Oakmont Lookback: Hogan’s Dream Season Included U.S. Open Win
By Bill Fields
By June 1953, four years removed from a near-fatal car accident along a lonely Texas highway, Ben Hogan’s golf game was great but his body wasn’t.
A non-contact sport didn’t always reveal the residuals of that gruesome crash, but they were there: an outline of bandages layered under Hogan’s tailored slacks; a limp near the end of a long day; the way he lingered over a putt until he could see the line crisply because of diminished vision in his left eye.
During the first round of 36-hole qualifying for the U.S. Open Championship at Oakmont Country Club two days before the start of the championship proper, Hogan felt a twinge in his upper back after teeing off on the seventh hole. After shooting 77, he was treated by an osteopath who told The New York Times that “a couple of vertebrae had been out of place.”
The 1953 U.S. Open at Oakmont featured a qualifying format that was never used again. A total of 300 players – most of them sectional qualifiers – advanced to Oakmont, where players competed over 36 holes at Oakmont and the Pittsburgh Field Club on Tuesday and Wednesday to whittle the field to 150 players for the championship proper. Only defending champion Julius Boros was exempt. Hogan shot 77-73 to make the field by six strokes.
Two days later, Hogan told reporters: “I’m 40 years old. I’ll have a new ache tomorrow, and I’ll still have this one. I’m filled with ointment, and I kept my back warm with a sweater.”
There wasn’t anything out of place in Hogan’s game during the opening round of the championship. His 5-under 67 was precision play on an exacting design. The infamous furrows in Oakmont’s bunkers weren’t as deep and penal as they had been for the 1927 and 1935 Opens because different rakes were being utilized, but the sand was still more of a challenge than at most courses.
The nature of the bunkers didn’t matter to Hogan in the first round. He only missed one fairway and one green in regulation, matching his opening score from his first U.S. Open triumph in 1948 at Riviera Country Club and his closing score two years earlier at Oakland Hills Country Club in winning his third.
Hogan’s exquisite start staked him to a three-stroke advantage over Walter Burkemo, George Fazio and Frank Souchak and reaffirmed that, as at the Masters two months earlier – where he beat Ed “Porky” Oliver by five strokes – he would be the man to beat.
The 1953 Open was a generational crossroads of sorts. It marked the first appearance in the national championship by Arnold Palmer, then a 23-year-old amateur playing on leave from the U.S. Coast Guard, and one of the last by Gene Sarazen, a two-time U.S. Open champion 31 years removed from his first victory.
Palmer and Sarazen easily advanced through the unusual qualifying arrangement, but neither the up-and-comer nor the legend had much luck in the first two rounds. Both missed the cut badly – Sarazen shot 161, Palmer 162.
“I never want to see this course again,” said Sarazen, who finished third and tied for sixth in the previous two U.S. Opens at Oakmont. “You hit one 6 inches off the fairway and you might as well be out of bounds.”
But as Hogan and others had proven it was possible to solve the puzzle. Prior to Hogan’s eye-catching 67, Californian Jimmy Clark had shot a second-round 66 in qualifying. In a practice round, Bill Collins, an assistant pro from Long Island, N.Y., had done the unthinkable: an 8-under 29 on the outward nine.
Hogan’s hold on the championship loosened a bit on the second day when he shot an even-par 72. With an 80-foot birdie chip on the last hole, Sam Snead shot 69 to join George Fazio in a tie for second place at 141, two strokes behind Hogan. Lloyd Mangrum was fourth at 143, the only other golfer under par.
There was much anticipation for the 36-hole conclusion on Saturday. If Hogan was able to hang on for his fourth national title, it would allow him to match Willie Anderson and Bob Jones for the most U.S. Open victories, and solidify a claim as the finest golfer of the era. Many also were curious to see if Snead could finally win the major championship that had eluded him after being runner-up three times and finishing in the top 10 on four other occasions.
With starting times not done according to score as later became the custom, Hogan teed off in third round at 9 a.m., an hour prior to Snead. (The gap was the same in the fourth round.) Hogan, however, was not the unerring machine of Thursday.
“I really thought the guy shot 80 Saturday morning,” Johnny Bulla, who was in the pairing immediately behind Hogan, remembered years later. “But he got it up and down from everywhere.”
Hogan’s resourcefulness allowed to him to grind out a 73 for a 54-hole total of 212, keeping him one shot ahead of Snead and five ahead of Lloyd Mangrum after 54 holes. The next closest pursuers were Fazio, Jay Hebert and Jimmy Demaret at 218.
As Hogan moved into the heart of the final nine with Snead several holes behind, the Slammer was still lurking. When Hogan bogeyed the 15th hole, it was a further opening. But Hogan closed by going 3-3-3 (a par and two birdies) to shoot 71 for a 283 total. Hearing what was happening in front of him, Snead finished poorly with bogeys on three of the last four holes for a 76, six behind and a runner-up for the fourth time.
Even as Hogan’s 5-iron was flying to within 6 feet of the hole on the 72nd green, hundreds, maybe thousands, of spectators swarmed into the fairway to get a better view of Hogan and history. With gallery ropes instituted for the following year’s championship, no future champion would see such a scene on the final hole of a U.S. Open. It was fitting that arguably the consummate U.S. Open player – he posted 15 consecutive top-10 finishes – would have the honor.
Hogan, who did not enter the PGA Championship in 1953, won The Open Championship at Carnoustie the following month (his only appearance in that championship), completing his Triple Crown of majors and a season for the ages. He remains the only golfer to win the Masters, the U.S. Open and The Open Championship in the same season.
Whatever his aches, they hurt a little less that summer.
William Fields is a Connecticut-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.