterward, Ben retreated on aching legs to the men's locker room, where he sat alone on a bench, took an aspirin with a glass of lukewarm ginger ale and ate half a ham sandwich with a few orange wedges prepared by the Tay House cook. Feeling better after a brief rest, he calculated that another 70 might secure the championship.

The gallery awaiting him at the 1st tee for the afternoon round had grown even larger, by some estimates half again as large as the morning one as spectators sensed the importance of the moment. After his opening drive split the fairway, they surged ahead and around him, and Ben asked Derr to walk closer to him. "They knew they were witnessing history," Derr said. "They knew this was the greatest player of the age making his final walk into the record books."

On the 5th hole Ben chipped in for a birdie and took sole possession of the lead. He narrowly missed birdies on 11 and 12, then made one on the par-3 13th. When the gallery released a thunderous ovation, he felt better than he had all week, lifting his head in a manner Valerie said he always did when he was confident he'd win. Indeed, as he later confided, this was the precise moment he knew he had the Open in his grasp. No champion played better with a lead than Hogan. That's what Henry Picard said about him when he won his first tournament at Pinehurst in 1940, and it was just as true this day.

On the tee at 16, Hogan asked where the other contenders stood, and Derr told him that Stranahan, who had made a bold charge, had finished at 286. Three pars would put Ben in the clubhouse with 283. He then struck a brilliant four-wood shot to within 20 feet of the cup, safely two-putted and told Derr, "John, you can get ready for that interview. This tournament is over."

"It gave me goose bumps when he said that," the broadcaster remembered. "The certainty in his voice was absolute, almost chilling." Some 20,000 spectators had gathered around the 18th hole, while an audience estimated at three million was listening to updates on BBC. Following a drive of 280 yards down the heart of the home fairway, the exuberant crowd closed around him, and Ben asked Derr to walk in front of him. "He grabbed the back of my pants, slipping his hand under my belt to hang on for dear life," Derr said. "People were trying to touch him and slapping him on the back. It was controlled mayhem. These people, the smartest galleries in the world, knew what they were doing following in his steps, walking with a legend who would never come again ... immortality."

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