When Ben Hogan came to Pinehurst in 1940, he was nearly broke and winless. Pinehurst changed everything.
The world of sports is full of riveting and emotional breakthrough stories.
Golf – and Pinehurst – are no different.
Quarterback John Elway finally won his first Super Bowl at the age of 37 in 1998. North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith had been to six Final Fours without a title before winning the grand prize in 1982, and the Boston Red Sox ended an 86-year World Series drought by beating St. Louis in 2004.
“(Hogan) was walking around the golf course like a volcano on the verge of eruption.” – Gene Gregston
The feelings of Elway aptly summed up years of frustration they and many others have felt: “You wonder if you’re going to run out of years. But fortunately, I hung on.”
And when Ben Hogan came to Pinehurst in 1940, he was barely hanging on.
It was March of 1940, and Hogan was winless in seven years of professional golf and at times on the brink of chucking it all and returning to a club pro job at home in Fort Worth, Texas. One report said he had $30 in his pockets and bald tires on his second-hand automobile on the eve of the annual North and South Open, held each spring after the tour left its wintertime swing through Florida.
“Ben Hogan was starving for a tournament triumph as the 1940 tour began,” Gene Gregston wrote in Hogan: The Man Who Played for Glory. “The achievements of fellow Texans Ralph Guldahl and Byron Nelson added fuel to the fires smoldering within him until he was walking around the golf course like a volcano on the verge of eruption.”
Hogan was the second-leading money winner, with $3,038 to his credit, when the tour arrived in Pinehurst and had finished second six times—to six different players—in the previous 14 months. Hogan was buoyed by his near-misses, reasoning to wife Valerie that if six different players were one shot better than him, there wasn’t one player head and shoulders above him. “One day I’ll get so far ahead no one can catch me,” he said.
That’s exactly what happened March 19-21. Hogan birdied the first hole in the North & South, holed out from a bunker on 11 for a birdie and shot a 6-under-par 66, tying the competitive course record set the year before by Harry Cooper. A 67 in the second round gave him a seven-stroke lead over Sam Snead and Johnny Revolta.
Hogan wrapped up his first victory by shooting 74 and 70 in a 36-hole finale, beating Snead by three strokes and setting a new tournament record with a 277 total.
“Don’t pinch me,” Mrs. Hogan said as her husband played the last hole. “I’m afraid I’ll wake up. Ben always said the only way he would win his first title would be to get so far out in front of the field that nobody could catch him on the final day. That seems to have happened now. But I don’t believe it. Ben has been so close so many times, only to see one fatal shot crumble all his hopes. He’s never given up trying, though, even in his darkest hours. That’s why I’m so proud of him now.”
“I won one just in time. I had finished second and third so many times I was beginning to think I was an also-ran. I needed that win.” -Ben Hogan on winning at Pinehurst
At the presentation ceremony, Hogan was offered the trophy and $1,000 in fresh, green bills by Edward J. Cheyney of Cleveland, a USGA official and friend of Pinehurst’s Richard Tufts. Worried about carrying so much cash with him, Hogan instead asked that a check be drawn and sent to him that weekend in Greensboro.
Then he drank a glass of milk and told newsmen:
“I won one just in time. I had finished second and third so many times I was beginning to think I was an also-ran. I needed that win. They’ve kidded me about practicing so much. I’d go out there before a round and practice, and when I was through I’d practice some more. Well, they can kid me all they want because it finally paid off. I know it’s what finally got me in the groove to win.”
And what a groove it turned out to be.
The volcano had erupted. Hogan proceeded to win the Greater Greensboro Open and then the Land of the Sky Open in Asheville.
In three tournaments, Hogan played 216 holes 34-under-par, breaking par 11 of 12 rounds. He broke 70 on all but two rounds – the final two on No. 2. He three-putted just two greens, both in Asheville. Ten of 12 rounds were on Donald Ross golf courses (the exception being Starmount Forest, where the Greensboro field was divided with Sedgefield). Hogan had now won $6,438 in three months, and he eventually won the 1940 top-money prize with $10,655 and collected the Vardon Trophy as well.
“The whole golf course was a most pleasant and testing golf course. It’s a real test of golf. The North and South Open was a ‘major’ then. Pinehurst was a golf mecca.” -Ben Hogan
Given that nudge of confidence from two weeks in North Carolina, Hogan went on to become one of the top golfers of all time. He claimed the money-winning and Vardon titles again the following two years, won North and Souths again in 1942 and ’46 and became one of four players to win a career grand slam: four U.S. Opens, two Masters, two PGA Championships and one British Open. He was a member of the 1951 Ryder Cup team that whipped the British 9½ to 2½ at Pinehurst.
“I always loved to play Pinehurst,” Hogan said in a 1991 interview. “I thought it was a great place. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute I stayed there. I must have played No. 2 I don’t know how many times. But my record shows I won it three times.
“The whole golf course was a most pleasant and testing golf course. It’s a real test of golf. The North and South Open was a ‘major’ then. Pinehurst was a golf mecca.”
And it was the launching pad to stardom for one Ben Hogan.
Lee Pace is a regular contributor to the Pinehurst Blog. He latest book, “The Golden Age of Pinehurst—The Rebirth of No. 2,” is available in all retail shops at Pinehurst. Follow Pace on Twitter @LeePaceTweet