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A common misconception among people who know very little about golf is that golfers are, by and large, kind of soft. They don’t run around at high speeds, they don’t tackle one another, they don’t dive for line drives, they don’t drive to the hoop. They walk around in the sunshine — and occasionally in the rain — and smack a little white ball for a few hours. Right?
In light of that fairly significant misapprehension, it’s worth recalling that one of the sport’s genuine legends, Ben “The Hawk” Hogan, is remembered not only for the jaw-dropping beauty of his game, but for a toughness that would have done Chuck Bednarik proud.
In early 1949, when he was 36 years old and already firmly established as one of the true greats, Hogan and his wife, Valerie, were involved in a hellish head-on collision with a Greyhound bus in Texas. Hogan reportedly hurled himself sideways before impact in order to protect his wife — and likely saved his own life, as well: the steering column was driven through the driver’s seat.
The damage Hogan suffered was awful: a fractured pelvis, collar bone and ankle; a chipped rib; life-threatening blood clots. He was in the hospital for months, and doctors feared he might never walk again. A return to competitive golf, meanwhile, was not even an option.
Or rather, it wouldn’t have been an option for most people.
But less than a year later, Hogan not only returned to golf, playing the Los Angeles Open to start the PGA Tour in January 1950, but tied fellow legend San Snead over 72 holes, finally losing in a playoff. Six months later, Hogan won the U.S. Open at Merion in Pennsylvania, marking one of the most extraordinary, inspiring and downright tough comebacks in the history of American sport.
Here, as the 2013 U.S. Open gets underway — once again at Merion in Ardmore, Pa. — LIFE.com pays tribute to Hogan’s astonishing return to the links with a series of photos, most of which never ran in LIFE, made by Peter Stackpole at the Riviera Country Club in January 1950.
Below: Exhausted but unbowed, Ben Hogan faces reporters during his return to the PGA Tour in the Los Angeles Open, January 1950.