During his convalescence, people said he would never walk again. When he started walking, they said he wouldn’t be able to play golf again. When he started golfing, they said he would never play competitive golf again. When he started back on the tour they said he would never win again.1
Part 1 of this four-part series reviewed the contrast between what Hogan's doctors actually said on the record during the first two weeks following the accident and what biographers claimed they said. Part 2 compared how Hogan's biographers portrayed the challenges posed by the radical treatment undertaken to address life-threatening blood clots and what Hogan's vascular surgeon actually said on the record. Part 3 chronicled Hogan's long recovery and his eventual return to golf, as reported on the record. Part 4 concludes the series and covers Hogan's return to competitive golf at the 1950 LA Open, again relying on contemporaneous, published sources.
In an interview with Ken Venturi in 1983, Ben Hogan famously gave this grim recounting of his return to golf following the accident:
I started working just as hard as I could work, even more than eight hours a day. I used to putt and pitch in our bedroom at night. And it took me eleven months to get back where I could play at all. And finally I got to where I could play a little bit, [but] not as good as I could before.2
What Hogan omits in that retelling is, for most of those eleven months, he was not practicing full swings. When he eventually resumed taking full swings on the practice range, his game returned with almost blinding speed. And, as far as his peers were concerned, when he did come back, he was able to play as well as before, perhaps better.
THE RETURN TO HOGAN'S ALLEY
With virtually no warning at all to outsiders, Ben Hogan returned to the golf course on the second weekend of December 1949. The first report appeared in some evening papers on December 10,3 but the widespread coverage didn't happen until Monday, December 12.
Until then, there was no hint in the press that Hogan was back swinging a club. As described in Part 3, United Press sports writer Oscar Fraley penned a somber obituary for Hogan's career, published November 24: "At 37, the strain of recovering completely and then hoping to recapture his game is too much."4
Twelve days later, on December 6, a local paper covered a visit by Hogan and Byron Nelson to the Odessa Country Club while in "West Texas on business," and noted "Hogan, still recuperating from a near-fatal highway crash last February, was unable to play."5
Precisely when Hogan began his full swing practice does not appear to have been documented anywhere. Several biographies cite early to mid-November as the commencement of full swing practice.6 At least two biographies place Ben's return to full swing practice a month or so earlier, not long after his return from England in late September, following the Ryder Cup.7 And at least one biography, co-authored by Hogan's niece Jacque Towery, suggests Hogan was swinging away as early as August.8 However, the credibility of this last work is undermined by its demonstrably false claim that Hogan's "first round of golf was with my daddy [Hogan's brother Royal] on the day after Christmas,"9 a date more than two weeks after Hogan's actual first round.
The most baffling version of when Hogan returned to the practice range is presented in the biopic Follow the Sun. In the film, Valerie finally relents and gives Ben permission to go over to Colonial and resume practice right after the couple had finished listening to the radio coverage of the '49 Masters in their living room.10 Somehow, the filmmakers overlooked that the Masters tournament concluded that year on April 10, nine days after Hogan returned to Fort Worth from the hospital in El Paso!
Contemporaneous newspaper accounts give support to the mid-November date. Hogan visited Dr. Ochsner in New Orleans on August 12, and reported afterwards that Ochsner had prohibited full swings for at least another three months, a timeline Hogan indicated he would scrupulously follow.11 That would place Hogan's return to the practice ground in the week of November 13.
No matter when Hogan's clandestine practice sessions actually commenced, none were reported in any print publication that I can find. And contradicting all the biographies is what was reported on December 12 -- that Hogan had begun taking full swings just the previous week:
United Press - It was feared then [in March, after the vena cava surgery], and even as late as a few weeks ago, that Ben might never take a "full swing again." He has been putting for months, but only this past week started to use the rest of his clubs for practice swings.12
Associated Press - Previously Hogan had confined his links practice to putting but began to hit practice balls with all clubs last week.13
This shockingly compressed timetable appears to be confirmed in an article by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Jack Murphy, published on Friday, December 16:
Last winter, when Ben was determinedly doing laps in his living room, he wasn't even sure that he'd be able to swing a club properly. That fear was dissipated a few days ago.
