January 25, 2012
On the damp and chilly morning of Wednesday, February 2, 1949, Ben Hogan got up before the sun and hit the El Capitan Motel coffee shop in Van Horn, Texas. He and his wife, Valerie, had driven more than 500 miles east from Phoenix the day before, and while the road made his wife queasy, he craved a quick breakfast, and they still had to go 500 miles east to Forth Worth. Ben ate, went back to their room and packed the Cadillac with their luggage and his golf clubs.
Ben Hogan had reached the pinnacle of his career. For the first time, the diminutive golfer had captured two major tournaments in the same year—the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship. Two weeks earlier, his face had appeared on the cover of Time magazine, above the quotation that would define him: “If you can’t outplay them, outwork them.”
Hogan had been working for as long as he could remember. In 1922, when he was 9, his father, a blacksmith named Chester, pointed a gun at his chest and committed suicide. Hogan biographer James Dodson says some reports place Ben in the room of their home in Fort Worth, Texas, at the time. The loss of the family breadwinner meant the Hogan children had to contribute financially. Ben sold newspapers at the train station, then became a caddy at a nearby country club. He was 11. When he wasn’t carrying bags, he spent countless hours on the practice range. Digging hundreds of balls out of the dirt, day after day, he worked to the point where, legend had it, his hands would bleed. He sought to hit a perfectly controlled ball, and to achieve a repeatable swing that would hold up under pressure. Perhaps it allowed him to feel a measure of control over the chaos around him. Whatever, he could be found on the range long after his fellow caddies, and ultimately his fellow competitors, had left the golf course.
In 1949, even the best professional golfers drove thousands of miles each year to tournaments across the country, lugging not just their clothes and clubs, but their families. By February 1949, Hogan had driven more than 3,000 miles since the start of the golf season, and he’d won two of his first four tournaments. He was leading the tour on the money list in what promised to be another remarkable year–but he told Time, “It’s the traveling. I want to die an old man, not a young one.”
Ben and Valerie Hogan pulled out of the parking lot at the El Capitan in sunshine, heading east along two-lane Highway 80. They hadn’t gone ten miles when they ran into a dense fog and a slick, icy film on the road. Hogan cut his speed to 25 miles per hour; then he saw “four lights winking at me.” A Greyhound bus was trying to pass a truck, filling Hogan’s lane. He looked to veer off the road but saw a culvert on his right. “I knew we were going to get hit,” he said.
The Greyhound plowed head-on into Hogan’s Cadillac. At the last second, the golfer hurled himself across his wife. “That was the first break I got in all this trouble,” Hogan later said. The steering wheel and part of his car’s engine was “hammered thru the cushion on my side of the seat.” If he had stayed where he was, he was convinced, he’d have been crushed.
Hogan blacked out upon impact; Valerie was dazed but remained conscious. Both of them were pinned against the dashboard. She managed to lower the passenger-side window and began screaming for help as Ben slipped in and out of consciousness. He moaned and told her to “Get out!” He was afraid the car was going to catch fire.
Valerie freed herself and raised Ben to a sitting position. Another driver came along, and together they pulled the golfer from the Cadillac. It took ninety minutes for an ambulance to arrive. As Hogan was lifted in, he asked his wife if his golf clubs were accounted for. They were.
Word had quickly spread that Ben Hogan had been killed. Some of his fellow golfers, playing in a pro-am tournament in Arizona, walked off the course mid-round upon hearing the false news. Later that day, Hogan’s friends were informed that he was alive but in critical condition, and some of them made it to the Hotel Dieu Hospital in El Paso. Valerie seemed to be fine, despite the bruises on her face and various cuts, but they saw Ben strapped to the bed, covered in gauze.His face was cut and bruised, and his left eye was practically swollen shut. Doctors had diagnosed Hogan with a fractured left collarbone, a double fraction of his pelvis, a broken ankle and a chipped rib.
After setting his bones, doctors expected him to go home in a few weeks. A “complete recovery” was possible, they said, within two months—mostly due to “Ben’s fighting heart.” But before Hogan could leave, his lungs gave doctors cause for concern; he had severe chest pains. Blood clots had formed in his legs after two weeks in bed, and by the end of February, doctors discovered that one clot had traveled to his lung. They gave him several blood transfusions, then performed abdominal surgery to tie off the inferior vena cava—the large vein that carries blood from the lower half of the body to the heart. Hogan would spend another pain-filled month in the hospital, unable to leave his bed. A wiry 137 pounds at the time of the accident, he dropped nearly 20 pounds during his stay. A return to the golf course was no longer seen as certain.
