by Paul Daley
The world of golf is a sadder place, with the news of the passing of Ben Hogan at age 84. Two words - great and champion are very much abused when assigned to sports people. Sportswriters tend to throw them around like confetti and thus, corrode their very meaning. In Hogan’s case though, he was the genuine article and worthy of being called a great champion. Throughout his golfing career, Ben Hogan was referred to by several names; ‘Bantam Ben’, ‘The Hawk’, ‘The little Texan’ and while in Scotland, ‘The Wee-Ice Mon’ for his seemingly nerveless demeanour was christened. As a true measure of the awe he was held in, ‘Mr Hogan’ usually sufficed - particularly in the second half of his life.
The start statistics of Hogan’s career reveal very little of the legend. A total of sixty two USPGA titles and amongst major championships: four US Opens, two US Masters, two USPGA Championships and one British Open, is only half the story. Ben Hogan had so much more to overcome than most in his quest for golfing perfection; the early suicide of his father must have left a profound mark on a young boy, an unsuitably small frame for golf, near poverty for too many years to remember, a temperament completely unable to interact with the fawning galleries - lest it interfere with the shot at hand, (Hogan was no Trevino or Palmer in this regard) the head-on collision with a Greyhound bus and subsequent appalling injuries, embarrassing putting yips and a confounding hook that would rear its ugly head at crucial times in tournaments. For years he felt plagued by the hook and eventual disgust augmented the now famous change to the fade that made him in his best years - virtually invincible!
Hogan on the golf course exemplified grim determination and a fiercely Irish - American competitive nature. With head down, eyes focussed upon his shoe laces and invariably puffing on a long cigarette, Hogan housed a low regard for idle chit-chat on the course; as Lee Trevino quickly discovered during their first pairing. Discussions with fellow professionals, if any, were along the lines of, "Who’s away?" "What did you score?" He simply hated to lose and worse, hated to hit a golf shot that was even just a little off perfect. Hogan had schooled himself on the art of not so much ignoring the crowd, but simply not seeing them!
Ben Hogan Ben Hogan on many occasions, as if by means of justifying this behaviour, said how he would have loved to have been ‘one of the boys’ and join the others in the grill, swapping tall stories and ‘beefing’ it up with galleries. For one short period he participated in this charade and realising the falseness and folly, dropped it for all time sake. Hogan was honest enough to admit he couldn’t play golf this way and didn’t pretend otherwise!
Whilst Ben Hogan was in the process of building his game, America was recovering from the depression years and as such, golf purses were small. The tour was more like a travelling carnival as it followed the sun from tour spot to tour spot. The professionals usually travelled together and in those days, pooled monies to assist each other. Golfers were keen to do well but not at the expense of their social life after the game; cards and partying being the norm. That is, until Ben Hogan made his mark. He became the first real practiser of note and later when asked how he learned his trade, gruffly replied, "I dug it out of the ground." Today of course, with bigger purses we take for granted the non-stop practising, but in the 1930’s and 40’s a man could get mighty lonely on the range. This suited Hogan just fine!
In essence, Ben Hogan really had two golf careers. The first one was the underwhelming winless years; 1931-39. (save for one fourball tournament with Vic Ghezzi). Invariably Hogan would turn up at a tournament with little money to speak of and experience real strain at the prospect of having to support his wife, Valerie. During an especially lean period, he entered one West Coast tourney with a bankroll of just 15 cents. At another tournament, Hogan took the opportunity of jumping the boundary fence of the golf course and skilfully stripped an orange tree of its fruit, returned and played on without allowing his group to fall too far behind. The Hogans lived on oranges for two weeks. Symbolising just how tough times were. Many of the less successful professionals were forced to give up the tour and indeed Hogan was not immune from this fate. On two separate occasions during the 1930’s, he returned to Fort Worth and took on a regular job as a croupier in a gaming house. Being the fanatical practiser he was, a few of his close friends jibed him that no doubt he took home his croupiers stick and practised the art until his hands bled.
When people talk of Hogan today, you can be sure it is the middle to latter career they refer to; the spectacularly successful period from 1940 onwards. Commencing this year, he took the golfing world apart and was always the man to beat. He was leading money winner in 1940, 1941, 1942, 1946 and 1948. The Vardon average, awarded for the lowest stroke average was his in 1940, 1941 and 1948. Interestingly, Hogan won his first Major title in 1946, at the comparatively late age of 34.