Ben met the ball squarely, his swing came off without a hitch, his shoulder gave him no pain. It was a pleasant surprise, a little like awakening after dreaming that you're back in the army.
"I hit the ball better than I thought I would," Hogan admitted. "The swing felt a little strange, but it was all right."14
In either case, Hogan had apparently beaten his original timetable by two to three months, perhaps more. For example, on April 17, Jack Murphy of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that Hogan "estimates that it will be a year before he can return to golf."15 Four months later on August 22, Murphy reported "Hogan has expressed hope that he might begin swinging his clubs within a year from the date of his accident..."16
Not reported at the time is the supposed reaction of Hogan's playing partner for his first two rounds at Colonial, fellow pro Ray Gafford, that has been recounted in some biographies:
During the second round, Gafford asked Hogan if he had any intentions of entering the Los Angeles Open, less than a month away.
"I don't know. Why?" Hogan replied.
"You'd sure shock a lot of people," Gafford said.17
The LA event began on Friday, January 6, two days short of four weeks away. Add to that the preceding four weeks of practice (based on the Ochsner-approved timetable), and in just eight weeks Hogan would go from first full swing in practice to his first round back in competition.
Although the golf world unanimously cheered Hogan's return to the golf course, there remained some doubt that he'd be able to return to competition. On December 26, Precsott Sullivan of The San Francisco Examiner opined:
It may be another year before little Ben is strong enough for the tournament wars. To take the dim view, mebbe he'll never be the tireless, par shattering machine he was when, in every field, Hogan was "the man to beat."18
Fred Mendell in The Hutchinson News offered this:
The Texas golf star was top man in the field at the time of the accident near Van Horn, Tex. He may not scale the heights again, for you can't lose a year in a game as roughly competitive as golf without slipping back.19
Nevertheless, on the morning of Wednesday, December 28, the Hogans boarded a train for Los Angeles. Hogan spoke with reporters before departing, and Jack Murphy of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram published this assessment of Hogan's state of mind:
Departs Today for Los Angeles Meet; Comeback is Near...
Whether he'll compete or just play for exercise hadn't been decided as he and Valerie boarded a train for Los Angeles Wednesday morning. But it was evident that Ben was in a mood to speed his return to competition.
"There's a possibility that I'll play," admitted Hogan, "but right now I don't know myself; if I did I'd tell you.
"I'll just have to wait and see how I'm feeling and how my game is working. One thing for sure: I'm not going out there and shoot in the eighties!"[emphasis in original]
Murphy included this assessment of the state of Hogan's golf game:
...his game is rounding into form with such ease that even Hogan is astounded.
He's hitting the ball about as well as ever, though his drives are a trifle shorter. Of his Tuesday round, he admitted, "I played pretty good today."18
Once in Los Angeles, Hogan's "pretty good" play continued: his first four practice rounds would have won the event the preceding year. His scores were 2-under 69, a "pretty stinking"19 5-over 76, 1-under 70 and 3-under 68, for a total of 283, 1-under par. Lloyd Mangrum's winning score in 1949 was even par 284. After submitting his official entry on Tuesday, January 3, Hogan posted a 1-over 72 in the afternoon, and completed his practice rounds the following day with a 4-under 67. For the six rounds, Hogan was 4-under par.
In his first practice round of 2-under 69, Hogan had 14 pars, three birdies and a bogey on the tough par 4 15th. Afterwards, he commented as follows:
"I was chipping and putting like a mad man today...
"And I was lucky too. I wasn't driving very well, or hitting good shots to the green. Some of my drives hit trees and bounced back into playable positions."20
Few details were published about Hogan's 5-over 76 in his second practice round:
His try yesterday was "pretty stinking," according to his description. "Putting was terrible," he reported.
