In many ways, as 1953 got under way and Ben Hogan remained stubbornly silent on his immediate plans, this long-standing rivalry grew even more intense. Ben and Sam Snead had won six majors apiece, and while Byron Nelson had won five, he had neither the ego nor the stomach to chase down another. From this point forward, his greatest legacy wouldn't be conducted in competition.
Golf Digest, which first appeared in 1951 [Golf Magazine was launched eight years later], had begun popularizing the notion, long espoused by the cognoscenti, that the truest measure of a player's greatness related directly to how many major titles he had won. Bobby Jones, with four U.S. Opens and three British titles, had always been the gold standard, but he was distinctly from another time, as were Walter Hagen with 11 majors and Gene Sarazen with seven. Now, with professional golf arguably more popular than it had ever been, largely due to this American Triumvirate, millions were watching to see how the ongoing battle between Sam and Ben would wind up.
Which explains why Hogan simply could not elude the burden of his own destiny. Entering his 41st year, though the grind of championship golf was nearly too much to bear both physically and psychologically, his very nature guaranteed that he would do whatever was required to win at least one more major and improve his lead on his two greatest rivals.
Following weeks of practice down at Seminole and a second-place finish in the club's popular Amateur-Professional tournament, Ben tied for eighth at the Palmetto Pro-Am. The man he had tied, predictably, was Snead, who was buoyant over the huge sales of Natural Golf. "Maybe we ought to go have a playoff somewhere down in Georgia," Sam later claimed to have told Ben. "I could give you a great book to help you with that swing of yours."
As Jackie Burke Jr. and Tommy Bolt were first to point out, young and veteran players alike often stood for hours watching Ben and Sam practice. This particular year, on the range at Augusta National, Mike Souchak, who had turned professional in late 1952 but was here as a spectator, happened to observe a fascinating exchange between Ben and Toney Penna, the former Tour star who was now a field rep for MacGregor Golf, the company Ben had signed on with in 1937 for $250. Violating protocol and Ben's own sacred practice space, Penna reminded him of the company's recent mandate that all its players use the new Tourney ball. In August 1952, however, Ben had paid a secret visit to rival Acushnet's factory to see how the Titleist balls he preferred were made.
Not surprisingly, on the practice tee at Augusta, he was hitting Titleist balls to a caddie stationed on the range with a towel and a catcher's mitt. Penna was outraged by this bold defiance of company policy, not to mention that Ben was using MacGregor clubs bearing little or no resemblance to the ones the company sold under his name. These clubs, as it happened, were early prototypes of the new ones Ben hoped to bring to market within a year. Back in Fort Worth, he was already working with one of the game's most respected clubmakers to produce a finished model designed for better players.
"It got heated real fast," Souchak remembered. "Penna demanded to know why Ben was being so difficult, and Ben told him to tell Mr. [Henry] Cowan of MacGregor that his balls and equipment were junk. That pretty much settled that."
Ben opened this 17th Masters with a steady two-under 70 that left him two strokes behind Chick Harbert and one ahead of Sam, the reigning champ, who drained a monstrous birdie putt on the final hole but erroneously signed his card for par and had to keep that higher score, a 71. Displaying his graceful, unchanging swing, Byron shot 73. In the second round, when Ben typically made his move, he hit every green in regulation and shot a 69 that gave him the halfway lead at 139.
Overnight, heavy rains pounded the course and softened the greens, but 10,000 patrons trailed Hogan and colorful journeyman Porky Oliver through the third round, observing one of the finest shotmaking exhibitions ever put on by two players. "Word spread quick that Hogan and Porky were doing something really special out there," Souchak recalled, "and by the back nine you had lots of players who had already finished coming out to watch." Between the pair, Ben and Porky had 13 birdies and an eagle. Ben's 66 was his lowest round ever at the Masters, and he beat Oliver by a stroke.
A record did indeed fall that day, with Ben's 205 beating Byron's 54-hole mark by two strokes. Given his four-stroke lead over Oliver, not known to be a strong closer, the only real question in most minds was how badly Ben would beat the 72-hole record of 279.