Friday 20 September 2019

Woods bids to follow Hogan's lead in proving his doubters wrong

Brilliant approach play should shine at Genesis Open in next stage of Tiger's injury comeback

Tiger Woods will be aware of the significance of Riviera CC as a crucial stepping-stone on his road to competitive recovery. Photo: Photo/Gregory Bull/AP
Tiger Woods will be aware of the significance of Riviera CC as a crucial stepping-stone on his road to competitive recovery. Photo: Photo/Gregory Bull/AP

Dermot Gilleece

As a keen student of golfing history, Tiger Woods will be aware of the significance of Riviera CC as a crucial stepping-stone on his road to competitive recovery. He plays there next week in the Genesis Open, having sparked a considerable flame in his recent comeback at Torrey Pines.

With a delicious if unintended sense of timing, Woods chose to announce a previous return while arch-rival Phil Mickelson was leading at Riviera in February 2009. By that stage, El Tigre had been out of action for eight months since overcoming crippling leg injuries to capture the US Open, his 14th and last Major championship, at Torrey Pines.

As it happened, Mickelson went on to win at Riviera and Woods made his comeback the following week in the Accenture Match Play in Tucson. That was when, as world No 1 - 538 spots above his current standing - he beat Australia's Brendan Jones in his opening match before losing 4&2 to South Africa's Tim Clark who, incidentally, was later hammered by Rory McIlroy, making his tournament debut in the US.

As an observer at both those events, I could survey Riviera as the scene of Ben Hogan's celebrated return in January 1950, following life-threatening injuries in a car crash 11 months previously. Which prompted me to make the climb up 55 wooden steps from the 18th green to the elevated clubhouse, where memorabilia included the newspaper headline 'Hogan breaks record in winning Open'.

"Those railway ties weren't there when Ben walked up that hill," said a remarkable woman named Phyllis Wade, for whom that week marked 61 years as a PGA tournament volunteer. "It was just mud. Those ties didn't come until some years later. In fact there were no steps, and he used his clubs as walking sticks."

She also remembered the day in January 1948 when Hogan stepped purposefully up that hill, having completed a stunning four-shot victory in the Los Angeles Open before adding the US Open there later that year.

In between, a horrendous car crash left him with fractures of the pelvis, collarbone and left ankle. He also chipped a rib and had near-fatal blood clots which led to life-long circulation problems and other physical limitations.

His doctors predicted he might never walk again, let alone play golf competitively. But on leaving the hospital on April 1, 59 days after the accident, he vowed he would prove them wrong.

So it was that with bandaged legs, he battled to tie the 1950 Los Angeles Open with his great rival Sam Snead who then beat him 72-76 in a delayed play-off eight days later. Earlier that day, as Hogan limped to the first tee for the play-off, he spied Sports Illustrated correspondent Jack Tobin scribbling in a notebook.

"For crissake, Jack," he growled, "you don't have to write down every damn word I say." When asked afterwards why he had made such a remark, the Hawk replied: "I had to get mad at something. I use anger to drive away fear."

Meanwhile, Mrs Wade recalled how she had been a scorer for Hogan on her volunteering debut in 1948. "We seemed to hit it off straight away," she said.

"Everybody thought he concentrated so much that he didn't know what was going on around him, but he always had time to acknowledge me."

As a resident of Santa Monica, she also talked of her friendship with heart-throb actor William Holden and with Glenn Ford, who portrayed Hogan in the 1951 movie Follow the Sun.

"Glenn was a friend of Ben's and a lovely man, but he was over six feet and much too tall for the part," she said. "And I told him so. A bit like Jimmy Stewart playing Glenn Miller. But I thought Anne Baxter did a great job as Valerie [Hogan's wife]. The movie turned out OK, but I don't think people were overwhelmed by it."

She went on to talk of hearing the news of Hogan's accident. "It was all over the papers and the radio," she said. "I remember thinking 'Oh my gosh! He might not make it.' I felt terrible. And poor Valerie [who escaped the accident unscathed]. I thought it would be a miracle if he came back." Then her smile returned as she added: "Which it was, of course."

Her own mobility problems, arising from a serious accident when she was 12, created something of a bond between herself and Hogan. And she also established a lasting friendship with Valerie, to the extent that she was among the selected mourners at the great man's funeral.

"All the greats had an amazing ability to concentrate, despite the distractions going on around them," she said. "Tiger Woods is the same way. Remarkable. I scored for him when he was about 12 and thought he was a very nice, talented kid. Very polite. You enjoyed watching him when he was a kid and hoped he did well. And he did."

As one of the volunteer team at Torrey Pines where Woods swept to victory in the 2008 Buick Invitational, she had her photograph taken with him. "Oh that was when the PGA insisted they wanted me outside," she said, feigning anger. "They wanted to interview me but I said 'no pictures'."

Riviera's reputation as a superb second-shot golf course would suggest that Woods will do well there, given his often brilliant approach play last weekend. Either way, you could imagine him endorsing the words of Hogan, who once remarked: "People have always been telling me what I can't do. I guess I have wanted to show them." Indeed.

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