Friday, February 18, 2011

Hogan’s Alley — Riviera Country Club and Bantam Ben

Ben Hogan was a man who left his mark on the history of golf in many ways and in many places. He “…brought the monster to its knees…” at the 1953 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills, where the penal rough and narrow fairways had Tour pros shaking their heads. That same year, in his one and only appearance in the Open Championship (known on this side of the Atlantic as the British Open), he tamed the windy linksland of Carnoustie, where the 6th hole is known as Hogan’s Alley for his bold play to a narrow stretch of the fairway between OB left and a pair of dangerous bunkers. This approach to the challenge of the daunting 567-yard hole allowed him to reach the green in two – driver, wood – while other competitors, including then-defending Open Champion, South African Bobby Locke, were hitting something like 4-iron, 3-iron and a pitch to get on in three.

Of all the golf courses, all over the world, which were analyzed, dissected and overcome by the genius of Ben Hogan over the years, the Riviera Country Club golf course is second only to Colonial Golf Club in his home town of Fort Worth, Texas in being deserving of the moniker “Hogan’s Alley”. Back-to-back victories in the Los Angeles Open in 1947 & 1948, plus the 1948 U.S. Open victory, put Hogan’s stamp on this George C. Thomas masterpiece for all time. From the elevated tee at the 503-yard par-five opening hole to the uphill run to the final green overlooked by the massive Spanish-style clubhouse, Riviera is a stern test of shot-making which rewards precision play. Players who bomb it long off the tee but lack accuracy will find their time on this storied course a death march as they scramble to carve recovery shots out the the vicious kikuyu grass rough.

Besides the ball-swallowing kikuyu, Riviera boasts meandering barrancas, stands of leafy eucalyptus trees, and a multitude of well-sited bunkers – many with overhanging edges that make a clean up-and-down a chancy endeavor. The most famous of Riviera’s bunkers is the pot bunker in the middle of the 6th green, a feature which turns an ordinary-enough 166-yard par-three into a strategic conundrum, especially when the flag is situated back-left. Clusters of ghostly pale sycamores, still leafless in midwinter when the PGA Tour comes to Riviera, are featured at the western end of the course, standing guard around the 15th green, all of the short par-three 16th, and the 17th tee. More stage dressing than obstacle, the sycamores cast long, eerie shadows across the fairways and greens in the slanting winter sunlight.

Hogan’s first victory at Riviera, in 1947, came at a point in his Tour career when he was hitting his stride, finding success on the Tour and acclaim in the press. An opening round of 70 started him off in good shape, in second place behind Marvin (Bud) Ward and Toney Penna, but it was the blistering 66 – tying the course record – that he stitched on the place in Saturday’s round that put the rest of the field in his wake. A pair of 1-over 72’s on the weekend were all it took to cinch the win, as he posted a final score of  280 that bested 2nd place finisher Penna by three strokes.

Hogan’s success in the 1947 season had come despite signs that his relentless practice regimen was taking a toll on his body, even at age 34, but as the 1948 season opened he appeared to have put his physical problems behind him. In those days, well before the modern season openers in the Hawaiian Islands, the return to sunny Southern California was a welcome start to a new year’s round of tournament play. In 1948 Riviera once more lay at Hogan’s feet. He played the tournament in four under-par rounds, 68-70-70-67, for a nine-under total score of 275, a record that wasn’t equaled until 1975, when Pat Fitzsimmons again posted a 275, and wasn’t bettered until Hale Irwin’s 272 in 1976. (Lower scores for the tournament had been posted in the interim, but not at Riviera. From 1954 through 1972 the tournament’s venue moved between four other L.A.-area courses.)

The tournament that tied the names Riviera and Hogan together once and for all, though, was the 1948 U.S. Open – only the third time that the national championship was played west of the Mississippi River, after the 1938 Open at Cherry Hills CC in Denver and the 1941 Open at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, and the first time on a West Coast course. Despite the USGA’s penchant for toughening up a course in preparation for hosting the U. S. Open – increasing the height of the rough, narrowing and/or skewing the fairways, and rolling and shaving the greens to lightning speed – Riviera’s longtime pro Willie Hunter convinced USGA Executive Secretary Joe Dey that the planned 6-inch rough would be too severe given the course’s wiry kikuyu grass; the rough was cut to three inches – enough to snag a mis-played tee shot, but not overly punitive. The course was considered to be sufficiently challenging as it was to provide a championship test – Bobby Jones himself, after playing to a two-over 73 during a visit in 1931, said, “Fine course – but tell me, where do the members play?”

After his victory at Riviera in January, Hogan predicted in his syndicated newspaper column that the course would play six to eight strokes harder for the USGA Championship in June, but after a couple of practice rounds on the U. S. Open setup, he commented that the course was playing no harder than it had for the Los Angeles Open. He underscored his comments with an opening round 67 (which included a 31 on the front nine). Hogan’s Saturday round was not as scintillating; an afternoon tee time and increasing winds off the ocean (the western end of the course is a scant mile and a quarter from the beach) gave him a bit more trouble. He came in with a one-over 72 – and considered himself lucky to get it. At the end of Saturday play Hogan was one shot behind Sam Snead, who followed his Friday round of 69 with another for a two-day total of 168 – a new 36-hole U.S. Open scoring record.

Sunday’s two-round conclusion put Snead out of the running, however. His U. S. Open curse struck again, and putting woes dropped him down the leaderboard with a morning round of 72 and an afternoon 73, for a final score of 283 – only good enough for 5th place. Sunday at the ’48 Open belonged to Ben Hogan and Jimmy Demaret – a flamboyant dresser and bon vivant who was a good friend of Hogan’s off the course. The pair came into the final day two strokes apart, Demaret’s Saturday round of 70 not making up all the ground he had lost with a Friday round of 71 (against Hogan’s 67). After matching 68s in the morning, Hogan still led Demaret by two at the lunch break. Hogan’s morning round included a dramatic recovery on the par-3 6th hole, where he blasted out of the peculiar little pot bunker in the middle of the green and sank a must-have putt to save par.

Tournament pairings were not re-aligned for the final round in those days as they are now, when TV coverage dictates the need for dramatic finishes. Demaret went out 30 minutes ahead of Hogan in the afternoon, and looked poised to make a run at the title when he went four under for the six-hole stretch from #7 through #12. A lipped-out putt from four feet on the 13th seemed to take the wind out of Demaret’s sails, though, and he wasn’t able to press home in the stretch. The best he could do was a 3-under 69, which turned out to not be enough to overtake Hogan.

Hogan played the final round of the Open in the precise, focused manner for which he was justly famous. Unruffled by a 3-putt on the 17th green, he matched Demaret’s 69 to stay two strokes ahead for the tournament, setting a new U.S Open record of 276 – five strokes better than the previous record, Ralph Guldahl’s 281 at Oakland Hills in 1937 – in the process. The record would stand for 19 years, until Jack Nicklaus’ 275 at the 1967 U.S. Open at Baltusrol.

After his success in 1947 and 1948, Ben Hogan never stepped into the winner’s circle at Riviera again; in fact, his next outing there, in the 1949 Los Angeles Open, saw him come home in a rather dismal tie for 11th place. Still, his place in Riviera’s history was secured by two successive, successful years, and the posh hangout of the Hollywood elite will be forever associated with Bantam Ben.

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