But the legs? After two successive rounds in two days, the first such test of his recovery.
On New Year's Day in his third practice round, Hogan played with long-time four-ball partner Jimmy Demaret, the '44 PGA champion Bob Hamilton and the '49 US Open champion Cary Middlecoff. Hogan's 1-under 70 consisted of a 3-under front nine 32, and a 2-over back nine 38. Per the Independent News Service:
The convalescing Hogan snagged six birdies and missed five short putts which, had they dropped, would have given him a 65...
Hogan opined his game is good enough for competition but added:
"A couple of times in Texas after playing I became a little sick at the stomach. Now, I am going to the hotel and recline on the sofa with my legs raised above the heart. That will help the circulation of the legs which seems to be slightly retarded when I play."22
The next day, January 2, Hogan shot a 3-under 68, with nines of 32-36, for his fourth practice round. Focusing on his three sub-par rounds of 69, 70 and 68, a total of 6-under, commentators lavished praise on Hogan:
United Press - Ben Hogan...has toured the rugged Riviera country club in near flawless form...23
Independent News Service - Hogan, who has played three sizzling practice rounds over the Riviera layout and plans another for today, appears ready to return to the golfing wars, but complains that his legs still bother him.24
Bob Lee, Daily News (Los Angeles) - Encouraged, [Hogan] came to Los Angeles last week and surprised the experts by several sensational practice rounds at Riviera Country Club.25
Citizen-News - Sammy Snead, 1949 "golfer of the year," today said that Hogan was playing well and would be tough.
"He's playing just about as good as ever," said the PGA champion. "He'll probably have to spend a tournament or two to get back the touch--but he'll be tough right from the start."
Amateur Frank Stranahan, Toledo, O., was even more optimistic. "Hogan will finish one-two-three in the tournament," said Stranahan.
If the dusky little competitor with the coil-spring wrists does finish in the money, it will be nothing new. He plays the Riviera Country Club like he owns it.26
On January 3, Hogan ended the suspense over whether he would play in the event, and submitted his official entry. Dave Lewis of the Long Beach Independent reported as follows:
In making his announcement shortly after noon on Tuesday, the mighty mite of the links world said "I feel great except for my legs. I get awful tired. However, I bettered par [over] four rounds at Riviera and I seem to be on my game.
"Although I rest on a camp stool frequently between shots, I really believe I can stand up under 18 holes for four days," he said.
"At least I'll be in there pitching," he added.
In launching his comeback, Hogan has picked the course which the experts concede was "made for him." So successful has he been on the Riviera course that it now is often referred to as "Hogan's Alley."27
After the news was announced, Cary Middlecoff offered this opinion:
Cary Middlecoff, National Open golf champion, said: "I wouldn't bet on any one golfer in the field to beat Ben Hogan in the L.A. Open. Hogan won't beat himself...he has grit and determination unmatched in modern sports...He may never do what he did before, but he's coming back."[emphasis in original]28
The National Open king declared "just knowing Ben is back has got me off my game...and I know darn well Sammy Snead is shaking in his boots!"29
In the afternoon, Hogan played his fifth practice round, posting 39-33--72, with five birdies on the second nine. Hogan is reported to have recruited the fourth member of his group with a classic Hogan line:
The cold and windy day kept a number of players indoors.
But when one of the younger candidates spoke up in the locker room that it was too cold for golf, and that he thought he'd skip the round, Hogan walked past him on the way to the tee.
"Come on," said Ben, "you'll never get any better sitting there."30
During the round, Hogan demonstrated both power and touch, driving the 315 yard 10th hole, two putting for birdie, and chipping in from 75 feet for another birdie at the 12th.31
In his sixth and final practice round, Hogan saved the best for last, posting a 4-under 67, carding six birdies against a double bogey on the 9th. The round was the lowest score in practice for the entire field, and, unsurprisingly, elicited more plaudits for Ben:
The Daily Times - Yesterday Hogan fairly sizzled as he fired a sensational 67--the best pre open score of the year.32
Charles Curtis, The Los Angeles Times - The three time winner of this midwinter classic, absent from competition since February of last year, putted spectacularly but even more than that he was hitting the ball up to the green in the old Hogan style.
