Steal of the Century: The bizarre history of Hogan's famed 1-iron

Ben Hogan 1 iron, US Open 2013, Merion
Left: Brian Henn; Right: Lisa Cumming
Thanks to Bobby Farino (left), Ben Hogan's famed 1-iron (left) is now on display at the USGA Museum.

As a respected golf-club dealer, Bobby Farino has built a client list that reads like a roster from the World Golf Hall of Fame. Tom Watson and Ben Crenshaw have turned to him for putters. Arnold Palmer sought his help in finding custom wedges, as did Lee Trevino, who insisted that his lofted clubs be ground just so. In the course of his career, Farino has swapped clubs with Jerry Pate and Michael Jordan and done deals with David Graham, Billy Casper and Greg Norman. Yet his most notable transaction took place with a customer whose name he never learned and whose face he never saw again.

It was the winter of 1983, tournament week at the Players Championship, and Farino had traveled, as he did each year, from his home in Virginia to Ponte Vedra, Fla., where he set up shop in a temporary tent on the TPC Sawgrass practice range. The crowd that Monday morning was a familiar mix of players, fans and club collectors, and Farino was tending to his usual tasks when an elderly man dropped by, a weathered golf bag draped over his shoulder. In it was a quiver of used MacGregor clubs: four persimmon woods and a set of matching irons, which, the man said, ran from 2 through 9. His asking price: $150 for the lot. With a cursory glance, Farino agreed.

"I knew the market," recalls Farino, 64, who still lives in Virginia. "I was confident I was getting a pretty good deal."

Little did he know just how good it was.

Later that day, on closer inspection of the bag and its contents, Farino found a club the old man hadn't mentioned: a steel-shafted 1-iron, its butt-end wrapped in a rough-textured cord grip. A stamp on the clubhead caught Farino's attention. "Hogan Personal Model," it read. A glance at the clubface stirred his interest further. The grooves were largely unscathed, except for a dime-size wear mark at the sweet spot.

"How many guys are going to practice with a club like that over and over," Farino says, "much less hit it so perfectly?"

The realization struck him with the force of a flushed tee shot. If his inkling was correct, he'd just paid a pittance for the most famous 1-iron in the world.

It didn't take an expert in Farino's field to know the basic outline of the 1-iron's tale. Its place in folklore was secured at the 1950 U.S. Open at Merion, where in the fourth round a hobbled Hogan had used it to whistle his approach on Merion's fearsome par-4 18th. The shot, memorialized by a now-iconic photo that captured Hogan from behind in his distinctive finish, led to a two-putt par that landed Hogan in an 18-hole playoff, which he won the next day.

Most golf fans are familiar with those plot points. What few know is that not long after Hogan's fabled swing, the 1-iron vanished. Exactly how and when it happened is unclear. Depending on which account you give the most credence to, it was either stolen from Hogan's bag after the fourth round, on its way from the 18th green to the clubhouse; lifted from his locker later that evening; or pilfered soon after the playoff. But no one disputes that for 33 years, the club was never reported seen again.

Oddly, for all the hoopla over the 1-iron's place in history, little fuss was made over its disappearance. If Hogan longed for the club, he never said so. In fact, in his 1957 book, Five Lessons, he inadvertently downgraded the 1-iron's importance when he wrote of his famed approach, "I went with a 2-iron and played... one of my best shots of the last round." (According to the USGA, Hogan later corrected himself.)

In any case, as the years passed and the 1-iron acquired mythic status, the story of its theft became a faded footnote, so much so that in 1973, P.J. Boatwright Jr., then executive director of the USGA, wrote to Hogan asking if he would donate the 1-iron to the association's museum. (Hogan wrote back, informing Boatwright of the disappointing news.)

Farino had heard the story of the missing 1-iron. And sitting in his white tent on the Sawgrass range in 1983, holding what he felt was the club itself, he knew what he should do. "I probably could have sold it for $50,000 to $75,000," he says. "But a club like that had to get back into the proper hands."

Farino hauled his bounty to his Virginia shop, where, as he expected, the other irons and woods in the MacGregor set sold fast. Their buyer was Jack Murdock, a basketball star turned coach at Wake Forest and an avid club collector. When Farino told Murdock of the prize he'd come upon, and that he had no plans to try to profit from it, Murdock mentioned Lanny Wadkins, his friend and fellow Wake Forest alum, who happened to be cordial with Hogan.

With Farino's consent, Murdock rang Wadkins, a native Texan, who agreed to serve as a courier, delivering the 1-iron to Hogan himself on his next trip to the Lone Star State. By the 1980s, Hogan was occupied with his own equipment company in Fort Worth. Wadkins found him in his office, attending to the details of club design.

"I said, 'Ben, I have something you might be interested in,' " Wadkins recalls.

Hogan's response was typically stoic.

"No 'Wow, I can't believe it. Where'd you get this?' " Wadkins says. "He just gives the club a once-over, sets it back down and says, 'I haven't seen this in a long time.' "

Hogan's matter-of-fact manner confirmed that the club seemed largely unchanged since he'd last used it, though the grip had been reworked. The lack of wear was unsurprising; few players would have any use for a club so unforgiving. Hogan himself had no more need for it. In July 1983, he presented it to the USGA Museum.

And there it has been since, with the exception of a stint in 2005, when the U.S. Amateur was staged at Merion, and the USGA's then executive director David Fay was entrusted to transport the 1-iron to Pennsylvania for the taping of an NBC Sports feature. En route, Fay bunked at the home of a Merion member, and, after dinner at a local pub, the men gave in to temptation and headed out to a park to whack balls with the historic club. Fay and his buddy made sure the turf was stone-free and that they used a tee for every shot. Still, any seismic activity in Fort Worth that evening was likely the Hawk stirring in his grave.

Farino says he can hardly fathom what the 1-iron might fetch in today's market. Not that it matters.

"My reward comes from knowing it wound up in the right place," he says. "When you get down to it, it was never really mine to sell."

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