Tiger Woods’ victory at The Masters last week, his first major championship in 11 years, was a stunning achievement. It was, choose your adjective, magnificent, breathtaking and awe-inspiring.
But the hyperbole machine, fueled instantly these days by Twitter, didn’t stop there. Time the magazine, on its website, called it the completion “of the most thrilling comeback” in the history of American sports. USA Today called it “the comeback of the ages.” Serena Williams, the tennis legend, called it “greatness like no other.” Stephen Curry, the basketball star, called it “the greatest comeback in sports.”
Tiger’s victory was truly amazing. Tiger, at age 43, capped a comeback from both injuries and mostly self-inflicted personal problems. The man hadn’t won a major in 11 years. And now, here he was winning over a leaderboard filled with the game’s greatest players. Call me a sap. My favorite part was when he hugged his son and daughter.
But Tiger’s first major championship in 11 years was not the greatest comeback in history of sport. Tiger’s is not even the greatest comeback in the history of golf.
The greatest comeback in the history of golf came before golf was televised, before wooden clubs became metal, before golf balls became solid, before golf clubs called hybrids and long before Twitter let anyone with a cell phone wax on about greatest ever anything.
Simply put, the greatest comeback certainly in the history of golf and perhaps in the history of sports belongs to William Ben Hogan, who was born in 1912 and died in 1997, the same year Tiger Woods won his first Masters by 12 shots. Older golf fans know the story. Younger fans need to know it.
Hogan was the son of a blacksmith who committed suicide when young Ben was nine. Ben Hogan sold newspapers and caddied to help his mother put food on the table. The caddying led to playing golf and at the age of 17 he turned pro.
It was a long slog to greatness for Hogan. Not until 1940 did he win his first pro tournament, and not until 1946 did he win a major, the PGA Championship. He won the PGA again in 1948 and also won the U.S. Open that year. He won 10 professional tournaments in 1948, and, at age 36, finally, he was consider one of the game’s greatest players.
Then, it happened. Back then, golfers drove their cars to tournaments. They did not fly. Hogan and his wife, Valerie, were headed to a tournament in February of 1949. On a foggy night in Texas, the car Hogan was driving collided with a Greyhound bus. Just before impact, to save Valerie, Hogan threw his body across the car to protect her. That saved his life, too, because the steering column impaled on the driver’s seat.
Valerie Hogan suffered only minor injuries, but Hogan’s injuries were many and life-threatening. He suffered a double-fracture of the pelvis, a fractured collarbone, a fractured ankle, badly chipped ribs and near fatal blood clots. A New Orleans surgeon was flown in on a U.S. Air Force plane to save his life.
Hogan was hospitalized for 59 days. The blood clots nearly killed him. Doctors didn’t know if he would walk again, much less play golf.
But he returned, limping, to the tour in 1950. In June, the 50th U.S. Open was held at Merion in Pennsylvania and will forever be known as the “Miracle at Merion.” Hogan shot 72 in the first round and trailed by eight. He shot 69 the second day to move to within two shots of the lead.
Back then, golfers played 36 holes on the final day of the Open, a test of endurance as well as skill. Merion’s hilly terrain made it especially demanding for Hogan, whose legs were wrapped in bandages. Near the end of the fourth round, a playing partner marked Hogan’s ball for him. He could not bend over. Nevertheless, he shot 72 and 74 to tie for the championship and qualify for an 18-hole playoff with Loyd Mangrum and George Fazio. In the playoff, Hogan shot 69 to win by four shots. He would win five more majors.
They made a movie about Hogan. It is called “Follow the Sun.” Glenn Ford plays Hogan.
None of this is meant to belittle Tiger Woods’ comeback. I’m just saying...
Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@mississippitoday), is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist.