Thursday 20 June 2019

Dermot Gilleece: 'Hogan and Woods had different problems to overcome'

Tiger Woods on his way to winning the PGA Tour Championship at East Lake. Photo: Stan Badz/PGA TOUR
Tiger Woods on his way to winning the PGA Tour Championship at East Lake. Photo: Stan Badz/PGA TOUR

Dermot Gilleece

A money match in Las Vegas on Friday seems a somewhat tacky way of marking one of the most memorable 12-month periods in the history of tournament golf. Still, not even his $9m clash with Phil Mickelson can diminish the sensational resurgence of Tiger Woods from the obscurity of 1,199th in the world rankings.

That was his position last November. Two months later he was 683rd. Then, following seven top 10 finishes in 18 events, including sixth in the Open Championship at Carnoustie, second in the PGA three weeks later and a season-ending victory in the PGA Tour Championship, he is currently up to 13th with a fair sprinkling of his old magic restored.

Context gives a very different perspective to stories from his most troubled time. Like the one from the US Masters dinner of 2017, which Nick Faldo didn't make public until the PGA last August.

That was when Faldo informed his TV audience how, amid that gathering of greats, Woods had confided to a fellow Masters champion: "I'm done, I won't play golf again." Later, the player confirmed to ESPN: "Yes, Nick's correct in what he heard, because at the time I didn't know what I was going to be doing. I had no golf in my future. I couldn't walk. I couldn't sit."

Which is truly remarkable when set against the season he has just had. Yet we are entitled to question popular claims of it being the greatest comeback in the history of tournament golf. (It would be entirely unrealistic to include other leading sports, where age and physicality imposes obvious limitations.)

When previously acknowledging the undoubted merit of the Woods comeback, I suggested it shouldn't be compared with that of Ben Hogan, simply because of the very different physical problems they had to overcome.

Though the spinal fusion which Woods underwent was unquestionably serious surgery, it could hardly be likened, for instance, to that of fellow tour player Ken Duke.

Memories remain fresh of the inspiring images of Duke, as a 44-year-old, making a breakthrough PGA Tour victory in the 2013 Travelers Championship, with two supportive titanium rods remaining in his back, since surgery for scoliosis more than 25 years previously.

Meanwhile, we could fully appreciate what Hogan went through, only after disclosures by his wife, Valerie, regarding a near-fatal car crash on February 2, 1949. She waited until after his death in July 1997 before considering it appropriate to talk to the American magazine Golf World about her part in his recovery.

Her story was wonderfully revealing, not least for the details she recounted of the head-on collision with a Greyhound bus near the small town of Van Horn, Texas. On impact, her husband flung himself across her in the front seat of their Cadillac, instinctively trying to save her from injury.

"He was saying, 'Get out! Get out, Valerie! We've got to get out'," she recalled in the interview. "He was thinking about fire. He knew that with the gasoline the car might burn. How he could know that, I don't know."

She went on: "He was trying to push me and I said, 'Please don't', because I had a bad ankle. I finally got the door open and held onto it to lift myself out. I didn't see anything except land. Then I saw these people up on the highway. I started waving at them and saying, 'Oh please, get my husband out of the car, he's badly hurt.'"

The extent of Hogan's injuries were later assessed in hospital: a broken collarbone, broken pelvis, broken ankle, a broken rib and damage to his bladder. Two weeks after the accident, when he was expected to be released from hospital, a blood clot moved from his bruised leg through his heart, into the pulmonary artery, then into his right lung. His condition became so critical that another, larger clot would have killed him.

It hardly seems credible then that only 16 months later, on June 11, 1950, he captured the US Open at Merion, beating Lloyd Mangrum and George Fazio in an 18-hole play-off.

Evidence of the price he paid in pain for that comeback, is preserved in his locker at the Shady Oaks GC, where he would practise his craft in quiet isolation. Stacked neatly on one side is a variety of muscle-ache creams and ointments, including Chinese Tiger Balm and another, obscure medication identified by Japanese writing. And at the rear, behind four of his trademark caps, is a knee brace.

He and Valerie had been married 62 years at the time of his death. She recalled how, in the autumn of 1949, she agreed he could return to Shady Oaks, but only to look. "No," he responded, "I'm going to take some of my clubs." And seeing her concern, he insisted: "This is something I've got to do."

On December 10, 1949, four months past his 37th birthday, he played his first full round since the accident. And a month later he completed a competitive comeback in the Los Angeles Open at Riviera CC where he lost only after a play-off against his great rival Sam Snead. From there, his focus turned to the 50th staging of the US Open and though he practised endlessly, play was kept to the minimum, with his legs wrapped from ankle to groin with heavy elastic athletic bandages to control swelling and cramps.

Thinking of Woods' triumphant march at East Lake, it's fascinating to note that in the final round at Merion, Hogan found himself leading the championship by three strokes as he stood on the 12th tee. Yet he couldn't be sure of finishing, such was the pain in his legs.

In his marvellous book, The US Open: Golf's Ultimate Challenge, Robert Sommers tells us how, after getting his drive away, Hogan's legs locked, causing him to stumble.

Fearful of losing his balance, he struggled towards a friend named Harry Radix, who happened to be standing at the edge of the tee. "Let me hang on to you Harry," he gasped. "My God, I don't think I can finish." But he did, even with the pain that persisted when the spasm had eased.

By its nature, sport relentlessly urges us to compare the present with the past, even when circumstances are neither fair nor valid. In this latest situation, we should simply be grateful that Woods has made a wonderful comeback.

With a memorable competitive year ending for him in next week's Hero World Challenge, let's not seek to diminish his achievement by looking to the past, where we find that Hogan negotiated a very different route to greatness.

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