One in a series of previews for the April 6-9 Masters
By Bill Fields
I’ve loved the possibility of a senior golfer turning back the clock since the 1973 U.S. Open, when one of my early golf heroes, Julius Boros, had a share of the lead going into the final round at Oakmont when he was 53. Boros didn’t win that major, of course, just like Jack Nicklaus, 58, didn’t win the 1998 Masters and Tom Watson, 59, didn’t win the British Open in 2009.
Seniors trying to get their hands on a major trophy seem to have been cursed since the legendary Harry Vardon, 50, played the last seven holes in seven over par at the 1920 U.S. Open, putting as if he were a marionette on the strings of a deranged puppeteer.
Ben Hogan’s putting was plenty twitchy, too, by the 1967 Masters. But that didn’t stop him from producing, at 54, one of the game’s great unexpected encores, a third-round 66 that remained the lowest 18-hole score by a senior at Augusta National until it was matched by Fred Couples (2010) and Miguel Angel Jiménez (2014). No one 50 or older has touched Hogan’s back-nine 30 that sunny, warm Saturday 50 years ago when the hobbled but proud two-time Masters champion electrified the place.
Hogan was forced into a light tournament schedule after nearly losing his life in a 1949 auto accident. Two decades later he seldom competed, which made a sighting special for fans and fellow players, particularly younger ones who’d grown up modeling their swings after his singular action. “I remember seeing him at the Memphis Open in ’66,” Al Geiberger said. “I was on the practice tee hitting balls. Hogan got there and veered to the far-right side of the range. Everybody who was hitting quit and walked down there with him to watch.”
Leading up to the ’67 Masters, Hogan endured a bum left knee and left shoulder that curtailed his preparation, the latter receiving nearly 20 cortisone shots to calm the pain and inflammation. There was no injection available for his putting nerves, however, and he missed a couple of 18-inchers and at times took forever to draw back the putter in opening with rounds of 74 and 73. As Hogan teed off at 12:24 p.m. in the third round with Harold Henning, there was no reason to suspect any magic. And that didn’t change after an even-par first nine.
Then, after Hogan hit a 7-iron to 7 feet and made a birdie on No. 10, it suddenly was 1953 all over again. His 6-iron approach on No. 11 was so good that it was inside his yip range. A 12-footer on the 12th made it three birdies in a row. Playing boldly, he reached the par-5 13th and 15th holes with a 4-wood for two-putt birdies. He walked up to the 18th green, amid sustained applause and no small amount of tears from people moved by the moment, facing a downhill 25-footer for birdie and a 30. The putt went in, another gift to Hogan and those who had long admired him.
“I think I played the best golf of my life on those last nine holes,” Hogan told author Furman Bisher nine years later in The Masters. “I don’t think I came close to missing a shot.”
The fairy tale ended a page short, as these stories often do. Saturday’s flurry of birdies was replaced by three straight Sunday bogeys starting on the second hole. In Hogan’s 25th and what would be his final Masters, he shot 77 and tied for 10th place, 10 strokes behind winner Gay Brewer. “Jeepers, creepers,” Hogan told reporters Sunday afternoon, “it was awful.”
When Brewer hosted the Champions Dinner in 1968, Hogan wasn’t there. He never again attended the affair that had been his idea. The taste of a two-hour dessert would be enough.
Bill Fields has covered golf since the mid-1980s, with much of his career spent at Golf World magazine as a writer and editor. A native North Carolinian, he lives in Fairfield, Conn. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @BillFields1