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Down Hogan's Alley

Modern Pros follow in Great's footsteps at Riviera

Posted Feb 22, 2012 by Dermot Gilleece

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Quite a few eyebrows were raised during the Northern Trust Open last weekend at the manner in which a revered old layout withstood the assault of an elite field headed by world number one, Luke Donald.  In truth, nobody managed to tear apart Riviera Country Club with its driveable, par-four 10th hole and its quirky, short sixth where a bunker sits stubbornly in the middle of the green.

This is where, on leaving the 18th green, it is necessary to negotiate a grassy incline followed by 55 wooden steps before the clubhouse is reached, 60 feet above.  And having negotiated those steps more than once, I can but marvel at the fact that Ben Hogan climbed them in exceptional circumstances 52 years ago.

To golf aficionados the world over, Riviera is better known as Hogan’s Alley.  This stems from the largely left-to-right shaped fairways where the game’s greatest left-to-right swinger had his fabled successes in the 1947 and 1948 Los Angeles Open and in the US Open of 1948.  Then there was his comeback LA Open appearance of 1950, when he displayed extraordinary courage and determination after a near-fatal car crash to be tied after 72 holes with his great rival, Sam Snead, only to lose a play-off.   

In fact the 18-hole play-off on January 16th 1950, took place a full eight hours after the scheduled 72 holes had been completed, due to the way torrential rain saturated the course. As it happened, the delay was a Godsend to Hogan who, quite apart from damaged legs, would clearly needed time to get his breath back after climbing those 55 steps, four days in a row.

We’re told that as Hogan limped to the first tee for the play-off, he spied “Sports Illustrated” correspondent Jack Tobin, closeby, scribbling in a notebook.  "For crissake, Jack," growled The Hawk, "you don't have to write down every damn word I say." And when asked afterwards why he had made such a remark, he replied: "I had to get mad at something. I use anger to drive away fear."

Last weekend, Riviera measured 7,298 yards which is only marginally longer than in 1945, when Sam Snead emerged victorious from the first staging of the LA Open there.  Given the equipment of the time, it was a formidable 7,029 yards back then and between that length and the quality of the design, organisers felt no need to extend the course until 2000, when it was made only marginally longer, at 7,055 yards, for Kirk Triplett’s victory.

Inside the Riviera Clubhouse at the top of the hill, the essence of the place was captured for me by a magazine article in glass case.  "If it's history you want…." the headline proclaimed.  It didn’t require a vivid imagination to finish the sentence. Meanwhile, a newspaper headline from 1947 informed us:  "Hogan breaks record in winning Open."  That referred to the 72-hole aggregate of 280 in the LA Open.  A year later, he lowered that record to 275.  And five months further on, by way of emphasising his liking for his so-called Alley, he carded rounds of 67,72,68,69 in what became a record aggregate of 276 for the US Open.  

The clubhouse and its environs have become a veritable shrine to him, including a bronze statue which was erected beside the first tee.  Sculpted by the artist, Ron Pekar, it depicts the great man from the knees up with a shortened club in his hand.

When I suggested to a Riviera local that it must have been quite an ordeal for Hogan to have pushed his broken body up those steps from the 18th green, I was informed that there were no railway ties when he made the ascent. It was just mud.  The steps weren’t created until almost 20 years later, which meant that the only help he had was his clubs as walking sticks.

Years later, while reflecting on the car-crash and its horrific consequences, Hogan remarked: "People have always been telling me what I can't do. I guess I have wanted to show them."  Through the difficulties they encountered around Riviera last weekend, today’s tournament professionals were offered a very revealing glimpse into the amazing achievements of a fabled predecessor, who was the first to come to terms with this wonderful examination of golfing skills.

- Dermot Gilleece

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