Hogan’s Miracle at Merion: The Truth Behind the Myths (2)

Here is Part 2 of my look at the true facts of the 1950 U.S. Open as uncovered in my book Miracle at Merion published in October by Skyhorse Publishing. For Part 1, click here, and here is Part 3.

Crowd size
Estimates of the crowd for the 36-hole final day of regulation ranged from 12,500 to 18,000 in various newspapers. They were merely estimates because there were no official figures, and we should perhaps not be surprised that they were overestimates. Among the documents in the Merion Golf Club archives is a final accounting of ticket sales. This shows a total of 9,773 paying customers, including daily and tournament tickets. Since Merion members and other volunteer marshals had to pay for their tickets, that’s an accurate reflection of how many people were on site—unless some people managed to sneak in.

Contrast with the U.S. Open today where ticket sales have to be limited to the number of people that a particular site can hold—in some cases attendance exceeds 40,000. The increase can be attributed partly to the greater popularity of golf and partly due to the fact that the Open is now a “happening” that attracts casual fans. But golf shouldn’t get all the credit. The fact is that all of the major sports have greatly increased their attendance since 1950.

For the 18-hole playoff the next day, newspaper estimates ranged from 6,000 to 10,000, but again that was high. Daily tickets were offered at $3.00, but only 1,440 were sold, compared to 6,088 sold the previous day. Weekly tournament tickets remained good for the playoff. There were 3,865 tournament tickets sold. If they all attended, it would have brought the crowd number to above 5,000 for the playoff but some of those people undoubtedly had other commitments.

Crowd movement
There were no gallery ropes in those days, except around tees and greens (marshals did carry ropes to keep fans at bay on fairway and rough shots). That didn’t start until four years later—and even then the motivation was more for preservation of the rough than crowd control. There were also no grandstands, so there were more fans roaming the course instead of staying put at one hole. For the final 36 holes, most spectators naturally wanted to follow Ben Hogan.

One can imagine a potentially unruly scene, with spectators rushing forward and pressing in to get a view. However, the Philadelphia Bulletin reported that “present at all times was the politeness that goes with the game of golf” and marshals said the throng was easily managed.

Among the spectators was a college student named Jim Finegan, who went on to become a golf writer of note. I talked to him, and he reported that he was able to follow the action pretty well. He didn’t miss seeing any of Hogan’s shots, though of course he did not have an unobstructed view of all of them. It helped that the galleries were able to fill in behind the players on the fairway and to circle the greens in front once the players reached the putting surface. Also, as noted above, the crowd was not as big as at a U.S. Open today. The biggest problem for Finegan and others was at the 18th green, the one place where people had already staked out their spots and made it tough for the walking spectators to find a decent spot.

How long it took Hogan to play the final round
Robert Sommers’ otherwise fine book The U.S. Open states that it took Hogan and fellow competitor Cary Middlecoff six hours to play their final round. Granted, Hogan was walking slowly, Middlecoff was known as a slow player, and with no gallery ropes there were delays while fans were getting into place. But six hours for a twosome?! In an era when play was generally faster than it is today? This doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

For one thing, there were no contemporary accounts about it taking inordinately long for them to play the round. Also, Hogan and Middlecoff teed off at 2 p.m., with ten twosomes going off after they did (the leaders didn’t tee off last in those days). If Hogan didn’t finish until 8 p.m., there wouldn’t have been time for those later twosomes to finish before dark. In fact, there was time for those players to finish and for James McHale to receive his medal as low amateur in an awards ceremony.

Championship committee chairman John D. Ames in his report on the championship in USGA Journal stated that the average time per twosome on that day was three hours and 25 minutes. He doesn’t say anything about any problems related to the Hogan-Middlecoff group. Some of the early pairs might have played in less than three hours, but given the overall average it’s hard to see that Hogan’s pairing could have taken much more than four hours.

There was a way to check this. Another photographer took a photo from behind Hogan on the 18th fairway in the playoff, virtually identical to the one taken the day before by Hy Peskin that would become famous a few days later when it was published in Life. It happens that the playoff threesome teed off at 2 p.m., the same time as Hogan in the final round. We also know that the playoff threesome took four hours and 40 minutes to complete the round, slowed by the time it took for the gallery to move into position on each shot. So, they finished at 6:40. The shadow cast by a large tree to the right of the fairway in this photo is longer than the shadow in Peskin’s photo.

Incidentally, it was only in 1950 that the USGA switched from threesomes to twosomes for the final two rounds. If they had been playing in threesomes, Hogan’s slow pace might have created more of a problem.

By the way, the USGA was concerned that the pace of play was slowing from golf’s earlier days (though it was much faster in 1950 than today), and players at Merion were given notice that they would face the possibility of a two-stroke penalty for slow play or disqualification for a repeat offense. No penalties were issued. It’s safe to say that there was no chance officials were going to penalize Hogan for slow play in the final round!

Television coverage
It has been widely written that the first national telecast of the U.S. Open was in 1954, and that the only television coverage before that was a local broadcast of the 1947 U.S. Open in St. Louis. However, Chicago golf writer Tim Cronin discovered that the 1949 U.S. Open at Medinah was broadcast on the NBC television network. I followed up on that by finding that the 1950 U.S. Open was, too.

While they were on a major network, these broadcasts weren’t national. In those days, network television was limited by the reach of coaxial telephone cable, which meant that it only went as far west as St. Louis and also did not reach the Southeast. Less than ten percent of the households in the country even owned a television, though that percentage was larger in the major cities of the East and Midwest where the Open was shown.

