As many of you might know I play golf and I write novels about golf, and I’m a big Ben Hogan fan [What? You haven’t read The Caddie Who Knew Ben Hogan?] But more importantly, forty plus years ago this weekend Ben Hogan turned back the clock at the Masters in Georgia when he shot a back-nine 30 in the third round at Augusta National GC. It was one of the great rounds of golf ever played at Augusta.
Hogan had won the Masters in ’51 and ’53 but in 1967 at the age of 54 he was back at the Masters for a final time. He still suffered from the 1949 car accident that nearly killed him. He had bad legs and a left shoulder plagued with bursitis, scar tissue and calcium deposits. Every morning he needed a cortisone shot just to be able to swing a club.
In the first two rounds on Thursday and Friday, Hogan shot 74-73 to be seven shots off the lead. It was a good enough score for him to make the cut and play on the weekend.
He teed off for the third round with Harold Henning of South Africa and turned the corner on the front side at even-par 36. Then sudden, as Ken Venturi his good friend for many years said, “He was no longer that [54-year-old] person. He was back in the early 1950s playing golf. He was in a zone.”
He started with birdies on No. 10, 11, and 12. Hogan had always played the par-5 # 13 safely by not going for the green with his second shot. But that warm Saturday afternoon in Georgia he went for the flag with a 4-wood, leaving himself a 15 footer for an eagle. He would two-putted for his fourth straight birdie. On # 14 Hogan had par, followed that with a two-putt birdie at No. 15 after another perfect 4-wood onto the green of this long and very difficult par-5 hole.
On all the holes on the back side that long ago afternoon Hogan was greeted with standing ovations. These were the days before hooting and hollering from galleries. No one yelled or screamed at the Masters; fans applauded, and they applauded longer for great golf shots and great golfers. Golf is not a sport that has fans who follow rookies. Golfers know how difficult this game is and they appreciate and honor those players who have been around; players who have won and lost many matches over many years. They knew and respected and honored Bantam Ben Hogan for how he had come back from his automobile accident in ’49 when doctors said he would never walk again. In his great career, Hogan would win nine major championships, including the Grand Slam of golf.
Frank Chirkinian–director of the CBS broadcast of the Masters–said he was crying watching Hogan as he wearily walked up the last fairway that Saturday afternoon. Hogan’s legs were nearly gone, each step painfully taken. He was an old man coming home for the final time at this great tournament. On that 18th, Ben had left his approach 25 feet below the hole and though he had battled putting woes for many years that afternoon at Augusta National he couldn’t and wouldn’t miss. He finished the round by holing a 25-footer for a final birdie and a record setting total of 30. It gave Hogan a 66 for the day and left him two shots off the lead going into Sunday’s last round.
A friend of Hogan’s, writer Dan Jenkins, was covering the Masters for Sports Illustrated and said recent, “I knew 66 would be his last hurrah.”
Hogan did not come back the next day to win the Masters, that is only the narrative of novels. Hogan never returned to the Masters after that weekend in 1967, and the fans that final Sunday afternoon must have realized it for they stood on every fairway as he walked by. They stood as he approached every green and gave him one last ovation, honoring this great player and his long career, saying goodbye to the player famously known as The Hawk.
So, this Sunday afternoon when you are watching Tiger and this new young crop of golfers play on one of the most difficult and beautiful golf courses in the world, look for those black-and-white video clips of Ben Hogan and his famous last hurrah, when he went back in time to play like a tiger himself.