It was March 29, 1949, before Hogan made it home to Fort Worth. He passed the summer trying to regain his strength. He was too weak to swing a club, and even short walks wore him out. The procedure on his vena cava caused chronic pain, swelling and fatigue—conditions that would plague him for the rest of his life. But he was determined to work as hard on his recovery as he was his golf swing.
“It’s going to be a long haul,” he told reporters, “and in my mind, I don’t think that I’ll ever get back the playing edge I had last year. You work for perfection all your life, and then something like this happens. My nervous system has been shot by this, and I don’t see how I can readjust it to competitive golf. But you can bet I’ll be back there swinging.”
“Don’t believe a word of it,” Valerie said. “Ben will be himself again, bones, nerves and all.”
Sam Snead, Cary Middlecoff and a young golfer named Arnold Palmer battled for headlines in the summer of 1949, while Hogan shuffled around his house. He was named non-playing captain of the U.S. Ryder Cup team and traveled to England for the matches, where he delighted fans by putting on the practice green. It was the most he could do, seven months after the accident. Reporters described him as “crippled.” But returning to the States, Hogan began to regain some strength. Then he began to practice.
By June of 1950, 16 months after the accident, Bantam Ben was back on the course, this time trying to reclaim his place as golf’s greatest competitor in American golf’s biggest tournament—the U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club in Pennsylvania. He had played several tournaments leading up to the Open, but on the third and final day of grueling competition, he began to wilt under 36 holes of golf in the heat, and his lead began to evaporate on the final few holes.
With everything on the line, Hogan needed to hit an impossibly long shot from the fairway to make par on 18th and final hole. A packed gallery formed a silent gauntlet around him as he practically staggered to his ball, according to eyewitnesses. Judging the yardage, Hogan reached for his one iron—the most difficult club in his bag to hit. The old joke goes that if you’re ever in a lightning storm, the safest thing to do is to hold up your one iron, for even God can’t hit a one iron.
Hogan steadied himself over the ball, slowly began his backswing, unleashed his power and sent the ball flying. The crowd around him gasped at the sound of his shot and the sight of the ball heading toward the flag. Hogan went on to par the hole and force a three-way playoff. After getting a good night’s sleep, he easily won the U.S. Open the following day, the only player of the three to shoot a round under par.
The tournament represented Hogan’s rebirth: He would go on to dominate golf like never before, winning in 1953 the unprecedented “Hogan Slam” of three straight major tournaments. (He did not play in the fourth major—the PGA Championship—because he did not want to walk more than 18 holes a day.) The car crash, and Hogan’s near death, many of his friends later said, made him a more outgoing and compassionate man. But despite everything he accomplished on the course after his accident, Hogan was convinced he had come as close to perfection in the months before the crash. His post-crash golf swing, recorded on film, is still used as an example of near-perfect ball striking and mechanics. Only Hogan himself disagreed. “I was better in 1948 and ’49 than I’ve ever been,” he said, years later.
Articles: “Golfer Ben Hogan Injured in Car Crash,” Chicago Daily Tribune, February 3, 1949. ”Hogan, Wife Tell of Texas Auto Crash,” Chicago Daily Tribune, March 30, 1949. “Hogan Faces Stern Fight in Hospital,” Hartford Courant, March 4, 1949. ”Golfer Hogan Winning His Hardest Match of All,” Chicago Daily Tribune, March 29, 1949. ”Remarkable Hogan Wins ’50 U.S. Open,” by Larry Schwartz, ESPN Classic, November 19, 2003. “Hogan’s Return: Back From Tragedy to Win the 1950 U.S. Open,” by Damon Hack, Golf.com, October 20, 2008, “Hogan Majored in Courage,” by Larry Schwartz, ESPN’s Sports Century, “What could Have Been,” by Jaime Diaz, Golf Digest, June, 2009. ”Ben Hogan’s Wife Remembers Husband as Exhibit Opens in USGA Museum,” Associated Press, June 9, 1999,
Books: James Dodson, Ben Hogan: An American Life, Doubleday, 2004. Curt Sampson, Hogan, Rutledge Press, 1996.
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