"I feel better every day," Hogan said last night.33
Associated Press - Can Bantam Ben Hogan win in his first tournament on his comeback?
That is the big question asked by 127 other top golfers entered in the 24th Los Angeles open, which gets under way tomorrow.
Pro Jimmy Demaret of Ojai, Calif., and Amateur Frank Stranahan of Toledo, O., are two who believe he will be just as tough to beat as before the traffic accident which nearly cost him his life last February...
Yesterday, for instance, the little Texan slammed a 67, four below regulation figures of 71. Afterwards, he told newsmen he felt fine and that he was putting accurately and hitting well up to the green.[emphasis in original]34
This headline from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram summed up the feelings of many:35
Hogan eschewed a practice round on January 5, choosing to rest during the last day before the tournament began. That day in Fort Worth, the United Press interviewed Ben's older brother Royal and someone identified as Hogan's "Fort Worth doctor," likely Royal's brother-in-law, Howard Ditto:
The Fort Worth doctor has attended Hogan since he was returned here from an El Paso, Tex., hospital, with exception of occasional checkup visits to a New Orleans specialist who saved the diminutive star's life with an operation.
Said the doctor: "My frank opinion is that he will be able to play golf like he did before the accident."
But the doctor said it was only recently he made up his mind on this.
Until then, he said, he didn't think Hogan would recover sufficiently to rejoin the pro ranks.
The doctor's change of mind was based largely on Hogan's showings the past four weeks in practice rounds on the links, he said.
"He has gone out and showed that it can be done."[emphasis in original]36
In his final preview article published on the first day of play, January 6, The Los Angeles Times' Charles Curtis reported the following:
In the opinion of his fellow pros [Hogan's] the man to beat...
And he's our personal selection to win the tournament, which would be his fourth Los Angeles Open title.37
From first 18 hole round in ten months to pre-tournament favorite in barely four weeks.
As has been thoroughly documented elsewhere, the Mighty Atom's return to Hogan's Alley fell just one stroke short of a perfect Hollywood ending. With Hogan in the clubhouse at 4-under 280, fashioned by an opening 2-over 73 (tiring badly over the final five holes),38 followed by three consecutive 2-under 69s, Ben's long-time rival Sammy Snead famously rolled in birdies on the last two holes to tie Hogan. Because the third round had been rained out, the final round had been played on Tuesday (the L.A. Open at that time had a unique schedule of running from Friday through Monday). More rain on Wednesday forced postponement of the playoff until the following week in order to allow Snead and Hogan to play in Bing Crosby's event on the Monterey Peninsula.
The playoff was an anticlimax. Hogan had unwisely scheduled back-to-back events by committing to the Crosby and, to add to his fatigue, came down with a head cold. His opening tee shot of the playoff hooked out of bounds and, although he parred the hole (the OB penalty in those days was lost distance only), Snead birdied. As Hogan later recounted:
I lost the playoff on the first hole, actually. I played my tee shot as far to the left as I dared, but I hooked the ball just a little bit and went out of bounds. And, of course, giving Sam a shot in those days was just disastrous.
You just don't give Sam a lead because, although he is a terrific golfer and won many, many tournaments, he seems to run better from the front. And he got in front right from the first hole. Sam played fairly well and I played a bad round of golf.
But, despite the playoff loss, Hogan was more than satisfied with his return:
Nevertheless, I was so pleased with my showing there because I knew then that I could play again and go 72 holes in competition.39
Hogan's surgeon Dr. Alton Ochsner was also pleased, and elaborated a bit about his confident prediction upon leaving the operating room back in March:
Hogan has bounced back even quicker than the doctor believed possible...
Dr. Ochsner said he could see in Hogan a "kind of determination that leaves no doubt as to the ultimate outcome."