Oddly, the USGA has no record of these telecasts, but they can be found in black-and-white in the television listings of the New York Times. A brief “short” on the television page of the Times highlights the fact that the Open would be on television. (There were no listings for television coverage for the 1951 to 1953 U.S. Opens. By 1954, when television returned, the medium was growing rapidly, with about half of American households owning a set. Coaxial cable then extended to the whole country.)

NBC had the radio rights to the Open, so it was natural that they would be the first television network involved. The coverage was rudimentary, with one camera on a platform behind the 18th green and the broadcast time limited to one hour (5 to 6 p.m. Eastern time for the final round on Saturday).

It’s interesting that the broadcast wrapped up at 6 p.m., just about the same time I figure that Hogan finished. In those days, coverage would not have been extended past its scheduled time. So, it’s possible that the broadcast ended with Hogan still walking up to the final green, needing two putts to tie! If that’s the case, viewers could have quickly switched to the radio broadcast to find out what happened.

Hy Peskin’s photograph of Hogan’s approach shot to the final green is the indelible image of that final round. I find it fascinating that the historic moment was also captured on television, though not many people saw it and that fact that it was on TV was virtually unknown until now.

Length of putt on the 15th hole
In an interview for an article in the 1971 U.S. Open program (that’s the year the Open came back to Merion), Hogan said that he three-putted from eight feet on the 15th hole for the second of three bogeys on the last seven holes that dropped him into a playoff in 1950. Later accounts have echoed that. Actually, Hogan’s memory was faulty. Newspaper reports all described the first putt on the 15th as being 20 or 25 feet. In fact, the Bulletin, which had a reporter following Hogan for a blow-by-blow account, said that Hogan made a crucial mistake by not shooting at the pin and leaving himself 25 feet from the hole. I don’t agree with that analysis. The flag was tucked behind the bunker and favoring the center of the green was the sensible play in the situation, the problem was the putting. The newspaper reports had the second putt as anywhere from 18 inches to 30 inches, a painful miss.

Hogan avoids a penalty
In that same 1971 article, Hogan remembered that there was an occasion when his ball rolled four feet closer to the hole as he was standing over a putt. Since the greens were extremely fast, he made sure all week that he did not put the putter on the ground behind the ball, and thus did not address the ball according to the Rules. When this incident happened, he consulted with a Rules official, who confirmed that Hogan had not addressed the ball and thus not incurred a penalty. Hogan said this happened during the first round, but newspaper reports reveal that it actually occurred on the eighth hole of the third round.

Hogan on the eighth hole
There’s a story that in an early practice round, Hogan found a flat spot on the fairway where he intended to lay up with his tee shot on the par-four eighth hole, an area well short of where other players would hit to. Supposedly, he told his caddie to “carefully replace the divot, son, because I plan to be here every round.”

The story is impossible to verify, of course. But it’s interesting to note that Hogan actually had trouble with that tee shot in the tournament and came nowhere near to hitting that spot in all four rounds. In the second round, he hooked his tee shot well into the rough, near a concession stand (but hit a great second shot and made a birdie). In the playoff, he hit his tee shot into a fairway bunker, saying after the round that he misjudged the wind and hit a 1-iron when he should have hit a fairway wood.

Losing his lunch
Golf writer Charles Price wrote years after the championship about Hogan feeling sick on the way back home after one of the rounds and telling the man driving him back from the course to pull over so he could throw up by the side of the road. Price said he got this from the driver (he didn’t name him, but it was prominent Merion member Frank Sullivan), but did not say which round it was. James Dodson in his biography Ben Hogan: An American Life quoted Skee Riegel, a competitor in the 1950 U.S. Open, as saying this happened after the second round and that Hogan didn’t even get out of the main entrance before getting sick.

Joe Kirkwood Jr.’s lament
This story isn’t a big part of 1950 U.S. Open lore because, as far as I know, the only place it was written about was Golf World’s account of the championship. It wasn’t in any of the newspapers, nor did I see it picked up in any later accounts. Golf World wrote that Joe Kirkwood Jr. gave himself a chance to win the championship when he played the first 14 holes of the final round in three-under, but then bogeyed three straight holes and finished two shots out of the playoff after an odd incident. A spectator offered condolences to Joe on the death of his father, the famous trick-shot artist, who was actually still alive. The fan had apparently read a story in a Philadelphia newspaper that said Joe Sr. had died a couple of months earlier in an accident. But Joe Jr., on hearing the condolences, thought that his father must have just died, and finished out the round with that disturbing thought weighing on his mind.

In checking this out, a search of Philadelphia newspapers turned up no such article. There wasn’t much written about Kirkwood because he wasn’t among the leaders after Thursday or Friday. Even his bid to win the tournament flew under the newspapers’ radar, he only got a brief mention that he and Fazio tied for the low score of the final round, a 70 without saying anything about the three late bogeys. The scorecard shows that he bogeyed 14, 15, and 16, not 15, 16, and 17, which actually fits better with the story since the walk from the 13th green to 14th tee goes by the clubhouse, where there were more spectators.

Maybe the spectator’s information didn’t come from a newspaper. I discovered (in an earlier issue of Golf World) that Kirkwood Sr. resigned as pro at Huntingdon Valley in the Philadelphia area two months earlier, so that departure might have contributed to the mix-up somehow. The spectator might have gotten erroneous word-of-mouth information. Or he could have told Joe Jr. something like, “I’m sorry about your father,” which could have been misunderstood.

In any case, Kirkwood’s bogeys down the stretch spoiled what would have been the biggest final-round comeback in U.S. Open history—he started out eight strokes behind leader Lloyd Mangrum. Just as well, though. Instead, we got the greatest comeback from injury in U.S. Open history as Hogan scored his first official victory after his near-fatal car-bus crash of 16 months before.

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