Date: June 10, 2013
Author: Peter Stone /

Peter Stone: Memories of Merion magic

Those who ve read my scribbling on golf through the years would know I am passionate about the game, its history and its integrity but it is time to enter the confessional. As a school house sports captain at Bendigo High in 1961, I had nothing but scorn for those who chose to play golf on our weekly sports afternoon rather than engage in more vigorous and athletic pursuits like Australian Rules football, cricket, tennis, swimming, athletics, anything really – but not golf. Golf, I thought, was a game for folk after they d played real sport, an activity easily pursued when their bodies could take no more of the aches and pains of more physical sports. Then, after golf, there was always lawn bowls. And, besides, as a 12-year-old I d borrowed my dear old father s hickory-shafted clubs that hadn t been used in my lifetime and took them to a nearby course where the mullock heaps from the old gold mine that became the course still remained. I broke three of the clubs, and copped three on the hand with my old man s leather shaving strop for my indiscretion. Television came to Australia in 1956, but we didn t get a set until 1962 and it was then I saw the 1951 movie Follow the Sun, the biographical film of Ben Hogan s courageous, inspiring victory in the 1950 US Open at Merion. The victory came just 18 months after his near-fatal head-on collision with a bus in the car he was driving with his wife Valerie by his side on a bridge shrouded in fog early in the morning on a Texas road. It was my moment of discovery that golf is a real sport with storylines that tug ferociously at the heartstrings and reduce one to tears. A tour of the Hogan Room at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth has all memorabilia from his remarkable career and on a wall is the giant advertising poster for Follow the Sun starring Glenn Ford and Anne Baxter. That 1950 US Open was just the second time Merion had hosted the US s most prestigious tournament and it was 16 years since the first won by Olin Dutra. In fact, it has been used sparingly through the years with the 1971 Open being played there and won by Lee Trevino in an 18-hole playoff with Jack Nicklaus and then again in 1981 when our own David Graham claimed his second major. Now the U.S Open returns to Merion for a fifth time. But, let s go back to 1950 and Hogan. Bob Sommers, a veteran American golf writer and a friend who came to Australia several times back in the 1970s wrote one of best and most definitive books on the US Open. Sommers wrote for various newspapers in the US and then became editor of the USGA s Golf Journal. His first Open was in 1950 and, like the first time for many things in a person s life, it was the most memorable. Here are a few paragraphs Sommers wrote of Hogan s near-fatal crash: The accident, a head-on collision, took place on February 2 (1949). Seeing the headlights of the bus and realizing he could no avoid a collision, Hogan flung himself across Valerie to protect her. The reaction probably saved his life, he would have been killed if he hadn t moved, because the shaft of the steering wheel rammed through the car seat. Although the shaft missed him, the rim of the wheel caught his left shoulder, breaking his collarbone, and the motor was driven backward, pinning his left leg and slamming into his stomach. Valerie was trapped under Ben and couldn’t move. It took an hour to free them. Hogan was laid on the back seat of a car, becoming grayer by the moment and slipping in and out of consciousness. After what seemed like an age, he was taken to (small) hospital for X-rays then rushed to a larger facility in El Paso, 120 miles away. When the damage was assessed, Hogan had a broken collarbone, a broken pelvis, a broken ankle, a broken rib, and damage to his shoulder Hogan was lucky to be alive, but he was a tough man with a strong mind and a lean and hard body a specialist was flown in from New Orleans by a B-29 bomber on a training mission to perform the two-hour operation. Let s paraphrase the remainder of the story. Tiger Woods winning the 2008 US Open on one-leg has nothing on Hogan s victory that week in 1950. He began his road to recovery and a return to golf walking hours every day. His wife, worried by his absence, would comb the neighbourhood in their car looking for him. Then came the comeback and Merion. With 36 holes play on the final day (there was no play on the Sabbath in those days) Hogan could barely walk. He clung to his caddie Harry Radix s shoulder, saying at one stage, Let me hang onto you. My God, I don t think I can finish. He did. He came to the 72nd hole to tie the