"Doctors not infrequently recognize this will in patients, but in few has it ever been more evident than in Hogan at that time.
"Surgery and medicine can do just so much for an individual. The rest must come from the patient himself."[emphasis in original]40
Although Hogan's playing partner in the first two rounds, Johnny Bulla, "didn't think Hogan would be able to follow the tournament trail as he did before" the accident, he opined that "Ben's swing is even smoother than it was" before the accident, and, as a result, Bulla "couldn't resist ribbing" Ben about practicing during his entire time off, which Hogan, of course, denied.41
And Sam Snead also saw at least a bit of a silver-lining to his long-time rival's misfortune:
Ben is the same quiet, soft-spoken bantam he was. He won't compare with his present play that of old, but he obviously hasn't lost his touch. In fact, Slammin' Sammy thinks the enforced layoff actually helped Hogan's play...
"I think the layoff may have done him some good," Snead said. "It shouldn't make much difference in his game, although his legs might tire. I don't mean to take anything from Ben by saying that, though. He's got lots of guts and he's a great golfer."42
In an interview at the end of June, Snead added further perspective:
Snead declared that Hogan is in the best condition of his golfing career. He weighs 150 pounds and is in great shape. However, his legs swell up with too much walking.43
Although no one would have dared predict it at the time, Hogan was poised to compile an astonishing record, exceeding even his pre-accident standard, over the next four seasons: an overall win percentage of 48%, and a win percentage in the majors of 67%. Herbert Warren Wind put it very well: "The Champion Who Came Back -- A Greater Champion."44
1. Mark Baron, On this day, In 1949 Ben Hogan & wife Valerie survive near fatal accident after hitting a Greyhound bus head on, Golf History Today. https://golfhistorytoday.com/1949-ben-hogan-accident-survive/
2. Ben Hogan Interview with Ken Venturi, CBS Sports, May 12, 1983.
3. Associated Press, Hogan Back on Course, Waukesha Daily Freeman, December 10, 1949, page 18.
4. Oscar Fraley, United Press, Ben Hogan Rates Place In Golfdom's Hall Of Fame, The Daily Herald, November 24, 1949, page 7.
5. Nelson, Hogan At Country Club, The Odessa American, December 6, 1949, page 8.
6. David Barrett, Miracle at Merion, 2010, page 112: "Finally, in mid-November, the day arrived for Hogan to once again a full swing." James Dodson, Ben Hogan, An American Life, 2004, page 264: "Two weeks before Thanksgiving, he tentatively hit his first full shots on the club practice range..." Jeff Miller, Grown At Glen Garden, 2012, page 174: "In early November, he was on the range at Colonial." Gene Gregston, Hogan: The Man Who Played For Glory, 1978, page 20: "Back home in November Hogan started hitting some golf balls, then he went to the practice area at Colonial Country Club."
7. Curt Sampson, Hogan, Updated Edition, 2001, page 133: "Hogan survived the voyage [back from England] and soon hit his first full shots in the seven months after the accident." Jimmy Demaret, My Partner Ben Hogan, 1954, page 88: "But when he came back to Fort Worth [from England], he picked up those golf sticks and began practicing."
8. Jacqueline Hogan Towery, Robert Towery, Peter Barbour, The Brothers Hogan, A Fort Worth History, 2014, page 94: "Ben showed up at Colonial one day in August 1949 and headed to the practice range to hit balls."
9. Jacqueline Hogan Towery, Robert Towery, Peter Barbour, The Brothers Hogan, A Fort Worth History, 2014, page 94.
10. Follow the Sun, Twentieth Century Fox, 1951.
11. Independent News Service, Ben Hogan Still Has 'Aches and Pains';Faces Examination, Long Beach Independent, August 12, 1949, page 22. Jack Murphy, Knee Injury Latest Impediment to Ben, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, August 22, 1949, page 9.
