Someday someone is going to play the perfect round of golf. It will happen in about the same year that they discover a politician or a taxi driver who isn't on the hustle, or a shoelace that doesn't break when you are in a hurry. Until that perfect game of golf is played, the 18 holes that Ben Hogan turned in from tee to green in Houston the other day will have to do. Playing against Sam Snead in a TV exhibition called Shell's Wonderful World of Golf, Hogan hit 35 shots about as well as they could be hit. He also stroked 34 putts like a man with an advanced case of Parkinson's disease for a final score of 69 and a three-stroke victory over Snead. When it was all over, Gene Sarazen, who narrates the show for the Shell Oil Company, said, "Ben, from tee to green that is the finest round of golf that has been played in my lifetime." For reference, Sarazen won his first U.S. Open 42 years ago.
Just about anyone else alive could have said the same thing as Sarazen. Throughout the entire 18 holes, Hogan never hit a shot more than 10 feet off the line of flight he intended it to travel. He never once hit the ball into the rough or a hazard. On all 18 greens, he was putting for either a birdie or an eagle. If someone like Arnold Palmer or Billy Casper had been putting for him, he might well have scored in the 50s.
In these days when promoters outnumber sand traps, visions of a last great Snead-Hogan confrontation had been dancing in many a restless noggin. To any golf fan past the age of 35 it would be a kind of dream match, although the younger generation might rate its excitement potential on a par with a Norma Talmadge love scene. Nonetheless, these two ancients, each of whom is 52 this year, still give the current champions some uncomfortable moments in the few tournaments they enter.
The match was finally put together by Fred Corcoran, a New Yorker whose life is devoted to arranging such sporting climaxes. He caught up with Hogan in April at the Masters, where Ben had shot a brilliant third-round 67 and finished in a tie for ninth. Knowing that Hogan was then feeling fairly sanguine about his putting after a decade of yips, Corcoran persuaded him to give a TV match some thought. When Hogan eventually agreed, it marked his first venture into the business of televised matches—he had long avoided them.
Snead had played in many—perhaps more than any other golfer. All he asked was a chance to get in a practice round before the match. To make that possible, a Houston industrialist named Pierre Schlumberger (pronounced shlumbarejay) sent his company jet to pick up Snead at his home club of Greenbrier in West Virginia on a Sunday morning. That afternoon, Sam was out on the Houston Country Club course firing five and six balls on every hole from every position. Hogan was also on the course, as he had been for the previous two days. When he and Snead passed close to each other on adjacent holes, they did not even nod. They have never been particularly fond of each other.
The blunt fact is that two more antithetical types than Hogan and Snead could hardly exist. At the apex of his career, Hogan was about as convivial as a Trappist monk. He conquered golf with willpower, forcing his slight physique to its utmost. Snead was the carefree hillbilly, everybody's pal, a kind of Will Rogers of the fairways with his homey wit and hayseed yarns. The only thing the two men had in common was a total commitment to golf.
Snead and Hogan met in head-to-head matches—exclusive of team matches—only three times in their long and parallel careers, and Snead won them all. The first was in San Francisco in 1941, where Snead had a 66 to Hogan's 68. The next was a playoff at the 1950 Los Angeles Open, an event that marked Hogan's return to competition after an automobile accident that nearly took his life 11 months earlier. Snead won, 72-76. At the 1954 Masters they tied again after 72 holes, and Snead won again, 70-71. Hogan's supporters maintain that these were not true tests because Hogan must prepare himself mentally for a match, and once the four rounds are finished he has trouble cranking himself up for an epilogue. Put a club in Snead's hands, and he could hit the ball perfectly in the middle of Times Square on New Year's Eve.
As recently as 1962, Snead wrote in a book, "All I know is that it's true that Hogan and [Byron] Nelson won plenty of tournaments which I didn't, but any time Hogan and I met in a head-to-head playoff, I won. We met three times over the years when we were rivals. The score reads: Snead 3, Hogan 0."
Be all that as it may, the Houston match had the feeling of a final showdown. It began on Monday morning under ugly skies. As the two golfers warmed up on the practice tee, they scarcely spoke. Each was caparisoned in his sartorial trademark—Hogan in his white linen cap, Snead in his coconut straw hat. Hogan looked superbly fit, albeit a few pounds heavier than imagination and memory would have it. Snead, on the other hand, was beginning to overlap his trouser tops a bit.
When all the cameras were in position, Associate Producer and Commentator George Rogers gave a short speech through a portable electric megaphone to the several hundred club members who had showed up for the start of the match. He told them that a considerable amount of prestige and money was involved and please not to click their cameras while the players were hitting the ball. Then he introduced the contestants as if they were boxers: "Visiting from White Sulphur Springs, W. Va.—Sam Snead. And Texas' own Ben Hogan."