There is something about the most famous golf photograph ever taken that you probably do not know and certainly will not believe. I have told it to several people now, and each one immediately said, “Come on, that’s not true.” But it apparently is true or, if nothing else, the hero of our story claimed it was true.
The photograph is … well, if you are a committed golfer you can probably just look up right now (in your office, in your house, at your favorite sports themed restaurant, at your golf club) and see that picture on the wall. And if it’s nowhere nearby, you can probably just close your eyes and see it. The photograph is of Ben Hogan, looking down the fairway of the 18th hole at Merion, standing in perfect balance after hitting the 1-iron shot for the ages.
Everything about the photograph – and the moment – seems miraculous. Just start with the most basic of facts: Hogan was hitting a 1-iron, which is all but impossible to do. Lee Trevino was once struck by lightning and was asked how to avoid such a fate. He said, “Stand in the middle of the fairway and hold up a 1-iron. Even God can’t hit a 1-iron.”
But more, much more, Hogan himself was miraculous. This was the U.S. Open, 1950, and it was his first tournament back after his car crashed head first into a bus, a crash that, by all logic, should have killed him. It almost certainly would have killed him but it seems just before impact Hogan leaned over to protect his wife, Valerie, and this move not only saved her life, but his own. He fractured his collarbone, pelvis, ankle and rib, and doctors proclaimed his golf career over. Sixteen months later, Hogan was at Merion for the U.S. Open.
In those days, the U.S. Open demanded that golfers play 36 holes on the usually scorching final day, a physical toll under the best of circumstances. The effort almost broke Hogan. David Barrett, author of the engrossing “Miracle at Merion,” points out that on the 12th hole Hogan almost fell down, and he could barely walk after that. Hogan himself would admit almost quitting after the 13th hole; his caddie pressed him to go on. A competitor, Cary Middlecoff, actually marked Hogan’s balls on the greens because Hogan was in such agony.
Still, he played brilliantly. How was it possible? That was Hogan. There was something otherworldly about him, how purely he hit his shots, how dedicated he was to practice, how distant he was from competitors. He was something of a golf ascetic. He claimed to have learned the secret. The legend is he did not carry a 7-iron at Merion, and when asked why he said: “Because there are no 7-iron shots at Merion.”
When Hogan came to the difficult 18th hole (then 458 yards … this year, it will be 521 yards so that golfers, even with better equipment, will have to replicate Hogan’s grueling second shot), he needed a par to force a playoff. Hogan hit a drive to the middle of the fairway, and then pulled out his 1-iron.* The fairway, as you see in the photograph, was lined with people, though there were no ropes keeping them in place. An American flag is in the distance.
*Hogan would write in his book that he hit a 2-iron, but he had said at the time that it was a 1-iron, and he later admitted that his book was mistaken.
The photograph, taken from behind Hogan, captured him at the end of his follow through, poised as if posing, in perfect form, facing the green, left foot planted deep into the grass, right heel up, his 1-iron almost perfectly parallel to the ground. His ball hit the green and held, Hogan two-putted to force a playoff, and the next day won the U.S. Open. It was so incredible that only a year later Hollywood would make a movie about it – “Follow the Sun” with Glenn Ford playing Hogan, and Anne Baxter as his wife Valerie.
The 1-iron club itself would be stolen, as if the story needed any more color, and would not resurface for more than 30 years. How it resurfaced is an amazing story in itself: In 1983, an old man who never gave his named showed up at The Players Championship with what he said was a bag of eight old irons and four woods. He sold the bag to a golf club dealer named Bobby Farino for $150, and did not even mention that there were actually nine irons in there – there was a 1-iron in there, and it had a tiny but clear wear mark on the face, in precisely the spot where only a true master could hit a 1-iron.
Farino immediately guessed this was Hogan’s 1-iron. Doug McGrath, who was vice president of sales at the Ben Hogan company, was there when the club was presented to Ben Hogan.
“Mr. Hogan examined it from the playing position, from face, back and toe,” McGrath wrote in an email to Golf Channel’s Alan Tays, at the time a golf writer for the Palm Beach (Fla.) Post, “and said: ‘It’s good to see my old friend back.’”
As amazing as all of this is … the most amazing story of them all might be the one about the photograph.
Hy Peskin grew up in Brooklyn, during the Depression, which meant that he was always looking for another angle. He was just a teenager when his father, a Russian immigrant, lost his job as a tailor. Hy was selling newspapers then, and making a decent living at it. He promptly got his whole family selling newspapers.
“I saved my family with the newspaper selling,” he would tell John Thorn, who was to co-author a book about Peskin’s life that was never published.
“Remember that old Reader’s Digest feature, ‘My Most Unforgettable Character,’?” says Thorn, who is now the official historian of Major League Baseball. “For me, Hy was that person, a dynamo, a force of nature, a man of such intensity even in his late 80s that you can see why he alienated so many people, in his personal and professional lives.”
Yes, well, Peskin was a tough character. He was always angling for something, pushing for something, hustling for something. He went from selling newspapers to working for the New York Daily Mirror as a sportswriter. There, he got into a fight with the sports editor Dan Parker (another classic character; Damon Runyon called him “the most consistently brilliant of all sportswriters”). That forced his move into the Daily Mirror photo department where he took a few photos, but mostly developed the photos of others and wrote their cutlines.
The story of how Hy Peskin became a full-fledged photographer is typical of his outsized personality and extraordinary talent. After returning from World War II, he bought one box of color film (all he could afford) and went to St. Nicholas Arena on West 66th Street for a boxing match between a once-great fighter named Lou Nova (who had once fought Joe Louis) and someone called Gunnar Barlund. Peskin would tell Thorn that he was so nervous about running out of film that he took only three photographs the entire fight. All three, though, turned out perfectly – “three of the greatest pictures of my life.” He rushed over to the offices of Look Magazine, and the editor there immediately bought the pictures. Hy Peskin was a photographer.
He was no ordinary photographer. He was a genius. Many consider Neil Leifer the greatest sports photographer ever – Leifer took the famous photograph of Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston among countless others – and Leifer has said repeatedly that Peskin is the greatest ever. Peskin shot hundreds of sports covers for various magazines. He famously shot Joe DiMaggio smiling (something photographers almost never could capture) and Willie Mays in full follow through. It was Peskin’s deep and rich black and white photo of Ted Williams that Sports Illustrated used for the cover of its tribute issue when he died.
It wasn’t just sports. Peskin also took the iconic Life Magazine photo of John Kennedy and his then fiancée Jaqueline Bouvier on a sailboat – a photo that many think made Kennedy a national figure for the first time. That was a doubly amazing achievement because Peskin could not swim and was deathly afraid of the water.
What made Peskin different was his insistence on doing things his own way. When others shot from the press box, he went to the field. When others went to the field, he went to the other side. Nothing could keep him from the photograph he wanted. His most famous photographing exploit – other than Hogan, of course – was probably shooting three action photos on the same baseball play. He shot the batter in full swing then ran madly to third to get a photo of the runner sliding there. When the ball got away from the third baseman, he ran home and captured a shot of the play at the plate. He was so inescapable, that the legendary sports columnist Jim Murray would write about seeing Peskin run around in search of the indelible photograph. “I think Hy’s 72-yard dash across the infield under full equipment was the finest I have ever seen,” Murray wrote.
“Anticipation,” Peskin told Thorn when talking about what separated him. “Anticipation is the key word in the coverage of all sports. For example, one day I was shooting for Life Magazine a game, maybe at Detroit, and I shot as usual when nobody was on base from the first-base side of the batter as he hit. Close by. Oftentimes, I really endangered my life by edging closer to the baseline to shoot him when it is very possible for a batter to lash one out right at your nose. But I did it often. “
Peskin quit in his prime or was retired, it’s hard to say which. He was sent to the first Ali-Liston bout – Leifer’s famous photo was from Ali-Liston II – and his camera lights malfunctioned. He had not checked the lights before the fight. All of his photos were dark and unusable. Peskin would say that Sports Illustrated essentially cut him off then. It’s not hard to imagine: Peskin at his best could be a hard man to deal with. He went on his own as a promoter – he and Ted Williams tried to start the World Series of Sports Fishing, which was too far ahead of its time. He said that he almost went broke.
And then, strangely, he changed his name to Brian Blaine Reynolds – taking the middle names of his three sons – and he started something he called the “American Academy of Achievement.” The idea was to match up some of the most accomplished people in the world with some of the most talented and promising young people. It was a brilliant idea, and it remains one – the Academy of Achievement is a hugely successful nonprofit where legends from Ronald Reagan to Steve Jobs to Maya Angelou to Steven Spielberg have talked with gifted student delegates (these have included singer Taylor Swift, running back Herschel Walker and Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who co-founded Google).
But the Academy doesn’t publicize its connection to Hy Peskin or Brian Blaine Reynolds. In fact, you can scour the Website and not find a single mention of his name. In the later years of Peskin’s life, he and his sons had a fierce legal battle over the Academy (a battle Peskin won). He did not have many friends in those later years. Peskin was erratic. For instance, he refused to get dressed; he would go out wearing pajamas and slippers. He would tell Thorn that his own family was trying to make him out as crazy ”just because of the pajama thing.”
Hy Peskin/Brian Blaine Reynolds died in 2005, in Israel, where he had moved. There were a few nice obituaries written about him, mostly by fellow photographers who marveled at his brilliance. And, of course, his most famous photo, the photo of Ben Hogan and his 1-iron, was republished in various newspapers across the country.
Peskin had never said much about that photograph – in truth, he rarely talked about his work. He preferred to let the images speak. He would not even remember exactly what kind of camera he used (“most probably a Speed Graphic,” he said). He, of course, understood the magnitude of what Hogan did that day at Merion. Everyone understood. But, in the moment, he only knew there was something he wanted to capture that he could not quite grasp. “Hogan was a mystery to me,” he told Thorn. “But I didn’t think about it. He was distant. You shot pictures of him, he was (in the) distance. Sammy Snead – friendly. Ben Hogan – distant.”
When it was time for the 18th hole, most of the other photographers went in front of Hogan to shoot his face. That was the obvious play. Peskin thought different. He thought that the brilliance of the moment – the brilliance of Ben Hogan at his apex – could not be seen in his face. “Ben Hogan – distant.” Peskin walked in the fairway behind Hogan. They don’t let photographers stand back there now; we’ll never get another photograph quite like that one. Peskin saw the scene as he stood back there. And he knew. This was it. This was everything. And he took the photograph that would be on the wall of a million golfers for a half-century to come.
So what is that unbelievable detail that was promised at the beginning of the story? Well here goes: Hy Peskin would say he followed Ben Hogan around for 17 holes and … did not take a single picture. Not one. None of it struck him. He just followed Hogan around and studied him and waited for the inspiration. He said the picture at the 18th hole, the most famous golf photograph ever taken, was the only image he took the entire day.
Of course, that cannot be true. Can it?
“I had in my mind what I was after,” Peskin said. Then he added simply: “And I was able to click in the right moment.”