On Christmas Day, I made two round trips from Franklin to Logansport picking up my 85-year old mother. That is eight hours and over 400 miles in the car while never leaving Indiana. During the morning drive I listened to a compelling interview on the PGA Tour Radio Network with Ben Wright, legendary British golf sportscaster and journalist.
Wright recounted a story about being in the English military in 1953 and how he stole a car from the army base where he was stationed. He subsequently went AWOL for four days and drove to Carnoustie in Scotland to the British Open to watch Ben Hogan make his only appearance in golf’s oldest major championship.
Wright rented a room in a farmhouse owned by a widow near the course. He went to Carnoustie all four days of that ’53 Open Championship and watched Hogan hit every shot on his way to rounds of 73-71-70-68= 282 and a four stroke win. This would be the last of Hogan’s nine major championship victories. Those nine majors tie Hogan with Gary Player for fourth all-time, trailing only Jack Nicklaus (18), Tiger Woods (14) and Walter Hagen (11)
Wright went on to point out that these four days at the Open Championship were the inspiration for his post-military golf career which spanned decades working for CBS, the BBC and Golf Digest just to name a few.
Ben Hogan is one of five golfers in the history of the game to win all four majors. He joins Gene Sarazen, Player, Nicklaus and Woods. What many people in the modern generation will not know about Hogan is that his career was threatened with a near-fatal automobile accident.
Hogan and his wife, Valerie, survived a head-on collision with a Greyhound bus on a fog-shrouded bridge, early in the morning, east of Van Horn, Texas on February 2, 1949. Hogan threw himself across his wife to protect her, and would have been killed had he not done so, as the steering column punctured the driver’s seat.
The accident left Hogan, age 36, with a double fracture of the pelvis, a fractured collar bone, a left ankle fracture, a chipped rib, and near fatal blood clots. He would suffer lifelong circulation problems and other physical limitations. His doctors said that he might never walk again, let alone play golf competitively. While in the hospital, Hogan’s life was endangered by a blood clot problem leaving doctors to tie off the main artery to his heart. He finally left the hospital on April 1, 59 days after the accident.
After regaining his strength by extensive walking, he resumed golf activities in November 1949. He returned to the PGA Tour at the start of the 1950 season, at the Los Angeles Open, where he tied with Sam Snead over 72 holes, losing the 18-hole playoff when his legs simply gave out.
However, Hogan miraculously won the U.S. Open that year in a playoff. He went onto to win six major championships after his accident. In 1953, Hogan won The Masters, U.S. Open and that Open Championship at Carnoustie when he was 40 years old.
I bring this up because not only is it noteworthy in the annals of golf, but during that Christmas Day interview, Ben Wright was asked if he thought Tiger Woods would ever win a major championship again. He was quick to point out that Hogan won six of his major championships after the accident and did so after the age of 36..
Woods will turn 36 years of age on December 30. While the physical injuries that he suffered in 2009 when his SUV hit that fire hydrant were minor in comparison to Hogan’s. The mental anguish that Woods endured due to the well-documented exploits in his personal life, at least temporarily seemed to destroy his confidence and self-esteem. It has affected his golf.
Hogan and Woods share several things. Both could be labeled as mysterious in many ways as they are very private and guarded individuals. To say that Woods and Hogan each have “a mystique” would be an understatement. Hogan was widely considered the best ball striker ever, until Woods emerged and dominated major championship golf.
“I wish that I owned my swing the way that Hogan did,” Woods recently said.
Hogan was known later in his career as a poor putter, particularly on slower greens. The majority of his putting problems came after his car accident in 1949. It is no secret that Woods has had the same problem with his putter since 2009. Hogan was known as an effective putter from mid to short range on quick surfaces even late in his career. The same can be said for Woods today.
It has been said that you cannot compare athletes of different eras. Some say that today’s talent pool on the PGA Tour is deeper than it was when Hogan played, making Woods’ past accomplishments even greater. Let me remind you that Hogan, Snead and Byron Nelson were born six months apart and they formed a golf triumphant that may never be matched in any era.
Will Tiger Woods regain his form and win a major championship in 2012? Several years ago it seemed that it was only a matter of when, not if, Woods would surpass Nicklaus’ mark of 18 majors. As I listened to Wright recap Hogan’s career after his accident, including the six majors he won after the age of 36, I thought it really put Woods’ status in better perspective.
While you can’t underestimate the mental part of golf and what impact that might have had on Tiger, he certainly doesn’t face the physical obstacles that Hogan did. Woods will win a major championship in 2012 and he will eventually pass Nicklaus. The similarities between Woods and Hogan are eerie. Thanks to Ben Wright for pointing them out.