Golf: Carnoustie revels in Hogan legend

Myth and reality merge about an American so revered that guest- house staff pooled their ration coupons to buy him a steak. By Andy Farrell
Click to follow
WILL YE no come back? It was the only question the people of Carnoustie wanted to know of the newly crowned Open champion. "I don't know when I'll be back," Ben Hogan said at the prize-giving, "but I'll try to make it next year."

Will ye no come back? No chance. When Hogan got back to the States, he told a friend: "I'm not going back to a place where they never rake the goddamn bunkers."

Hogan never returned to Scotland or to the Open. Like most of the rest of his life, Hogan's visit to Carnoustie in 1953 has become the stuff of legend. Facts and myths have long since merged.

These days it is almost impossible to tell one from the other, nor the genuine articles from the rest masquerading as Hogan memorabilia and scattered throughout the clubhouses and bars of the small town on Scotland's east coast. The American could not have played with all those clubs without having in his bag more than the rules allowed.

The year of '53 is inexorably linked with Hogan, as 1930 is with Bobby Jones' Impregnable Quadrilateral. As an amateur, Jones won the four major tournaments for which he was eligible: the Opens and Amateur Championships of Britain and America.

No professional has won four majors in the same year. Only one has won three. Hogan only played six tournaments in 1953, but he won five of them. Among the victories were the US Masters, for the second time, and the US Open, for the fourth time. He had won the USPGA twice, but not played in the event following his awful car crash of 1949.

The accident, when Hogan's car collided with a Greyhound bus one evening outside El Paso, his long convalescence and subsequent return to golf became the basis for the film Follow the Sun, starring Glenn Ford. After winning the 1951 US Open, his nearest challenger, Clayton Heafner, congratulated Hogan in the locker-room. "Thanks," Hogan replied. "How'd you do?"

Rumours that Hogan might play in the Open in '53 became big news. Abercrombie and Fitch, the New York retailer, provided thermal underwear when Hogan mentioned it could be cold in Scotland, even in July. The former Open champions Walter Hagen and Tommy Armour, who won the first Open at Carnoustie in 1931, urged Hogan to make the trip.

But the final decision was Hogan's. It always was. "I make up my own mind about everything," he said. Why was he going? "Because so many people want me to; it's being held in July, when it might be warm, and presents no scheduling conflicts; the Royal and Ancient rules now permit me to use my centre-shafted putter, after having banned it for some time; and for the challenge."

But Hogan almost went home when he found his room at the Bruce Hotel did not have a private bathroom - after the crash he needed to soak his legs every night. He and Valerie, his wife, moved to the Tay Park guest house in Dundee, but his first sight of Carnoustie, the burned-out fairways, the unkempt nature of the layout and the slow greens, was not to his liking. He offered to buy the greenkeeper a lawnmower.

"When I saw the conditions and the transition I had to make to play any kind of decent golf, I said to myself: `I've made a mistake by coming'," he said.

But what Hogan and the people of Carnoustie shared was a love of golf. "The Wee Ice Mon", they called him. There was a week of practice, but the story of Hogan pacing out the course in reverse on the long evenings after supper is probably just that, a story.

Then came the two qualifying rounds, for which there were no exemptions for anyone in those days. Hogan got through comfortably enough, although a gallery of over 2,300 turned up on the second day and the Royal and Ancient had to introduce hand-held ropes for the first time.

"He was a total mystery," said Peter Alliss, the TV commentator who finished ninth in the '53 Open. "He was from another planet. We were all in awe of him. He was like royalty - people would approach him deferentially."

An opening round of 73 was followed by a 71 to leave him two behind the leaders. On the second day, Frank Sinatra, who was performing at a concert in Dundee, was in the gallery. "All America is rooting for Hogan," Sinatra said.

The night before the final two rounds - played on the same day in those times - the staff at his guest house pooled their rations coupons to get Hogan a steak for dinner. The gesture was certainly bigger than the piece of meat. "I knew Ben would be shocked at the size of it, but he was wonderful," said Valerie Hogan. "Afterward, I told him he had just won an Academy Award. He thought that was very funny."

With a round to play, Hogan, after a 70, shared the lead with Roberto De Vicenzo. At the fifth in the afternoon he chipped in. "He didn't react at all, not even a smile," said an eye witness.

Another suggested, fancifully, that he played a high lob that went in on the full, but Hogan was no Phil Mickelson around the greens.

Then Hogan birdied the sixth, a par-five of 565 yards. The area between the bunker in the middle of the fairway and the out of bounds on the left is now known as Hogan's Alley. But whether the usually conservative American actually used that route is the most controversial part of the whole legend.

Curt Sampson, in Hogan, backs up the romantic. Sampson wrote: "Most of the fairway was to the right, but Hogan noticed that the hole opened up from the left side. He could hit this green in two if he could thread a drive into a narrow haven of brown grass between the fence bordering the practice ground and a sod-faced bunker deep enough to hide a cow. He went for it and made it, in all four rounds."

His daring drive was "not, if you please, a canny steered shot," wrote S L McKinlay in the Glasgow Herald, "but a full-blooded bag."

But some observers insist Hogan chose the safer line. The authoritative World Atlas of Golf states: "Morning and afternoon his drives screamed through the still, grey air, perfectly lined past the right hand of the fairway bunkers and finishing in almost exactly the same spot."

This leads to another fanciful story, that he played the second shot in the afternoon from the divot left in the morning.

A closing 68 gave Hogan a total of 282 and a four-stroke win over Peter Thomson, Dai Rees, Antonio Cerda and Frank Stranahan. He is one of only four champions to have successive rounds lower than the one before.

A ticker tape parade through the streets of New York awaited. Will ye no come back? He never did. Hogan, at the age of 40, had just won his ninth and last major championship.