Published June 12, 2013
ARDMORE, Pa. – The only 1-iron anyone talks about at Merion Golf Club is kept under wraps.
And it won't be found in a bag at the U.S Open.
Unlock the waterproof case, remove the soft covering, and it comes into view. Slip on the mandatory white gloves and savor the moment.
It's the one Ben Hogan used in 1950 to hit one of the more enduring shots in Open history.
Sixteen months after the car accident that nearly killed him, Hogan came to the 72nd hole of the 1950 U.S. Open needing a par to force a playoff. In one of golf's most memorable photos, Hogan is pictured, from behind, hitting a 1-iron from the 18th fairway to a green ringed by spectators.
He hit such a good drive in the morning third round that he needed only a 6-iron. But with his legs battered and swollen on his 36th hole of the day, his tee shot couldn't catch the slope of the hill, leaving him about 213 yards to the hole.
He was between a 4-wood and a 1-iron, and he went with the 1-iron for a shot that finished some 30 to 40 feet from the hole. Hogan would two-putt for par, then go on to win a three-way playoff the next day.
"It's a great photo, but it would have been an all right photo if he didn't win," three-time Open champion Tiger Woods said earlier in the week. "He still had to go out and win it the next day."
There's a commemorative plaque at the spot in the fairway that says: "June 10, 1950/U.S Open/Fourth Round/Ben Hogan/1-iron." All week long, players have gone there to try shots of their own, though with today's technology it's more of a 5-iron shot.
What happened to the club after the shot is almost as much a part of golf lore as the shot itself.
Hogan never used the club again after that 213-yard shot. It was stolen from his bag. His shoes were taken, too.
The club vanished for 33 years before it turned up at a collector's shop in Virginia. Eventually, it made its way from there to Hogan in 1983. He verified it was his and promptly donated the club to the USGA Museum.
On the front of the iron's clubhead, there's a mark about the size of a quarter on the sweet spot, close to the heel of the club. The backside of the clubhead notes, "Ben Hogan. Personal model. Reg 1022."
The 1-iron is up there with Buzz Aldrin's moon club as the most attractive artifacts at the museum, curator Michael Trostel said.
Hogan's club shared a case this week at Merion with one of Bobby Jones' famed Calamity Jane putters, and clubs that belonged to Raymond Floyd and Billy Casper.
But even at a throwback Open — where small wicker baskets replace flags on greens — the 1-iron is out of style.
Once a standard club in the bag, the 1-iron was phased out as players opted for fairway metals to more easily get the ball in the air. Then came the hybrids, a cross between fairway metals and long irons, which replaced even the 2-iron and 3-iron in some bags.
The 1-iron often required the perfect blend of speed and power, which most players don't have or don't want to risk trying.
"It's just math. The club has almost no loft and you've got to create lots of velocity to get it up into the air," Sean Foley, Woods' swing coach, said. "Your chances of controlling the sidespin, at least enough to keep it on line, are slim. You almost have to hit it perfect."
During a routine practice round, 2010 Open champion Graeme McDowell's drive plopped next to the plaque.
He eyed the tribute, then plucked a 3-hybrid from the bag.
"I remember thinking to myself, 'I'm sure Mr. Hogan is probably rolling in his grave right now,'" he said.
Lee Trevino once suggested holding a 1-iron when lightning was in the area.
"Even God can't hit a 1-iron," he joked.
While wicker baskets remain, the 1-iron has become extinct since the last Open at Merion in 1981 as graphite drivers and other long-distance clubs have become the norm.
"These guys are getting better and better and they're longer and longer, and the ball has made the big change," Trevino said. "It's not the equipment, it's the ball. I tell amateurs, 'You keep talking about this equipment. it hasn't helped you a damn bit. Your handicap is still 18.7. Even though you got the big-headed clubs, the graphite shafts, the ball that goes four miles and all this stuff, your handicap is still high.' "
On Wednesday, there were dozens of divots near the plaque and fans begged volunteer marshals to take a picture of the marker for them.
But the famous 1-iron itself was safely tucked away in the back of the media tent under Trostel's watch.
Sergio Garcia made a playful grab for Hogan's club when officials took it out on the course earlier this week. He hadn't played with a 1-iron since he was an amateur.
McDowell keeps his in the garage. Rory McIlroy said he had "no history" with the club.
Woods hasn't gripped a 1-iron since he was an amateur.
So, much like the balata ball and black-and-white photos, the 1-iron is a relic.
And without one, Woods can rest easy if he needs to force a playoff from the same spot on 18.
After all, Hogan won the Open the next day without his trusty club.
"He actually hit a 4-iron," Trostel said. "They asked him, 'Why didn't you hit a 4-iron in the final round?"
His reply: "It wasn't a 4-iron shot."