Watching 'em play through the Ben Hogan Plaque

ASSOCIATED PRESS Ben Hogan Plaque on No. 18.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Ben Hogan Plaque on No. 18.
Posted: June 17, 2013

IT IS THOUGHT to be perhaps the most iconic photograph in golf history: Ben Hogan's 1-iron from the middle of the 18th fairway at the 1950 U.S. Open at Merion Golf Course. Anyone who knows the photo can close their eyes and see it, with Hogan's club just above his head, parallel to the ground, his left foot planted, right foot up on its toes. There is the perfect balance, the huge crowd forming a key-like shape into the green. It's simply known as "Hogan's One Iron."

"No, I don't own a copy [of the photo]," Tiger Woods said earlier in the week. "That [shot] was to get into a playoff. Got to about 40 feet and still had some work to do [a two-putt par to get into a playoff]. It's a great photo, but it would have been an all-right photo if he didn't win. He still had to go out and win it the next day."

Hogan did by beating Lloyd Mangrum and George Fazio in that Monday's 18-hole playoff. He did it despite suffering through painful legs, which had been severely hurt just 16 months earlier in a horrific car crash. He did it despite having to play 36 holes on Saturday on those wobbly stems, with circulation-aiding wraps covering him from waist to ankles.

So the natural thing to do on the final day of the 113th U.S. Open yesterday was sit near the Ben Hogan Plaque, placed in the middle of the beautiful fairway about 220 yards from the pin, and see if another historic shot might take place.

Sitting through 24 twosomes, it wasn't surprising that no one emulated Hogan's heroics, but there were some fun things to see. And eventual winner Justin Rose did hit a clutch approach from 229 yards out to the back of the green that enabled him to par the hole and capture his first major championship, finishing the tournament at 1 over par.

A total of 15 of the 48 players I saw hit their tee shots past the Ben Hogan Plaque (BHP), no one farther than Morten Orum Madsen, who crushed the ball about 50 yards beyond BHP with playing partner Rory McIlroy just behind him. I don't really remember Madsen's approach shot, because I was busy trying to figure out who the hell he was. McIlroy, I know, and I watched him come up way short of the green.

As wave after wave of players came through, it seemed sort of sacrilegious that BHP had now become sort of a target, with players marking their distance to the pin from the spot. Sergio Garcia was one of the closest to landing on BHP, settling just a couple of feet behind and 10 yards to the left. But as he made his way up the hill on the 18th fairway toward his ball, the Spaniard didn't pause to look at BHP or pay respects; instead, he stopped at the spot-a-potty for relief. While he was in one of the four adjoining stalls, a bladder-filled fan tried in vain to get into one. When a door finally opened, the guy quickly grabbed the door and had to hold it in a couple of seconds longer when he realized the person he was taking the door from was Garcia.

Mathew Goggin just missed BHP on one bounce as the ball then came to a rest about 20 feet past. He hit what looked like a 6- or 7-iron, but wound up way short of the green in a gulley that runs before it. I imagine Mr. Hogan was rolling his eyes from the grave at that lame attempt.

I spent most of the 4-plus hours in the fairway rough with Merion member Jeff White, who was volunteering as a ball spotter. We both had a laugh when Bubba Watson, who crushed the ball about 20 yards past BHP but landed in the first cut of rough, came to his ball and said, "I'm glad this is my last hole here." More than anything, the course was the story of this tournament and the historic 18th hole didn't disappoint, playing as the second-hardest hole on the course for the day and not yielding a birdie to anyone. The average score for the par-4, 511-yard hole was 4.7.

A bit later, up the hill came Brian Morgan, a photographer who said he has covered 50 British Opens and has a photo of U.S. Open champ David Graham winning in 1981 posted in the Merion clubhouse. Morgan, a Scottish gent now living in California, was dressed in a nice, white shirt, shined black shoes and a kilt. Needless to say, he drew some whistles from the gallery.

As a couple of groups came through, the skies opened up, but shelter was easy to find under the huge trees that line the left of the 18th fairway. You just knew the sun was going to come out toward the end of the tournament, one last chance for Merion to shine.

It did, and it seemed to be shining brightest when Rose hit his majestic shot from the fairway and when Phil Mickelson hit his off the tee a few moments later. Needing a birdie to tie Rose, Mickelson almost made me part of the story, a writer's worst nightmare, as his tee shot went left and headed straight for White and me. It landed a few feet from me as I scurried like a scared child. His difficult approach out of the rough was hindered by overhanging branches, and Mickelson left it short, ultimately bogeying 18 and giving him his sixth runner-up finish in the national championship.

As the throng of media and fans and officials followed Mickelson up to the green after his approach, I snuck over to BHP to make sure all was good. It was shining in the late afternoon sun, almost as if to brag how this gorgeous course had beaten the hell out of the world's best. BHP had no challenges on this Sunday. Perhaps in another 10 years or so, we will do it all over again.

On Twitter: @BobCooney76

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