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In 1942, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson dueled in a Masters playoff for the ages

Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan
Augusta National/Getty Images
After 72 holes, Nelson, far left, and Hogan were knotted at 280.

Seventy years, now that’s a long time; there aren’t that many people left who actually remember the 1942 Masters. From the dates alone -- April 8-12, 1942 -- we know that FDR was in the White House, the Nazis held France, and Americans were still reeling from the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. But if you claim to be one of the 10,000 who followed the final round at Augusta National (“perhaps the largest gallery ever in attendance,” according to the next day’s New York Times), we want proof.

Show us your octagonal cardboard hang tag with the flagstick-in-the-map-of-America logo and the final-round ticket price of $2.22.

Sing the choruses of “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” and “The White Cliffs of Dover.” Tell us who won the other Grand Slam events of 1942.

And you’d better look really, really old.

Did that third item trip you up? There was only one Grand Slam event in ’42. The British Open hadn’t been played since 1939, due to falling bombs. The U.S. Open was canceled for the duration of the war, and the PGA Championship would be reduced to 32 players and played in May. That put the burden of grandeur on the Masters Tournament, a convivial invitational hosted by golf’s greatest champion, Robert Tyre “Bobby” Jones.

But the Georgia tournament was still a toddler among majors, so unfinished that the Times added an apostrophe, making it “the Masters’ golf tournament” -- as if Jones and Augusta National Chairman Clifford Roberts were the players’ guests, and not the other way around. Furthermore, the ninth Masters was expected by many (including its founders) to be the last. The club had teetered on the edge of bankruptcy since its founding, and the Masters field was shrinking every year, the meager purse ($1,500 to the winner, $100 for 12th and zero for 13th) not justifying the costs of the trip for most pros. With the nation suddenly mobilizing for a world war, the tournament’s prospects were beyond grim. “The Lord only knows when we will again operate as a golf club,” Roberts wrote the National’s members later that year.

It can be argued, then, that the ’42 edition was the most important Masters ever played. If Toney Penna or Clayton Heafner, to pick two names at random, had won that ninth trophy, we might have wound up with only three majors, a very disappointed Ben Crenshaw, and no place to buy a pimento cheese sandwich. Instead, fate smiled on the Masters and gave us Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan.

Nelson , the 1937 Masters champ, was 30 years old and near the top of his game when he teed off in the first round of the ’42 Masters. Paired with his best friend, Jug McSpaden, Nelson cruised around in 4-under-par 68, breaking par at the Masters for a then record 13th time to finish a stroke behind first-round leaders Horton Smith and Paul Runyan. Hogan, already a four-time winner in ’42 despite spells of hooking, played with Lloyd Mangrum and went around in 73. (Playing with Mangrum neither helped nor hindered the taciturn Texan. According to Hogan biographer Curt Sampson, “Betty Grable could have been his playing partner and he wouldn’t have noticed.”)

Friday went even better for Nelson, who shot 67 for a one-stroke lead on Sammy Byrd, the former Yankees outfielder. After his round, Nelson confided to reporters that he had found the secret to playing the National, coyly adding that he would reveal it if he won the tournament. (Hogan, who had improved his position with a two-under 70, must have taken note of his friend’s “secret” gambit. Twelve years later, he would tell Life magazine that he had a swing secret that was “easy to see if I tell you where to look.” But in two best-selling golf instructionals and the rare interview Hogan would assiduously refuse to reveal “the Secret.”)

Then came a very windy Saturday, which saw only three players shoot better than Nelson’s 72 -- Bobby Cruikshank and Dutch Harrison, who had 71s, and Hogan, who picked up five shots on Nelson with an incredible 67, taking only 28 putts on the National’s slippery greens. “Best managing I ever did,” Hogan said. “I mean manipulating the ball, allowing for wind and roll.”

Nobody remembers this stuff, but it’s in the record. After three rounds, it was Nelson (207) and Hogan (210). And some pursuers.

Forget the pursuers.

Our two guys, the guys who made the ’42 Masters historic, were born in small, north Texas towns in the same year, 1912. As youngsters they caddied at the same country club, and as touring pros they were occasional roommates. Otherwise, they were as dissimilar as two men of common background and status can be. Nelson was warm, imperturbable, intuitive and empathetic; he was a people magnet. Hogan was distant, prickly, obsessive, and contemptuous; he’d cut you with a glance.