12. United Press, Ben Hogan Swings Clubs Again, El Paso Times, December 12, 1949, page 1.
13. Associated Press, Hogan Retains Old Touch, The Windsor Star, December 12, 1949, page 32.
14. Jack Murphy, Ben's Anxious -- Not Ready, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, December 16, 1949, page 20.
15. Jack Murphy, Indoor Laps, Ben Adopts Routine In Fight to Recover, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, April 17, 1949, page 14.
16. Jack Murphy, Knee Injury Latest Impediment to Ben, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, August 22, 1949, page 9.
17. David Barrett, Miracle at Merion, 2010, page 113. See also Gene Gregston, Hogan: The Man Who Played For Glory, 1978, page 21, and James Dodson, Ben Hogan, An American Life, 2004, pages 265 and 266.
18. Prescott Sullivan, The Low Down, The San Francisco Examiner, December 26, 1949, page 21.
19. Fred Mendell, Sportangles, The Hutchinson News, December 28, 1949, page 12.
20. Charles Curtis, Hogan Fires Red-Hot 69 at Riviera, The Los Angeles Times, December 31, 1949, page 27.
21. Charles Curtis, Ben Big Question of L.A. Open, The Los Angeles Times, December 31, 1949, page 27.
22. Independent News Service, Hogan Fires 70 In Practice Tour, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, January 2, 1950, page 32.
23. United Press, Hogan Comeback Opens This Week, Nevada State Journal, January 3, 1950, page 6.
24. Independent News Service, Oversize Field Tees Off in First Round of Open Try, The Bakersfield Californian, January 3, 1950, page 22.
25. Bob Lee, Hogan Enters L.A. Tourney, Daily News (Los Angeles), January 3, 1950, page 31.
26. Hogan To Play In L.A. Tourney, Citizen News, January 3, 1950, page 9.
27. Dave Lewis, Bantam Ben Says He's Ready After Riviera 'Test Runs,' Long Beach Independent, January 4, 1950, pages 13 and 14.
28. Brevan Dyer, Morrison Tabbed Top Bowl Player, The Los Angeles Times, January 4, 1950, pages 57 and 59.
29. Dave Lewis, Bantam Ben Says He's Ready After Riviera 'Test Runs,' Long Beach Independent, January 4, 1950, pages 13 and 14.
30. Charles Curtis, Ben Hogan to Compete in L.A. Open, The Los Angeles Times, January 4, 1950, pages 57 and 58.
31. Charles Curtis, Ben Hogan to Compete in L.A. Open, The Los Angeles Times, January 4, 1950, pages 57 and 58.
32. Bantam Ben Hogan To Stage Comeback Drive, The Daily Times, January 5, 1950, page 8.
33. Charles Curtis, Hogan Fires 67 in Final Tune-up Test, The Los Angeles Times, January 5, 1950, pages 61 and 63.
34. Associated Press, Eyes on Hogan In Open at L.A., Oakland Tribune, January 5, 1950, page 39.
35. Associated Press, Hogan Isn't Coming Back--Already Back, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, January 5, 1950, page 9.
36. United Press, Doctor Is Optimistic About Hogan, The Honolulu Advertiser, January 6, 1950, page 12.
37. Charles Curtis, World of Sport Watches Hogan, The Los Angeles Times, January 6, 1950, pages 49 and 50.
38. Al Abrams, Sidelights on Sports, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 18, 1950, page 20.
39. Bantam Ben, The Ben Hogan Story, 98 Sports Productions, 1970.
40. Arthur Snider, Doctor Says Hogan Example for the Sick, Des Moines Tribune, January 13, 1950, page 14.
41. Al Abrams, Sidelights on Sports, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 18, 1950, page 20.
42. United Press, Doughty Ben Hogan Goes On To Pebble Beach, Dayton Daily News, January 12, 1950, page 16.
43. Pindy Wagner, Schneiter Urges Akron Meet, The Akron Beacon Journal, June 29, 1950.
44. Herbert Warren Wind, The Story of American Golf, 1975, page 353.