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Caddie who carried Ben Hogan

Ciocca refused to let golf great quit 1950 U.S. Open at Merion.

David Barrett spent 300 pages chronicling Ben Hogan's inspirational victory in the 1950 U.S. Open. Not once was Hogan's caddie identified. (Photo credit: Curt Hudson)
David Barrett spent 300 pages chronicling Ben Hogan's inspirational victory in the 1950 U.S. Open. Not once was Hogan's caddie identified. (Photo credit: Curt Hudson)Read more

One in a series of articles getting you ready for the U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club, June 13-16.

IN HIS award-winning 2010 book, "Miracle at Merion," David Barrett spent 300 pages chronicling Ben Hogan's inspirational victory in the 1950 U.S. Open. Not once was Hogan's caddie identified, for a simple reason.

"There is no record of [his] name," Barrett wrote. "And nobody remembers him."

Not even Hogan.

Barrett did relate "an incident" that has been "passed on in Merion lore." As Hogan - who 16 months earlier had nearly died after the automobile that he and his wife Valerie were riding in collided with a bus - walked off the 13th green in the fourth round, he didn't think his pain-ravaged legs would allow him to finish. Back then, the final 36 holes were played on the same day. So he told his caddie to take his bag to the club rack.

As the "legend" goes, the caddie replied: "No, Mr. Hogan. I don't work for quitters. I'll see you on the next tee, sir."

Legend? Late in his life, Hogan twice confirmed the exchange, first to a golf writer and subsequently to Merion historian John Capers.

"[Hogan] said he didn't know what to do," Capers told Barrett. "Since the caddie was going to the next tee with his clubs, he just figured he might as well go there himself."

Hogan, of course, would eventually tie for first with Lloyd Mangrum and Norristown's George Fazio by parring the 18th hole, where he hit a 1-iron onto the green from a little more than 200 yards out, a moment that was captured for posterity by the famous Hy Peskin photograph. The next day Hogan prevailed in an 18-hole playoff.

"We don't know if the caddie really made that cheeky comment," Barrett speculated, "or if that's an embellishment that makes the story even better."

Upon further review . . .

Connie DiLisio recalls virtually nothing from the 1950 U.S. Open. She wasn't into golf. Still isn't. And she was only 11 years old. But she knew something was going on. And not because Hogan was doing all that historical stuff. DiLisio only knew that her father, Nick Ciocca, was his caddie.

In those days, local loopers were used to complement the ones from the host club so there were enough for all of the 165 players who teed it up in the opening round. And Ciocca, who supplemented his income at Jenkintown's Standard Pressed Steel by working on weekends at North Hills and Whitemarsh Valley, was among the "outsiders" chosen.

At that time, players were not allowed to bring their own caddies to the Open. Instead, they picked names out of a hat. Harry Gibson, who had been on Olin Dutra's bag when he won the first Open at Merion in 1934, drew defending champion Cary Middlecoff. Middlecoff would tie for 10th, five shots out of the playoff. Gibson's daughter Marion McCabe is now the club's evening receptionist.

Ciocca, meanwhile, ended up carrying for the winner.

"When you're 11, you don't think much about it," DiLisio said. "What we were really excited about was we knew [Ciocca] was going to be on [the] TV [news] when Hogan won. We didn't have a set, so we went over to my cousin's, who lived next door. They had a little tiny set. And we sat there, waiting and waiting. They put the sports on last. I remember that part. My father's standing there, behind Ben Hogan, and we saw him. We were jumping up and down, saying, 'That's my dad.' I could've cared less about Ben Hogan. I didn't know who Ben Hogan was."

In time, DiLisio has obviously figured that part of it out. And with the Open about to return to the historic East Course in Ardmore for the first time since 1981 it gives her a chance to relive her father's journey once again.

The only picture that Capers has of Ciocca is of him swinging a club.

"Golf was his big love," said DiLisio, who lives in Hatfield with her husband Sal. "He got started [caddying] when he was really young. North Hills was like a mile away. All of his [four] brothers did the same thing. I remember him coming home on weekends - God, this going to sound terrible - and saying to my mom, 'Guess what I made today? Eight bucks.' Back then it was a lot. He really didn't make that much. So it was extra money . . . Most of his free time he spent on the golf course. He lived with a club in his hands.

"I just didn't have the interest. But he put soup cans in our back yard, hammered them into the ground and he'd be out there putting. When he passed away [in 1976] I was cleaning the basement, where he kept all his scorecards and this and that. I thought he was doing terrible, because there was a lot of 66s and 67s. I thought higher numbers were better, so I threw them out. I wish I'd saved them."

