The Greatest Match Ever Played

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Often, our heroes are so much larger than life that we expect them to be nothing less than giants. By any measure, Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan were giants of the game. Therefore, it is impressive that in 1956 a couple of young amateurs would challenge them to a match when the professionals, both in their mid-40s, still possessed the skills that numbered them among the games all-time elite. Between them, Nelson and Hogan had won 14 major championships by this time.
 
Ken Venturi and Harvie Ward were the two brash young amateurs who apparently believed that the best way to follow in the footsteps of giants is to walk alongside them in head-to-head competition.
 
Venturi, who was 25, had only recently returned from a tour of duty in Korea, where he was an infantry sergeant. While Venturi may have been destined for golfing greatness (two years later, in 1958, he led the Masters as an amateur after three rounds; he won the 1964 U.S. Open in dramatic fashion; and he had a long and distinguished career as the lead golf analyst for CBS Sports), in 1956 he held the reputation as being one of the finest amateur golfers in the United States. Obviously, Venturi knew well the status of the two men they were about to compete against, but his relationship with them was more than just passing knowledge. Venturi modeled his game after Byron Nelson, and he considered Nelson his mentor. Venturi also revered Hogan, and it appeared even this early in Venturis career that Hogan had great affection for him as well. Two years earlier, Hogan had reportedly set up Venturi with a set of Hogan clubs.
 
Harvie Ward, who was 31, was the reigning U.S. Amateur champion (he would win the crown again later that year), the 1949 NCAA champion, the 1952 British Amateur champion, and the 1954 Canadian Amateur champion, and he had played on the 1953 and 1955 Walker Cup teams (he would play again in 1959).
 
So Hogan and Nelson not only knew of their competition, but also realized that these two amateurs had the ability to give them a good fight. In fact, it is probably a sign of the respect the two professionals had for Venturi and Ward that they would even agree to the match, because they really had nothing to gain and everything to lose. If they won, it was expected, and if they lost, it would be an embarrassment to lose to amateurs.
 
Just exactly how the match came to pass and a number of other details about the event are shrouded in the kind of Hogan-esque mystery that seems to surround so many events of his life. The most common explanation for how the match came to be was that Eddie Lowery, who caddied for Francis Ouimet in the 1913 U.S. Open at Brookline and who owned a San Francisco area car dealership where Venturi and Ward worked, set up the match with help from George Coleman, a wealthy Texas businessman who was close to Hogan and Nelson. It was agreed that the match would be solely for pride, and no money was knowingly wagered or exchanged. The match would be played at Cypress Point Golf Club.
 
The exact date of the match is also not completely clear, but it is assumed that it was played a few days before Bing Crosbys Pro-Am at Pebble Beach. In fact, Hogan is said to have made a decoy tee time for a practice round at Pebble Beach the morning of the match in order to keep fans and media off their track.
 
What is indisputable is that the two amateurs came out on fire. Venturi and Ward had birdies on nine of the first 10 holes. However, despite this impressive start, they still found themselves 1-down to Hogan and Nelson thanks to an 85-yard pitch-in for eagle by Hogan on the uphill, 500-yard, par-5 10th hole. On the 450-yard, par-4 11th hole, Nelson used a 2-iron to set up a 12-foot birdie putt, only to be matched by his protg Venturi.
 
The match continued in this fashion in what may have been the finest display of golf ever seen in match-play competition. Golf Magazine once referred to this match as the greatest golf match ever played.
 
Hogan and Venturi matched birdies on the par-3, 15th. When the players reached the famous 235-yard, par-3, 16th hole, the professionals were still clinging to their one-shot lead. On this day, the 16th, which sits like Atlantis amidst the rocks and crashing waves, was playing dead into a harsh Pacific wind. Nelson and Ward were both forced to use drivers to reach the putting surface. In a testament to their prowess, their tee shots set up birdie putts that both men would convert.
 
The 17th hole was halved, setting up the short, 342-yard, par-4, 18th hole as the deciding factor. Venturi and Wards only chance was for another birdie, hoping that the professionals would score a par, at best. Venturi negotiated his wedge approach shot to within 12 feet of the cup. In a microcosm of the day, Hogan hit his approach just inside of Venturis. Venturi then displayed nerves of steel when he smoothly rolled his ball into the hole. Hogan surveyed his putt with the intensity that earned him the nickname of The Hawk. As he settled over the putt, it is reported that Hogan growled through clenched teeth, Im not about to be tied by two ***damn amateurs. Even the golf ball would not risk enduring Hogans wrath as it split the center of the hole and dropped in for a birdie, ensuring the professionals victory.
 
In keeping with the Hogan legend, the match was reported to have taken place in near total silence except for the occasional youre away. In addition, no known scorecard from this match exists. Nelson later noted he did not know whether any of the players kept a scorecard, and that a scorecard was unnecessary anyway, because both sides knew exactly where they stood throughout the match.
 
Ward and Nelson ended up shooting scores of 67. Venturi shot a 65 and Hogan a 63. The amateurs' better-ball score was 59, the professionals a 58. As a foursome, they had 27 birdies and one eagle.
 
Copyright 2006 Matthew E. Adams Fairways of Life
 
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Editor's Note: Matt Adams is a reporter for The Golf Channel, equipment expert, twenty-year veteran of the golf industry and speaker. In addition, he is a New York Times and USAToday bestselling coauthor of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series and author of Fairways of Life, Wisdom and Inspiration from the Greatest Game. Fairways of Life uses golf as a metaphor for life and features a Foreword by Arnold Palmer. To sign up for Adams Golf Wisdom email quotes or for more information, go to www.FairwaysofLife.com.