Review of The Open Question

Review of The Open Question

May, Peter. The Open Question: Ben Hogan and Golf’s Most Enduring Controversy. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021. Pp. xx+163. Bibliographical references and Index. $24.95 hardcover.

Reviewed by Erica J. Zonder

In June 2022, the U.S Open will be contested at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts. This will be the 17th United States Golf Association (USGA) Championship hosted by the Club, and the fourth U.S. Open. When Brookline last hosted the U.S. Open in 1988, Curtis Strange won the tournament, the first of his two back-to-back championships. Strange was the first man to win two in a row since Ben Hogan, arguably one of the greatest male golfers of the 20th century, achieved this rare feat in 1950 and 1951. Hogan won four U.S. Opens in all, or, as some golf historians, including Peter May, would argue, he actually won five. Thus, the subject of May’s well-researched book.

Rowman & Littlefield, 2021.

The Open Question: Ben Hogan and Golf’s Most Enduring Controversy isn’t just a book about whether Hogan’s victory in the 1942 Hale America National Tournament should count as a U.S. Open. The book also offers a detailed look at the lives of four golf stars of the era: Hogan, Lloyd Mangrum, Jimmy Demaret, and Bobby Jones. He highlights their World War II service records and the war’s impact on them personally, as well as how it shaped golf in the United States and elsewhere. May divides his exploration into three main sections: Part I establishes the cancellation of the originally-scheduled U.S. Open at Interlachen and the subsequent establishment of the Hale America National Open in 1942; Part II is divided into four subsections, with each subsection covering one round of the tournament while simultaneously delving into one of the four golfers lives; Part III dives deep into the ongoing controversy as May makes his case that Hogan actually won five U.S. Opens.

Much of golf was put on hold during World War II, and the U.S. Open was no exception as it was “canceled” in 1942. The USGA thought the staging of events to be “improper” and that golf organizations should focus on service to the nation for the duration of the war (p. 10). The tournament had similarly been canceled in World War I. Instead, members of the Chicago District Golf Association proposed that the dates of the tournament be used to stage a war relief fundraiser in the Chicago area, while also calling for other local Hale tournaments at member country clubs around the country (p. 11). John B. Kelly, a “wealthy weekend golfer” from Philadelphia who was given the title Assistant Director of Civilian Defense in Charge of Physical Fitness, led the charge. He saw this as an opportunity for exercise (hence the name “Hale” as in hearty/healthy). According to Kelly, “eight million people will be going into the Armed Forces. My job is to look after 124 million who won’t or can’t go,” (p. 12). The U.S. Open was not officially held again until post-war 1946.

May, while delving into each of the four golfers’ service records, also addresses the privilege associated with competitive golf. Bobby Jones, unlike the other three, was a wealthy superstar who won many “majors,” which for years included prestigious amateur events in the “grand slam.” Mangrum, Demaret and Hogan came from another ilk––all were forced to work as teenagers, and it was by working as caddies that introduced them to the sport. All three turned professional early as a means to an end. Mangrum “developed the instinct of a survivor…who hustled at everything because he had no choice,” (p. 35). Hogan knew “what it means to be hungry,” and further he “never intend(s) to be hungry again,” (p. 55). Demaret was “one of Texas’ most celebrated high school drop outs,” (p. 70).

After the Hale, all four served during the war in various capacities. Mangrum’s record contains contradictions, but he seems to have enlisted in 1943, gone overseas, got injured at some point, and may or may not have won battle stars and earned Purple Hearts. In a letter to the PGA Tournament director, he stated he “cheated death many times and (has) been quite lucky,” (p. 44). Hogan was drafted in 1943, and despite having no high school diploma, was assigned to Officer’s Candidate School where he was involved in flight training, played some golf, and remained stateside. Hogan didn’t mind going into the army, stating, “it’s something that has to be done and something anyone should be proud to do,” (p. 62). Demaret served stateside in the Navy and “basically played a lot of golf.” According to Demaret, “every war has its slogan…. Mine was ‘That’ll play, Admiral,’” (p. 76). Jones was on the back-end of his career by the time of the Hale, as he was already a successful lawyer in Atlanta. He enlisted the day after the tournament, and was charged with defending the Atlantic Seaboard from possible German attacks. He eventually made his way overseas for some seven months and possibly landed in Normandy on “D-Day plus one,” (p. 99).