Her son Sam - whose daughter Isabella, a sophomore at Mount Saint Joseph Academy, has finished in the top five of the last two PIAA state Class AAA championships - had heard his mom's recollections off and on through the years. He just wasn't quite sure what to make of them.

"It wasn't something that was discussed much, but it was mentioned," Sam said. "What wasn't mentioned was what tournament, or anything like that. Mom said that grandpop had caddied for Ben Hogan. That's all. We sort of rolled our eyes. I don't want to say we didn't believe her, but it was kind of hard to imagine. It wasn't until my daughter started competing in golf that I was interested in finding out more information. So we started looking around. But we never thought about Merion. I've always seen the [Hogan] picture. I just never put it together."

At some point they got around to sitting down with Capers, whose research was able to confirm his mother's memories.

"[Capers] told us that [Hogan, who died in 1997] was trying to seek out his caddie, to thank him," Sam said. "Obviously, if they had put out a message for someone to come forward, my dad wasn't alive and my mother wouldn't have given it a second thought. And none of us knew. So it wouldn't have dawned on any of us, even if you hit me over the head with a hammer.

"A few years ago, we were looking for somebody in the family to verify it. But everybody was old. It made it very challenging. I'd tried to get in touch with [Peskin], but nothing ever came of it. When we finally found out, we were shocked. I heard [Hogan] could be ornery himself. So if anyone could speak to him like that, it was probably [Ciocca]. No question about it. That's just the way he was. Stern, but in a very encouraging way. He believed in doing the right thing . . .

"He loved golf so much. I remember one time I wanted to watch the Phillies game. And a golf tournament was on TV. That didn't go so well. My grandmother let me watch it on the main TV. He had to watch on the little one in the bedroom. I feel bad about that, to be honest."

As sometimes happens, one of the key supporting parts in perhaps golf's most memorable moment became a lost detail. And if Merion hadn't been given another Open, there's every chance it might have remained that way.

It would have been the game's loss.

"I remember my father telling us that [13th-hole story]," DiLisio said. "But when you're 11, it's just a story. But I remember reading how Hogan said he was indebted to him for doing that. It was nice to hear that come from him.

"Life goes on. People forget about things. It was a big deal in our home, that he helped Hogan. I do remember friends, all the ones that played golf, people in the neighborhood just slapping him on the back and saying, 'Nick, that was really great.'

"The funny thing is, I don't really have anything that shows him doing that. My proof was seeing him on TV, behind Mr. Hogan. He never really got recognized. But he was only the caddie. It was still important. I just never realized how important, for a long time. I think about it more the older I get. It's coming back to me.

"We used to go Pinehurst [N.C.] every year, in August," she continued. "I'd walk up and down the hallways [of the resort] and they have all these pictures on the wall. And I'd find one of Ben Hogan, and try to find my father. At Merion, they have this archives room upstairs in the clubhouse. And I'd look for him in there. A couple are from far away, so you really can't tell. The camera was centered on Ben Hogan. But they have one picture, it looks like my father, when [Hogan's] leaving the course after he won. It looks like my father, behind him, but it's so tiny you can't actually say it was him. When I tell that to people they still think it's great. And I think that's great, too. After all these years. That was a long time ago."

The week of the Open, maybe not nearly so much.

"[Isabella] has mentioned several times that she thinks about that when she's competing, that it gives her confidence and perseverance to keep on going," Sam said. "So his spirit's alive.

"I can't imagine what it would be like if that had happened today, and he'd been the caddie for Tiger [Woods] or Phil [Mickelson]. He might have been on the 'Today' show the next day. It's a different world.

"I keep thinking there's got to be some footage somewhere. That would be priceless for us. If my mother had pursued it years ago, maybe I could've done something [more]. That part's hard to understand, really. In some small way, I hope he knows he's being recognized for what he did. Mom said, 'I think I might have asked him if I could have some money to go to the movies or something.' Of course we teased her about that.

"They were showing some clips on TV the other day, something to do with the '50 Open. I don't recall what channel it was on. It's almost like, 'Was that somebody with a golf bag?' It was so blurry. Could that have been grandpop? You couldn't tell."

Sam and his wife Dina will be among the 5,000 or so volunteers at the Open, working as marshals on the fourth hole. Isabella is going to be there, too, as a standard bearer walking with groups to display the scores to the gallery.

"She's a big fan of Rory McIlroy," Sam said. "So she's hoping to get lucky and get with him.

"You never know, right?"