He lives on in the memory of the people who saw him, those who snapped his picture, those who chronicled his swing, those who marveled at the mystique and majesty that were Ben Hogan. In the history of golf, no player embodied the pursuit of perfection like Hogan did, digging a game’s answers out of practice range soil, curing a wicked hook to become the greatest ballstriker ever.
But for all of his singular attributes — unmatched competitiveness and focus near the top of the list — his courageous return from a horrific car accident to win the 1950 United States Open at Merion shines brightest as a moment that changed the game.
For much of the 1940s, Hogan was considered a great player among a small group of stars that included Byron Nelson and Sam Snead. Hogan was the most aloof of the trio, a loner with only fleeting adoration from the public. In 1948, Hogan notched 10 tournament wins, including the United States Open at Riviera Country Club.
He seemed to be on his way to dominating the sport. In February of 1949, however, Hogan and his wife, Valerie, collided head-on with a Greyhound Bus while driving about 150 miles outside of El Paso, Texas. Hogan, who was the driver, threw himself across Valerie’s lap, likely saving her life and his own. (The steering wheel hit the driver’s seat.) Valerie sustained only minor injuries, but the force of the crash broke Hogan’s collarbone, pelvis and ankle and crushed one of his ribs. He later developed a blood clot that nearly killed him. Doctors were not sure he would ever walk again, let alone play golf.
But Hogan persevered, first by taking small steps in his hospital room, where he stayed for two months, and later by taking small swings with his golf clubs. By January of 1950, 11 months after the crash, Hogan began playing tournament golf again. That summer, he entered the United States Open at Merion.
With his legs wrapped in bandages, he played sterling golf, arriving at the 72nd hole needing a par to join a playoff with Lloyd Mangrum and George Fazio. Hogan struck a 2-iron to the green — a shot immortalized by the photographer Hy Peskin — made his par and went on to win an 18-hole playoff to secure the championship. Only 16 months had passed since the accident.
Ken Venturi won the Open in 1964 while battling heat exhaustion, and Tiger Woods won in 2008 with a torn ligament and double stress fracture in his left knee, but Hogan’s accomplishment remains the standard for inspirational endurance by a golfer. Searing pain in his legs accompanied nearly every step. Fans could not believe what they saw.
Hogan became an instant hit, beloved at last, a golfing celebrity. One year after his triumph, the movie “Follow the Sun,” starring Glenn Ford as Hogan, premiered. It told Hogan’s story of triumph.
In real life, Hogan continued to play superb golf, winning five more major championships, including three in 1953, one of the greatest seasons in the history of the sport. A scheduling conflict between that year’s British Open and PGA Championship made it impossible for him to win the Grand Slam, a feat only accomplished by the great Bobby Jones in 1930.
But Hogan’s 1950 United States Open victory remains the peak of his career, a moment that changed the game because it was so unexpected. With one incredible week, a golfer once seen as arrogant and aloof became an inspiration to the public, a tangible and textured hero. Hogan proved that golfers were athletes too, blessed with timing and skill, courage and tenacity, heart and soul.