This year’s tournament is held at the Merion Golf Club, just outside of Philadelphia, and coverage of the event has featured, as coverage always does, pieces that discuss the history of the course that is hosting the tournament. For Merion, the 1950 U.S. Open that it hosted figures prominently in course history. Ben Hogan won the event less than a year and a half after a horrific automobile accident that almost killed him and that left doctors suggesting that Hogan might never play golf again. Hogan’s shot with a 1 iron on the last hole of the championship became one of golf’s iconic shots—so iconic that a plaque on the golf course commemorates the shot. In coverage of the event today, NBC ran a piece that looks at that shot and at the legacy of the club that Hogan used—a 1 iron.
As NBC’s piece noted, 1 iron clubs are difficult to find, and they’re difficult to find because most golfers struggle to use them. One of golf’s all-time greats, Lee Trevino, is quoted, after being hit by lightning on a course once, as saying that next time he played during a storm he would just hold up a 1 iron because “even God can’t hit a 1 iron.” Yet, Ben Hogan could hit a 1 iron, and that’s just one thing that contributes to Hogan’s legacy. Hogan is tied with Gary Player for fourth on the list of most men’s major championships won, with nine. (Jack Nicklaus has 18, Tiger Woods has 14, and Walter Hagen has 11.) He’s one of only five players (with Nicklaus, Player, Woods, and Gene Sarazen) to win each of golf’s four major championships—the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open, and the PGA Championship—at least once. And he did that having only played the British Open once – in 1953, when he won it. He also won the Masters and the U.S. Open that year, and he perhaps would have become the only golfer to win all four majors in one year, but because of overlap with the British Open at that time, he couldn’t play in the PGA Championship.
As much as Hogan is known for these career achievements, he’s also well known for his work ethic. That work ethic involves accounts of the calluses that formed on his hands from so much practice, stories of golfers awoken in hotel rooms in the wee hours of the morning by the sound of Hogan practicing in the room next door, and the legend of how Hogan could tell you on which groove on a golf club he had hit a ball during a stroke. That dedicated work ethic has led me to admire Hogan perhaps more than any other golfer. I developed that admiration shortly after Hogan’s death in 1997 when, after hearing reports about him, I read Curt Sampson’s biography of Hogan, which continues to sit on my bookshelf in my office. Though I have to give a nod to Nicklaus’ achievements, and though Woods and Hagen have also more majors, I’d likely make Hogan my choice as the best male golfer ever. So, when stories of Hogan’s 1 iron in 1950 accompany the return of the U.S. Open to Merion, they resonate intensely with my golf fandom, and I owe that to my dad.
My dad has been a routine golfer for over 40 years. He played for a while on the Suffolk County Community College team in the early 1970s, and he continues to play golf to this day, including a round this very weekend with my brother. Though I don’t play very often, I really enjoy golf, and I watch it regularly on television. I rarely miss watching the U.S. Open or the British Open, and I enjoy having weekly tournaments on my television in the background as I work on other things.
In the mid-1990s, around the same time that I developed my interested in Hogan, my dad gave me his old clubs, and while a graduate student at Michigan State University, I went through the period of perhaps the most golfing I had done in my life. Mind you, this wasn’t anywhere near what avid golfers do, but it was more of a commitment than at any other time in my life.
A number of years later, after I had moved to Arizona, my dad came to visit, and on his visit he asked if he could have one of his clubs back. It was a Ping 1 iron that had served him well over the years and that he missed having in his contemporary bag. Since I wasn’t golfing all that much—though more than I do now—I gladly returned it to him, and he was happy to have it back.
Unfortunately, he hadn’t even had it back for a couple of days when he accidentally left it on the ground at a hole while playing a course in Arizona. When he went back to look for it, he couldn’t find it. His wonderful 1 iron was now irretrievably gone.
A few years later, my wife and I found a reasonable price on eBay for a Ping 1 iron like the one my dad had had, and we gave it to him for Christmas that year. It’s probably one of the best gifts I’ve ever given my dad, and he still uses it today.
So, as I watch the U.S Open at Merion Golf Club on this Father’s Day, I’m reminded of my dad. My dad is largely responsible for the love of golf that has me watching today. And just like Ben Hogan did at the 72nd hole of the U.S. Open at Merion less than two months before my dad was born, my dad can hit a 1 iron.