In 1950, Merion was the site of golf's greatest shot

Ben Hogan
Ben Hogan
Posted: February 19, 2013

Another in a series leading up to the U.S. Open at Merion

Even if the golfer were some unknown competing for a club championship, the photo would be an artistic wonder.

Timing, vantage point, framing, lighting - all those elements meshed perfectly for Life magazine's Hy Peskin that sunny 1950 afternoon at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore.

But it's what isn't apparent in Peskin's elegant portrait of Ben Hogan at the 50th U.S. Open's 72d hole that has made it the most famous image in golf history.

Nowhere does it inform us that this would be the most important single shot in Hogan's magnificent career. We can see Hogan's body, but not the pain that nearly led to his quitting that day. Only 16 months earlier, a Greyhound bus had rammed his car on a foggy Texas road, shattering his pelvis in two places and fracturing his ankle, ribs, and collarbone. He wasn't supposed to be able to walk again. Returning to golf was a long shot. Winning an Open was beyond the realm of possibility.

That 1-iron in his ungloved hands would vanish within the hour and stay missing for 32 years. Those white golf shoes, to which Hogan added an extra spike for better traction, would disappear, too.

The long-ago scene along Merion's 18th hole will be discussed and dissected this June when the U.S. Open returns to the Ardmore course that is as important in golfing lore as Hogan. The 2013 competitors, many still his acolytes 16 years after the great golfer's death, will pause at the 5-by-8-inch brass plaque that marks the spot where both Hogan and Peskin made the shots of their lives.

Peskin's masterpiece speaks to the perfection all golfers and photographers seek. So idealized have the image and moment become that the photo is now a ubiquitous golf icon. Copies hang not only at Merion but in many pro shops, clubhouses, and dens.

"Check the office walls of Ben Crenshaw or Jack Burke Jr. or any of a thousand other defenders of the traditional game of golf," wrote Curt Sampson, one of Hogan's biographers, "and you will find the same photograph."

For sports and photojournalism, it symbolizes a rare instance when the depiction was equal to the reality.

"I knew as I shot it," Peskin, who died in 2005, told Golf Digest in 1998, "I had something really terrific."

The shot

As dusk neared that June 10, Peskin, a 34-year-old Brooklynite and one of Life's top shooters, was following Hogan, hoping for drama.

Through 17 holes, Peskin had found little. An obviously ailing Hogan jockeyed for the tournament lead with Cary Middlecoff, Johnny Palmer, Lloyd Mangrum, and others. The 5-foot-7 photographer, whose aggressiveness did not endear him to colleagues, ran ahead to a spot along Merion's roller-coaster 18th fairway.

The U.S. Golf Association didn't use ropes to separate galleries from golfers until 1954. With fairway access, Peskin sought a vantage point directly behind Hogan, looking toward the distant green. The crowd along the 18th swelled. Men wearing straw hats and white caps like Hogan's, and women in sundresses were six deep in the rough, thicker closer to the green.

Hogan, 37, limped to the 448-yard hole's tee, not knowing he needed a par to tie clubhouse leaders Mangrum and George Fazio at 287, a 7-over-par total that reflected Merion's rigors. After 35 holes in the sun, he was barely hanging on. Six holes earlier, when he was leading by 3 strokes, his legs had virtually turned to stone.

"My God," he murmured to his caddie, "I don't think I can finish."

He bogeyed three of the next six holes to surrender the lead. Basically immobilized, Hogan relied on playing partner Middlecoff to mark his ball and his caddie to pluck it from the cup.

After the horrific February 1949 accident, Hogan went 10 months without playing a single round. In January, he entered the 1950 Los Angeles Open as a sentimental long shot and nearly won.

He arrived at Merion knowing what a grueling test the course and the event, with its 36-hole Saturday finish, would be. In the 1934 Open at Merion, Hogan made his major debut, missing the cut after consecutive 79s.

Practicing there in 1950, he had opted to replace his 7-iron with a 1-iron. "There are no 7-iron shots at Merion," he explained of the fateful decision.

Despite months of rehabilitation, Hogan needed additional physical help to compete. Before leaving his room at the Barclay Hotel on Rittenhouse Square that week, he swaddled his aching legs in bandages and stuck a bottle of aspirin tablets in his pocket.

It got him through 71 holes. Now, with one to go, he was still in contention.

