Tiger is chasing Jack Nicklaus, but he has more similarities to Ben Hogan

Tiger Woods, US Open 2013, Merion
Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images
Woods is looking for his 15th major title this week -- and first since 2008.

ARDMORE, Pa. -- The ghost of Hogan permeates this Merion course, as it does most everywhere Hogan won. Every player in the field is aware of it, in part because of the plaque in the dead-center of the 18th fairway that marks the place where Hogan hit his 1-iron from about 225 yards in the fourth round of the 1950 U.S. Open, which he won. But there is one player for whom the life and golfing times of Ben Hogan is especially meaningful, and that player is the only active player with more major titles than Hogan, and that of course is Tiger Woods.

 When Woods played a practice round at Merion on a rainy Tuesday last month, when he was the only golfer on the course, he got to the third hole, an uphill par-3 that measures about 250 yards, and said to the small group with him, “Can you imagine what this hole was like for Hogan?”

Woods, of course, is chasing Nicklaus—he has 14 majors and Big Jack has 18—but in terms of intensity and devotion to practice and obsession with the swing, the golf legend he is closest to is Hogan. Both men were shy and secretive and preferred to let their scores speak for them, but it’s much more than that. Hogan played manly golf. You sometimes got the feeling that Woods held onto his steel-shaft 43 1/2-inch driver shaft, long after other pros had gone to much longer graphite shafts, in part because he liked golf as it was played by his forebears, Nicklaus and Palmer and Hogan most particularly.

He was asked on Tuesday if he owns a copy of the famous Hy Peskin photograph of Hogan playing that 1-iron shot into 18. Woods doesn’t, but he could write the caption for it.

“That was to get into a playoff,” Woods said. “Got it to about 40 feet and still had some work to do. It’s a great photo, but it would have been just all right if he didn’t win. That he went through the accident and then came out here and played 36 and then 18, that’s awfully impressive.” Thirty-six holes on Saturday, the third and fourth rounds. An 18-hole playoff. It’s hard to think of a current player who knows more golf history than Woods.

Hogan won four U.S. Opens, and Woods has three, all won on public courses: Pebble Beach in 2000, Bethpage in 2002, Torrey Pines in 2008. He grew up playing flat, no-rough public courses in southern California, and Merion is nothing like that, culturally or otherwise. Hogan, a working-class kid from Fort Worth, embraced the old-line private-club world in ways that Woods has not.

At some U.S. Opens, at Oakmont and Winged Foot and Baltusrol particularly, the players cannot escape the fact that they are in bastions of Establishment wealth playing at big, sprawling country clubs. It’s different this year at Merion, where the players are not even using the club’s historic clubhouse. The history at Merion is really all about what Bobby Jones did there in 1930, what Hogan did in 1950, what Lee Trevino did to Jack Nicklaus in 1971, and the 67 David Graham shot on Father’s Day, 1981. It’s a golf club.

The USGA wants to make the case that this 113th U.S. Open is not a referendum on equipment, but that’s exactly what it is. The 1950 and 1971 and 1981 Opens were all, really, the same tournament, in terms of equipment. There’s a photo of Johnny Miller’s golf bag from his 1973 U.S. Open win (at Oakmont) in the SI U.S. Open preview issue that’s just fascinating. He played with clubs that Hogan would totally recognize. Most of the clubs are from the 1940s and ’50s. The driver is from 1961.

Nobody could possibly fly it 330 yards with that club, not with the balata ball that he used. Miller played a harder game. The clubs are beautiful. You can tell from the way he taped them, and the way he talks about them, that he loved those old clubs. If equipment standards had not changed so radically from the time Woods first started winning USGA championships, as a junior amateur in the early 1990s, he’d be far more dominant than he already is. In his era, there is a short list of truly great  shot-makers: Woods, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlory and that’s about it. (Vijay Singh, Padraig Harrington, Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia are near the list, but not on it.) Miller—and Trevino and Nicklaus and David Graham—really did play the same game that Hogan did. Woods came up on that game, but then it changed and he changed with it.

Woods will not be carrying a 1-iron this week, or ever again. “In my teens, I used a 1-iron,” he said. “In my 20s, I used a 2-iron. In my 30s, I used a 5-wood. You can see where this is going, right?”

Woods is playing fields that are far deeper in talent than the ones Hogan competed against, except for where it counts most: at the top. Hogan was fixated on ball flight. The flight of his golf ball seemed to give his life meaning. For Woods, beating people is his m.o. “I enter events to win,” Woods said on Tuesday. “That’s it. That’s why I played as a junior, all the way through now. Just to try to kick everyone’s butt. That to me is the rush.”

Jones won at Merion. Trevino won at Merion. Hogan won at Merion. Nicklaus lost at Merion. Woods is aware of all of that. “It would be nice to put my name in there at the end of the week,” Woods said on Tuesday, “but I’ve got to do my work.”

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