waiting George Fazio and Lloyd Mangrum, and hit a one-iron second on the long par four and two-putted Hogan was a pathetic figure as he limped up the rise before the green, wrote Sommers. Hogan two-putted from 40-feet. In the 18-hole playoff the next day, Hogan carded a one under 69 to win by four from Mangrum and six from Fazio. The first US Open I covered was in 1971 at Merion. I remember it like it was yesterday especially the night in the hotel bar where I got mixed up with fellow Australian golf writer, the late Tom Ramsey, and Englishman Ben Wright, who was writing for the UK Financial Times back then before heading into a TV commentary career. In the bar that night, Ramsey introduced himself to a couple of Americans as David Graham and then introduced Wright as Tony Jacklin . Golf writers in those days wore ties and jackets, and my tie was one with the old Dunlop 65 logo on it And, this is the current Australian amateur champion. He was given the tie with 65 which was his low round in qualifying, Ramsey said of me. The two Yanks insisted on buying us strong drink well into the night and, as they departed, one of them said: We ll be out there rooting for you all week. Looking over my shoulder for a couple of irate Americans during the week wasn t the ideal way to keep the mind on the job. Merion is a short course by modern day standards. This week the par 70 layout will be set up at 6996 yards, the first time a US Open course has been under 7000 yards since 2004 at Shinnecock Hills, New York when the yardage was exactly the same as Merion this year. Back in 1971 it played at 6544 yards and regarded by most players as one of the toughest par 70s there was. Nicklaus in 1971 arrived a week early and determined he would only hit driver on three holes. One among the media that week asked that if a course which eliminates the driver can be a good one. Why does a driver make a course good? Nicklaus asked in reply. Journo: The driver is part of the game, isn t it? Nicklaus: Yes, and so is the three wood and so is the putter, and so is the one iron. When you can lean back and belt one three hundred yards off the tee, it doesn’t require any thinking. This is a thinking man s golf course. So it will be again this year with driver the least used club in the bag. The fairways will be narrow and the rough long, just as it was back in 1971. To cut to the chase, after 72 holes Nicklaus and Trevino were tied at level par eight shots ahead of Arnold Palmer. They came to the press tent for a joint interview that evening and were asked their thoughts on what lay ahead the next day in the 18-hole playoff. Trevino looked sideways to the Golden Bear and said: Jack, in my dreams you always win. It was a quote for the ages. On the tee the next morning, Trevino, ever the joker, produced a rubber snake from his golf bag and tossed it on the ground in front of Nicklaus. I need all the help I can get, Trevino said. The Bear laughed, so did the gallery. One can only imagine what Tiger Woods reaction would be if he were in the same situation 40 plus years since then. It would be one of those I d like to see that moments, surely. Trevino, he of the unorthodox swing but with the ability to shape the ball both high and low, triumphed 68-71 and then a couple of weeks later he won the Canadian Open and then crossed the Atlantic to win the British Open. It was just a magical stretch of golf by one of the genuine characters of the game. The Merry Mex, as Trevino was known, said of that Merion win: I m a lucky dog. You gotta be lucky to beat Jack Nicklaus because he’s the greatest golfer who ever held a club. Then, of course, came the most recent US Open at Merion, a distant 34 years ago. It was David Graham who emerged triumphant after a final round 67 which is still described as one of the greatest rounds to win a major championship in the history of the game. The great American golf writer Herbert Warren Wind penned: It is a long time since we last saw a golfer play such brilliant forceful, technically pure shots on the final holes of the Open Graham had the courage to try to win it, and did so by hitting the kind of iron shots that one associated with Hogan; they were struck decisively, they travelled at the right trajectory, they covered the flag; and they pulled up abruptly when they touched the green. It was a genuinely memorable performance. That day Graham held the championship trophy in his hands and looked at the names inscribed on it. He had joined them and to this day it remains his most memorable moment in golf. Why he is not in the World Golf Hall of Fame continues to be one of the great travesties of the game of golf but I wrote of that not so long ago.A