Lurking just off the Louisiana coastline, Nazi submarine U-507 sought a target. At the mouth of America’s mightiest river, it found one, firing three torpedos into the unarmed turbine tanker Virginia. Flames quickly engulfed the 10,000-ton vessel, trapping most of its civilian crew in a plummeting coffin. A fortunate few leaped overboard into the churning Gulf of Mexico. Twenty-seven perished aboard the ship. Fourteen survived in the water and were eventually rescued.
Nazi torpedos sunk four ships in the Gulf that week as brooding front-page headlines sprang from American newspapers. The undercurrent of war splashed across the sports pages as well. Even the elysian greens were little refuge. Enacting a plan discussed since 1940, the United States Golf Association canceled its championships in 1942, replacing the U.S. Open with a war-relief effort, the Hale America National Golf Open.
Drawing from the country’s “hale and hearty” campaign, the event was announced in January 1942 as a “program dedicated to the improvement of the general public’s health in connection with national civilian defense,” according to Charles Bartlett who chronicled it for Chicago’s Tribune. The site would be Chicago’s Ridgemoor Country Club, grounds on which the rather prolific but obscure William Langford designed a golf course which opened in 1913. It was one of approximately 200 courses the Illinois native created, most of which held fun and variety in higher regard than difficulty.
Qualifying for the tournament required surviving a 90-hole district and sectional crucible. More than 1,500 competitors entered, eclipsing the USGA’s previous registration high of 1,402 set at the 1937 National Open at Oakland Hills in Detroit, and USGA officials carried out normal championship duties at the main event which gave the proceedings a distinctly championship feel. Advanced ticket sales for the tournament exceeded $15,000 at a time when America’s average hourly wage hovered near $1.
In the final field was defending U.S. Open champion Craig Wood, Masters champion Byron Nelson and aspiring star Ben “The Hawk” Hogan, at the time still in search of his first major championship. They were joined by other known commodities like Jimmy Demaret, Lloyd Mangrum and Horton Smith. Had it not been for the ugly specter of racism, the field would have been further fortified by Clyde Martin and Robert “Pat” Ball, arguably the premier black golfers of their time. Ball was a four-time champion of the United Golfers’ Association National Open, the defining event on the black golf circuit, claiming his most recent triumph the previous summer at Ponkapong Golf Course near Boston.
Martin and Ball were among seven black competitors denied participation at the Olympia Fields Country Club qualifier, an injustice even more shameful given the American ideals for which its soldiers – black and white – were at the same time fighting to uphold. Blacks could die for America, but they couldn’t yet play on some of its golf courses, a point amplified to no avail before the ruling forces at Olympia Fields and the USGA.
Among the final field of 107, Hogan shined brightest. He opened the event with a pedestrian even-par 72, but scorched the 6,519-yard layout with a second-round 62 prompting Bartlett to pillory the pin placements. “Officials did nothing in the direction of toughening the course and it just sat there and took the lashing the field handed it for a second straight day.”
Hogan’s confidence surged. He jovially asked a reporter if two more 62s might put him in the money. Amidst Saturday sprinkles and a pairing with Bobby Jones, he pulled into a tie for the lead with Mike Turnesa by carding a third-round 69. Sunday dawned with Hogan and Turnesa a robust 13 strokes under par and primed for a duel. More than 8,000 spectators watched the deeply crouched Hawk drop a 35-foot birdie putt on No. 18 to post an emphatic 68 and a three-stroke victory. Bartlett described it as Hogan’s “first victory at a tournament officially designated as a national, for the Hale was golf’s No. 1 event of the year.” He then asserted that Hogan’s 271 should replace the U.S. Open scoring record of 281 set the previous year in Detroit by Ralph Guldahl, Hogan’s “ruthless 17 strokes under par” evidence of the “merciless cuffing” put on Ridgemoor Country Club.
Hogan was awarded $1,000 in war bonds for the triumph, along with a gold medal nearly identical to those earned by U.S. Open champions. According to James Dodson, splendid Hogan biographer, the Hawk felt like a major champion in the tournament’s aftermath, telling one reporter that “given the quality of this field, it’s a major championship.”
In the years to follow, debate ensued about whether the Hale America Open was indeed a major. Despite it being a quality win that looked like a major, the USGA was explicit when it announced in mid-January that “there will be no official championship involved in this tournament,” according to Bartlett.
Upon receiving his medal and congratulations – but “no official championship” – Hogan offered his putter to a post-tournament charity auction, netting $1,500 for war relief. Anticipating the imminent arrival of his draft notice, Hogan didn’t figure he’d need the flat stick again anytime soon.
Eight months later, the Hawk readied himself for active duty in the Army Air Corps. Officially, he was a Hale America Open winner still searching for his first major championship. Much more ominously, U-507 was also still searching. It now prowled the Brazilian coastline just east of Cape Saint Roque.
And while Hogan would soon embark on a prodigious streak yielding nine official major championships, the Nazi submarine’s string of victories was about to end. Four-thousand pounds of depth charges from a different kind of hawk sealed its fate, as an American Catalina sent the German commander, crew and vessel into a watery grave from which none would escape.
– Jayson Hron