It was only when they teed it up that people saw their resemblance. “Neither plays golf by inspiration,” Gene Sarazen told his ghostwriter, Herbert Warren Wind. “Their games have a sort of made-in-Detroit quality. Shot after shot, each one struck precisely.”

The Masters bookies outnumbered the dogwoods in those days, and they had Nelson as the clear favorite, even though Hogan had topped the PGA money list in ’40 and ’41. As good as he was, Hogan had never won a major, and he’d never beaten Nelson head-to-head -- not even in the 1927 9-hole caddie championship at Glen Garden C.C. Nelson, meanwhile, had won the ’39 U.S. Open and the ’40 PGA on top of his Masters title.

None of that mattered on Sunday afternoon, when the Fort Worth boys picked up their practiced rivalry in front of a sprawling gallery. Hogan, playing just ahead of Nelson, nearly holed his approach to 18 and made birdie while Nelson was making bogey from a bunker on 17. His lead erased, Nelson then poked his final tee shot into the pines right of the 18th fairway, handing Ben Hogan the first of his 10 major titles.

Wait, that’s not right. Sampson tells us that Nelson’s ball “sat nicely on a burnt orange bed of pine needles, no trees impeded his swing, and a twenty-foot gap in the conifers allowed a direct shot to the green.” Given the reprieve, Nelson hooked a 5-iron up the hill and onto the green, touching off a roar. He then two-putted from 15 feet to force an 18- hole Monday playoff.

A photo taken after the round shows a smiling Nelson, in a crew-neck sweater, showing the scorecard to a smiling Hogan, who looks jaunty in a checked sport coat.

You’d never guess that one of them, after a sleepless night at the Bon Air Hotel, would lose his breakfast on Monday morning and repair to his room.

The lasting anecdote has Hogan going to Nelson’s room before noon and offering to postpone the playoff. “No,” says Nelson, drawn and pale. “I’ll play.”

Hours later, the two teed off before maybe a thousand spectators, including a couple of dozen tour pros who wanted to witness the last great match of the era. Nelson started shakily, hitting another big slice into the pines. This time his ball came to rest against a pinecone, forcing him to play a left-handed shot back to the fairway on his way to a 6. A bogey on the fourth put him three behind, and if you were there -- and I’m not saying you weren’t -- you figured that Nelson would not have to reveal his “secret” that day.

Hogan wasn’t celebrating. He played on, a grim little man with a head full of dark hallways and locked doors.

At the par-3 sixth, Hogan missed the green and Nelson hit one close, leading to a two-shot swing. Two holes later, Nelson smacked a 4-wood approach to five feet and made his eagle putt—at which point Hogan must have wondered what it took to beat his old friend. (“The wonder of this... humble Texan,” a magazine correspondent wrote of Nelson, was that “he appears to do no single thing better than someone else you might name, yet none of the specialists can be called a better golfer.”)

Hogan played well, but Nelson golfed a stretch that the Times called “almost cruel in its perfection.” He plundered Amen Corner with birdies at 11, 12 and 13, but golf historians would remember Nelson’s victory run as holes 6 through 13. Hogan himself said, “To see him play those eight holes in six under par... was something to behold.”

Leading by two in the 18th fairway, Nelson laid up in front of the green and settled for a strategic bogey, giving him 69. Hogan made par for 70. The spectators cheered and the players’ wives hugged as Nelson and Hogan shook hands, but it was Jones and Roberts, watching from off the green, who were most gratified. “I will always remember this year’s Tournament as being the one won by both Byron and Ben,” Roberts wrote the golfers later. “To my way of thinking, you fellows put on one of the greatest shows that golf has ever known.” Augusta National did not reopen that fall. There was no golf. Cattle grazed on the bermuda grass, and turkeys gobbled in hastily erected pens. Hogan, drafted into the Army Air Corps, became a flight trainer but spent most of his service time playing golf with star-struck officers. Nelson, rejected for health reasons, continued to play the tour, winning a pro-record 11 consecutive tournaments in 1945. The Masters wouldn’t be played again until 1946, when Hogan finished second again. To Herman Keiser.

Have we forgotten anything? Oh, yeah, Nelson’s secret.

“You’ve got to play your iron shots to the green,” the smiling Texan told reporters after his win. “You can’t just aim for the flagstick.”

Seventy years since he said it, but it’s as true now as it was then.

 

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