In terms of the Hale itself, May’s deep dive into whether the tournament should be considered a U.S. Open (or even considered a “major”) is thoroughly researched and eloquently pleaded. His evidence: the USGA was involved (and the USGA only ran championship events), the “terrific” field included most of the best golfers of the era, Hogan’s victory gave it prestige and it was covered by most of the major newspapers of the day, and he received the same, or virtually the same, medal as he did for his other U.S. Open victories. The USGA disagreed and in 2020 attempted to finally put the controversy to rest in a statement, calling the Hale a “singular” tournament held to raise money for war relief whose purpose was “not to determine a national champion,” (p. 109). Additionally, the “auspices, field and format were inconsistent with a U.S. Open,” (p. 110). The USGA also claimed the side events, like a trick shot exhibition, were inconsistent with the usual tournament. Most “telling,” according to the USGA, were the prizes. The gold medal was supposed to go to the U.S. Open winner that year and had already been created so, because of wartime cutbacks, it was “repurposed” and engraved differently. And finally, Hogan was not awarded the trophy, it remained in the hands of the 1941 winner, Craig Wood, and was not passed along until 1946 (p. 110).

May examined the “auspices” and concluded that the USGA enforced its rules and regulations at the tournament, which it only does at major events, and it only runs one professional men’s championship a year, which in 1942 was the Hale America (p. 113). In terms of “format,” the tournament had various formats over the years, but was 72 holes during that era. The Hale also was 72 holes, just spread out over four days due to the possibility of extra money being raised over four days instead of three (36 holes had been played on the first day the year before). May also insists the side events did “not detract from the quality of play,” (p. 113). The “field,” as previously mentioned, was “exceptional.” The full field included most all the best golfers of the era, with the exception of PGA Champion Sam Snead, who was already serving, and the US Amateur Champion Bud Ward. The USGA seems to believe otherwise, which May finds to be the “most disingenuous argument of all,” (p. 114). As May notes, the British Open was considered a major when players didn’t travel overseas so not all the best played. Hogan didn’t play in the 1949 U.S. Open as he was recovering from a serious car accident. More recently, Tiger Woods has missed many tournaments due to injury (although miraculously teeing it up in the 2022 Masters). This argument thus does not “ring true,” (p. 115).

May also examined the course, which the USGA has suggested was not “toughen(ed) enough” for a U. S. Open and was considered a “membership course” according to prominent golf writer Grantland Rice (p. 115). May argues that everyone was playing the same course, and 75 percent of the field could not break par after four rounds. And, there are plenty of other courses in U.S. Open history that have been maligned. May further addressed the scoring generally, as Hogan shot a 62 in round 2 that would be considered a U.S. Open record, standing even today. However, the scores were not so inconsistent with scores in the tournament now. Lastly, he examined the players’ views on this, which were mixed. Hogan clearly felt that this victory should be counted as a U.S. Open victory. Nick Faldo, a major champion himself but never a winner of a U.S. Open, asked Hogan in 1992 how to win the tournament and Hogan said, “If by Sunday evening, you have shot the lowest score, I promise you they will give you a medal. I know. I have five of them,” (p. 120).

May goes on to look at the return of the U.S. Open in 1946, which was won by Mangrum and where he received the trophy that had been last awarded in 1941. He also examines Jones’ friendship with General and soon to be President Eisenhower, as well as the Jones’ creation of Augusta National, home of the Masters. He additionally chronicles the later lives of Mangrum, Hogan, and Demaret.

In the Epilogue, May shares the “clincher”––a single signed piece of paper (an image is included in the book), now in the hands of a Hogan enthusiast or “Hoganista,” which lists all of Hogan’s major victories. Hogan hand wrote 1942 next to the other four U.S. Open years, and signed it at the bottom.

Erica Zonder is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Eastern Michigan University. She earned a J.D. from the University of Michigan and a Masters of Science in Sport Management from Eastern Michigan University. She can be reached at [email protected] and can be followed on Twitter @EricaZonder.