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In hand-to-hand combat, though, Nelson was the leader. If one counts a 1927 Fort Worth caddie tournament in which 15-year-old Nelson beat 15-year-old Ben Hogan in a playoff, the rivalry between Nelson and Hogan produced five head-to-head meetings. Nelson won four of them. In 1939, when the Ryder Cup matches scheduled for Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. were canceled because of the war, challenge matches among the American players were held at the Detroit Golf Club. When Hogan and Nelson met there, Hogan won. In 1940, when they met in a playoff for the Texas Open, Nelson won. But the two great encounters were their quarterfinal match in the 1941 PGA Championship at Cherry Hills in Denver and the 18-hole playoff for the 1942 Masters in Augusta.
Sandy Tatum, now the president of the United States Golf Association, was a 20-year-old Stanford golfer on his way home to California after the 1941 NCAA championships at Ohio State. He stopped off in Denver to visit friends and walked the Cherry Hills course every day, watching one good match after another. "But the classic was Hogan and Nelson," Tatum remembers, 38 years later. "Thirty-six holes on a great golf course on a perfect day. Hogan played a truly Hoganesque morning round, and having played such a round, he was one down to Nelson, which says all I can say about the quality of the golf Nelson played that morning.
"In the afternoon they reproduced the round they had played in the morning, 17 virtually flawless holes of golf. They arrived at the 18th hole with Nelson still one-up. Nelson's drive was on the right side of the fairway, Hogan's was in the middle and a few yards in front. Nelson then hit a two-iron that I can only describe as symphonic. Every time I look at that hole I visualize it against the background of what it was that day. I relive seeing that swing and watching that ball against that blue sky."
Nelson's ball came to rest five feet to the right of the pin. Hogan's second shot also landed on the green, but a good 25 feet from the hole. Hogan putted close, then Nelson sank his five-footer for a birdie and the fourth match between the two was over. Nelson had won 2-up.
Nelson's own memory of that PGA is marred by the nightmare the tournament eventually became for him. After Hogan, he beat Gene Sarazen in the semifinals and then, against Vic Ghezzi, a pro who up to that point had never seriously contended for a major title, Nelson was 3-up through 27 holes of the final match. At that point he began to feel the match slipping away from him. "It was awful," he says. "I could feel myself letting down, but there wasn't much I could do about it. It was fatigue, I guess."
Whatever it was, Ghezzi evened the match by the 36th green, and they went to extra holes. They halved the 1st with pars, but then, on the 2nd, they both missed the green and had to chip on. They hit identical shots, a little too strong, and both balls ended up a few feet beyond the hole and very close together. A measuring tape was produced to determine who would putt first, and both balls, it turned out, were exactly 42 inches from the hole. So a coin was flipped. Nelson lost and had to putt first.
The stymie rule was still in effect in 1941, so both balls remained on the green, where they had landed. The only way a ball could be lifted and marked was if it interfered with the stance of the opponent. When Nelson was asked whether Ghezzi's ball would hinder him, inexplicably he said no. Then, in taking his stance over the putt, Nelson inadvertently touched Ghezzi's ball with the toe of his shoe and moved it slightly. Ghezzi should have been awarded the hole and the match on the spot. Instead, Ghezzi announced that he had no intention of winning the match that way, that no penalty should be charged because no damage had been done. Incredibly, the referee's decision, after much discussion and delay, was that if Ghezzi said it was O.K., it was O.K.
"Well, it wasn't O.K," says Nelson, shuddering involuntarily at the memory. "After all that, I still had to make a 42-inch putt. There's no way I can win this match this way, I'm thinking. All over the world people will say.... Well, I didn't miss the putt on purpose, but those are the things I was thinking about. Ghezzi won the match fair and square, twice. It was the most stupid thing I ever did in a golf tournament. It was terrible. Terrible!"
Hogan and Nelson met for the last time at the 1942 Masters. Hogan, who had been eight strokes off the pace after 36 holes, shot 67 on Saturday and 70 on Sunday to tie Nelson at 280. Ties at Augusta are decided by sudden-death playoffs these days, but in 1942 a tie meant 18 holes on Monday. To watch this particular playoff, between the two best players in the game, many of the other golfers, with no stake in the outcome themselves, stayed on an extra day to see it, an extraordinary tribute.
Nelson spent the night at the Richmond Hotel in downtown Augusta throwing up, a not unusual occurrence. "There were easier people to have a playoff against than Ben Hogan, you know," he says. "I woke up on the morning of the playoff just miserable. Ben found out about it and came down to my room and said, 'If you're sick we'll just postpone the playoff until later.' I answered, 'No, Ben, let's go ahead and play it.'