The long 18th required a 210-yard drive to clear Merion's famed quarry. But if, like Hogan, one hoped to reach the green in 2, a longer drive was essential. The narrow fairway was lined by thick rough. Out of bounds loomed on the left.

"You had to go all out with your driver," Hogan recalled in 1971, "then hit all you had to the green."

Down the fairway, Peskin watched as Hogan's short drive parachuted down close to where he waited with his clunky Speed Graphic camera, 223 yards from the hole.

Near the spot where Peskin maneuvered for position, Hogan spotted PGA official Fred Corcoran, who told him he needed a par to tie Mangrum and Fazio. Hogan threw down his cigarette and reached into his bag.

For reasons lost to history, the 1950 Open marked the only one of Merion's 19 USGA events in which the club's traditional wicker-basket flagsticks weren't used. He saw the flag tucked into the green's right corner, just beyond an ominous trap. Initially considering a 4-wood, Hogan feared challenging the hazard.

"The sand was very light," he recalled. "You buried the ball anytime you landed in a bunker at Merion."

So he took the 1-iron, a club spurned by most. Lee Trevino used to joke that golfers caught in lightning storms ought to hold one aloft. "Even God can't hit a 1-iron," he said.

If he could squeeze the ball between the guardian bunkers and onto the green, then two-putt, Hogan would have his 4. Ideally, he'd get it even closer and win it all with a birdie.

By now, Peskin was perched quietly several yards behind Hogan. Gazing into his viewfinder, he noticed the crowd had created a human frame around the shot. A border of leafy trees provided a perfect dark contrast to an otherwise sunny vista. And in the distance, Merion's flagpole, its banner fluttering in a slight breeze, stood like an exclamation point to the scene.

Hogan swung. Peskin, careful to make sure the one shot his Speed Graphic allowed came just after but not during the swing, snapped.

The golfer was captured at the end of his classic swing, his head fixed on the target, his graceful pose suggesting an ease that belied his obsessive nature. Fans' heads turned to follow the low trajectory of the ball, barely visible as it whistled toward the green.

Somehow he had summoned a sensational shot. The ball carried over the great dip in the fairway, and, as if propelled by Hogan's determination, bounded onto the putting surface, 40 feet from the flag.

Hogan misread his initial putt, leaving a four-footer for par. Though he'd had three three-putt bogeys on the back nine, he quickly sunk the putt. There would be an 18-hole playoff on Sunday.

An exhausted Hogan acknowledged the roar, signed his card, and retreated to Merion's second-floor locker room. There, he slowly unwrapped his bandages, changed, drank some water, and spoke with reporters, saying he desired nothing so much as a long, hot bath.

Recovery

Though he didn't discover the theft until the next day, his shoes were lifted from his locker, the now-famous 1-iron from his bag. It would be more than three decades before he saw the club again.

In 1982, Bob Farino, a North Carolina collector, bought some Hogan clubs from an anonymous seller. Farino noticed the 1-iron didn't match the set. Instead, it was a model MacGregor made for its staff players. Interestingly, it had a worn spot the size of a quarter exactly at the center of its sweet spot, a telltale Hogan fingerprint.

Later, Lanny Wadkins took the club to Hogan, who confirmed that it was the lost 1-iron and then donated it to the USGA's Museum.

Peskin's brilliant photo, meanwhile, ran in Life's June 19 edition, though not on its cover, which was graced by twin toddlers on a beach.

Hogan won a third Open that Sunday; his 69 was 4 shots better than Mangrum's score, six better than Fazio's. He continued to win before retiring in the 1960s to run his golf-equipment company.

When Sports Illustrated debuted in 1954, Peskin was the first photographer the magazine hired. He took many more memorable shots, including 40 cover photos, before retiring in 1966. At that point, for whatever reason, he legally changed his name to Brian Blaine Reynolds and became involved in philanthropic endeavors here and in Israel. He died in 2005.

When Sports Illustrated editors selected the greatest sports photos, Peskin's was among them.

"It's part of American lore," wrote retired Newsday columnist Stan Isaacs, "like the photo of the Wright Brothers taking off in their plane."


Watch film of Ben Hogan 2-putting the 18th green in the final round of the 1950 U.S. Open at Merion, and accepting the trophy the following day after winning the playoff: philly.com/hogan


Contact Frank Fitzpatrick at ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @philafitz.

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