Tiger Woods’ miraculous recovery from a one-car rollover that mangled his right leg amazed fans who feared the end of his storied golf career. Yet a mere 14 months after that crippling accident on a California highway, Tiger Woods, 46, golfed his way to the final round of this year’s Masters. Tiger Woods followed in the painful footsteps of Fort Worth’s Ben Hogan, the legendary golfer who, 73 years ago, survived a head-on collision that crushed his Cadillac and broke bones in his left leg and ankle. The West Texas crash occurred on the foggy morning of Feb. 2, 1949, when a speeding Greyhound bus slammed into Hogan’s headlights. To protect his wife Valerie, 36-year-old Hogan let go of the wheel and lunged toward her. Valerie suffered a cut over her eye.
Hogan’s left leg was battered, his left collarbone fractured, and his pelvis broken. His face plowed into the dashboard, permanently affecting his vision, his depth perception, and his putting. He bled internally for 90 minutes until an ambulance arrived and took him 109 miles to El Paso. In his delirium, the golfer murmured “fore left.”
Overnight, Hogan, a star athlete perceived as arrogant and aloof, became a beloved hero. Three-hundred get-well cards a day arrived at El Paso’s Hotel Dieu. When life-threatening blood clots moved up Hogan’s legs toward his lungs, the nation’s leading vascular surgeon, Dr. Alton Ochsner of New Orleans, was flown to El Paso on an Air Force B-59 bomber to operate. Would the blacksmith’s son, who rose from Glen Garden caddie to golfing icon, ever swing a club again?
Hogan’s previous three years on the links had been incomparable, with 37 tournament wins. Three weeks before the accident, he was on the cover of Time magazine. On the winter tour, he’d just won the Bing Crosby Pro-Am and the Long Beach Open. He placed second at the Phoenix Open and was driving to Fort Worth the morning of the crash. Twelve days following surgery in El Paso, Hogan hobbled around a hospital bed clutching a walker. Back home on April 1, he circled his bed, with one palm on the mattress for support. Gradually, he progressed to laps around the bedroom, then the living room. To improve balance and strengthen his legs, he took ballroom dancing at Lavonia Bellah Dance Studio on Camp Bowie Boulevard. With increased stamina, he walked two miles from his home at 24 Valley Ridge Road to the driving range at River Crest Country Club. Because of constant shoulder and back pain, he adjusted his swing and gradually resumed his solitary ritual of putts, chips, pitches and drives, in that order, with his goal 600 balls before lunch.
One morning, he collapsed on the green. Valerie came to the rescue in the couple’s black Cadillac. The dramatic scene at River Crest was reenacted in the 1951 movie “Follow the Sun,” which premiered at the Worth Theatre with Glenn Ford starring as Hogan and Anne Baxter as Valerie. Determined to make a comeback, Hogan walked the five miles to Colonial Country Club, a more challenging course. He had won the Colonial National Invitation trophy in 1946 and 1947 and believed he might yet win again. On Dec. 19, 1949, looking gaunt but smiling, he played 18 holes at Colonial, riding rather than walking between shots.
Two months later, he placed second at the Los Angeles Open, which Sam Snead won after an 18-hole playoff. Hogan was almost back. His next goal was the U.S. Open. In what golf writer David Barrett dubbed the “Miracle at Merion,” Hogan, the sentimental underdog, won the championship in a grueling three-way playoff. More U.S. Open victories followed in 1951 and 1953, years in which he also won the Masters. At the 1953 British Open in Carnoustie, a tabloid called him “Big Ben.” Hogan’s comeback was celebrated in Fort Worth with wins at Colonial in 1952, 1953, and 1959, reinforcing the course’s nickname, Hogan’s Alley. Despite these successes, Hogan was in constant pain. He bandaged his legs from ankle to hip to control swelling. When putting, he had trouble focusing. According to Hogan biographer Curt Sampson, “Aspirin and Ben-Gay became as much a part of his day as cigarettes.” He averaged two packs a day, watching the smoke to read the direction of the wind, and he pitched ads for Chesterfield. In the pre-collision era, Hogan had played 30 tournaments a year. After convalescing, he cut the number to five.
Tiger Woods, during an interview with ESPN, compared his own recent comeback to Hogan’s return. “To ramp up for a few events a year as Mr. Hogan did … there’s no reason I can’t do that,” he said. “I know the recipe for it.” Practice, practice and more practice. Hollace Ava Weiner, an archivist and historian, is the author of “River Crest Country Club: The First 100 Years.”