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Great Hogan-Snead playoff at Riviera was the hallmark of golf of the '50s


A hush fell over the gallery ringing the 18th hole at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles.

Sam Snead, never noted for his putting ability, was surveying a 12-foot birdie putt he needed to catch Ben Hogan and send the 1950 Los Angeles Open into an 18-hole playoff.

As he was about to stroke the ball, there was the crack of a tree branch breaking from the weight of a man, who fell.

Snead backed off while the gallery laughed.

Hogan preferred not to watch. He was sitting with friends in the clubhouse, listening for crowd reaction.

When Snead sank the putt, the gallery roared. Hogan heard it and slammed a magazine to the floor.

Because it rained the next day, the playoff had to be delayed for a week because the Crosby clambake at Pebble Beach was about to begin.

That kind of delay would never happen today.

But it did in 1950, when pro golf was much different. That was well before corporate America and television had taken over.

Players weren't walking billboards in those days, and there was no such thing as a metal wood. Golfers relied on "feel" rather than yardage markers and many players traveled by car from tournament to tournament.

And you knew where a tournament was by its name. The Los Angeles Open was in Los Angeles, the Reading Open was in Reading, Pa., the Miami Open was in Miami. Even those who follow the sport closely today might not know where they play the Centel Western Open, the Deposit Guaranty Classic or the Sazale Classic.

The pros played 33 tournaments for a total of $459,950 in 1950. The world had not yet heard of Jack Nicklaus. There was no Arnie's Army.

But the sport was not without its heroes. In fact, because the top players won more often, they were better known than many of the megabuck players on today's tour.

That is why the 1950 Los Angeles Open will be remembered as one of the greatest tournaments ever played at Rivera Country Club.

It wound up in a playoff between the two greatest players of the day -- Ben Hogan and Sam Snead -- less than a year after Hogan had been in an accident that nearly killed him.

In fact, Snead's four-stroke playoff victory was almost anticlimactic. It was Hogan's comeback on one of his favorite courses that stirred the public.

Hogan was 36 when he was involved in the accident. On the morning of Feb. 2, 1949, Ben and his wife, Valerie, were returning to their home in Fort Worth, Texas from Phoenix.

They were driving east near Van Horn in Texas, when a Greyhound bus suddenly appeared out of the ground haze from the opposite direction.

Hogan instinctively threw his body across his wife's body to protect her, in the process saving his own life, since he escaped being impaled by the steering wheel, which was driven through the driver's seat.

Still, he was horribly battered. His pelvis was broken in two places, he had a broken collarbone, a broken left ankle, broken ribs and suffered severe shock.

The original prognosis was that he would never play golf again, at least not on the tournament level. Then a blood clot developed in one of his legs, and it was feared he might not live.

Phlebitis was causing the clot and doctors, fearing it would travel to his heart, performed a two-hour operation and tied off the principal veins in one of his legs.

That operation saved his life, but his golf career was another matter.

Hogan, however, never gave up. Not even during the next 58 days while he was flat on his back.

Even in bed, he would hold a club and waggle it. When he was finally able to go home, his weight had dropped to 95 pounds, but he was still saying he was going to come back.

In 1947 he won the Los Angeles Open at Riviera, then won it again in 1948. He won the United States Open that same year, again at Riviera, which was by then being called Hogan's Alley.

That's why fans were so excited when they heard Hogan was going to make his comeback at Riviera, less than a year after his accident.

Because he had such a great record at Riviera, he decided to enter the Los Angeles Open, just to see if he could do it.

"A lot of people didn't think he would be able to play very well, but I knew he would play well that week," Snead said, recalling the tournament. "Knowing Ben the way I did, I knew he would never be unprepared to play in a tournament. If he said he was ready to play, I knew he was ready to play great."

Because he was concerned about his stamina and the strength in his legs, Hogan didn't announce that he was going to play until three days before the start of the tournament.

Although Hogan was the sentimental favorite, Snead was generally picked to win over a field that included such players as Cary Middlecoff, Jimmy Demaret, Dutch Harrison, Jim Ferrier and Clayton Haefner.

Besides, Snead had a pretty fair record at Riviera, too. He had won there in 1945 and had finished third, fourth, fifth and seventh in other years.

The first round of the 24th Los Angeles Open drew a record gallery of 9,000 on Friday, Jan. 6. Ed Furgol shot a 68 and led, but most of the crowd followed Hogan, watching him shoot a 73.

Little Jerry Barber, now the pro at Griffith Park, made a move in the second round, shooting a 68 after his opening 69 for a 36-hole total of 137.

That gave Barber a two-stroke lead over Henry Ransom. Hogan had shot a 69 and moved into a third-place tie with Ellsworth Vines, five strokes behind. Snead, meanwhile, was staying close to par, never falling too far back. He had rounds of 71 and 72 and was only a stroke behind Hogan.

After rain delayed the third round by a day, Hogan shot another 69, moving within two strokes of the lead. Jackie Burke shot a 68 and was a stroke behind Hogan. Two strokes behind Burke was Snead.

By the time the fourth round started on Tuesday, Hogan was a weary man. After six practice rounds, followed by a day off, he had played four competitive rounds and was about to go out for the 11th time in 12 days.

"It was really beginning to take a toll on Ben," said Bob William, a longtime member of Riviera who walked every hole with Hogan that year. "He was telling me his arms felt like wet noodles and he was in some kind of pain on every step."

But he also had that steely Hogan determination.

"Nobody was ever more determined or worked harder than Ben," said Pollock, his caddie. "That man had a plan for every single shot. He plotted his way around the course."

Despite the pain and fatigue, Hogan shot his third consecutive 69.

"Ben thought that was going to be enough to win," said William. "He didn't want a playoff. I don't know if he could have played the next day. Walking up the 17th, he turned to me and said, 'You know, I never realized till today that every inch of this hole is uphill.' "

The 18th hole at Riviera, an uphill, 453-yard dogleg to the right, is among the most demanding finishing holes in golf. Snead needed a birdie to force the playoff.

"I hit a great drive," Snead said. "But I still didn't have a clear shot to the pin because of that big sycamore tree out there. So I hit me a shawndale up there [a shawndale was a fade] and hit it off the hill and onto the green about 12 feet away."

He made the putt and forced the playoff, but more rain the next day caused the postponement.

A week later, Hogan and Snead had returned from the Crosby, which Snead had won. They no longer had to worry about rain, but a misty fog had settled over Riviera for their 18-hole playoff.

Snead won the playoff by shooting a 72, one over par, to Hogan's 76.

Hogan earned $1,900 for his second-place finish in his failed quest for a fourth Los Angeles title.

But Hogan came away with something far more valuable than a title.

He had won the admiration of the nation's golf fans, not to mention some doctors who had underestimated his resolve. Hogan's comeback was a success and still is regarded as one of the most amazing in the history of golf.

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