Hogan was dominating the tour but his immediate future was being shaped by a few men unacquainted with Hogan, in Berlin and Tokyo. He felt strongly that he should do his bit for ‘Uncle Sam’ an did so by enrolling in the US Air force. It galled Hogan considerably that his ex-friend from the caddie yard and fellow Texan, Byron Nelson was ruling golf with an iron hand. Nelson, was said to be dangerously Haemophiliac and therefore spared the tedium of National service. During Hogans absence from the tour, Nelson rewrote the record books with 1944 & 1945 crammed with victories and par shattering performances. To the public, Nelson became ‘Lord Nelson’ and newspaper people, eager to sell papers, proclaimed him ‘Mr Golf.’ All this had a tremendous motivating factor on Hogan, and upon his release in the latter part of 1945, reestablished his dominance very quickly with five victories. Said Hogan to his close friend Jimmy Demaret after shooting 27 under par at Portland and beating Nelson by 17 shots, "I guess that takes care of this Mr Golf business." Nelson retired within months to the cattle ranch he had long dreamed of and claimed was his reason for playing pro golf. Hogan continued his relentless march and in 1948 won 11 times with near perfect golf.
1949 promised to be another banner year with two fine opening tune ups. A playoff victory over Demaret in the Long Beach Open and the following week, another playoff with Demaret at Phoenix in the Arizona Open; this time losing to his good friend. Tired and needing to spend time in their new house, the Hogans left the tour and made their way back home. Heavy fog descended upon the West Texas Highway, and driving at 10 miles per hour, felt he was taking due care. Unfortunately as all golf fans know, a ten ton greyhound bus swerved suddenly towards Hogan’s car and a collision took place. In an ironic twist, an involuntary selfless movement saved his life. By throwing himself over Valerie in the passengers seat to protect her, he avoided the steering wheel which had whistled back and buried itself in the drivers seat. Hogan would surely have been impaled! For an extended period in hospital, Hogan barely clung to life and at times the Chief Surgeon, Alton Oschner felt he was losing the battle against a series of menacing and life threatening blood clots that had reached Hogan’s lungs. Importantly, he pulled through but was out of golf for eleven months. On his discharge, the golfing public were shocked to see photos of a gaunt, pale and desperately underweight Hogan. Two years out in the 1930’s so he could eat, two years for the war effort and now another year off to recover his strength after the accident. Is it any wonder the man liked to practice?
Upon much fanfare (something that Hogan really disliked) the 1950 season opened with his return to the tournament scene at Los Angeles. Still weak and light years away from his normally stout constitution, he somehow played well enough to force a play-off with ‘Slamming’ Sammy Snead. The Virginian hillbilly failed to read the script and won against a flagging opponent. It mattered little, Hogan was back. During the period of 1950-1953, Hogan scaled the golfing heights even more successfully than before the accident and won the bulk of his nine major titles.
Ben Hogan Like Nick Faldo today, Hogan seemed to disdain the weekly grind and from 1950 preferred to concentrate on the Majors. He grew increasingly restless with second rate courses, often municipal ones that encouraged the pros to blast away. Coupled with the painful after-effects of the crash, Hogan began to ‘pick’ his tour spots and cut down appearances dramatically. This drew criticism from his fellow professionals, who felt as the dominant player, he should extend his presence to a still developing tour. In 1953 for instance, he played in only six tournaments and won five times - three being major victories!
With increasing age, a subtle but menacing change was taking place within the Hogan game. Once, the most reliable from eight feet and under, he now was exhibiting nerves on the greens and from time to time developed alarming cases of the yips. They would come and go, but as the premier ball striker, he was still capable of winning; the last coming in his favourite event - The Colonial Invitational in 1959. Nevertheless, after 1953 he never won another major with putting as the sole impediment. Twice he took three putts on the 72 nd hole in the US Open, where two putts would have secured playoffs.
Developing a terribly negative attitude towards the dilemma of putting, he actually campaigned for an increase in size of the golf cup; in part to reduce the emphasis that putting has on the game and also to reward the impressive ball strikers on tour for their efforts. He had supporters for this move but not enough power-brokers to see it occur. Such negativity with his putting occasionally spilled over to regrettable comments, such as his earnest remark to Billy Casper after he won the 1959 US Open at Winged Foot, New York. "If you couldn’t putt Billy, you would be outside the ropes selling hot-dogs for a living!" Casper was unimpressed.
Ben Hogan had a thorough knowledge of his game and through long hours on ‘Misery Hill’, developed a clinicians approach to the game. Nothing was left to chance and it was said he looked upon each course as an affront to his golfmanship. Sarcastically, rival jealous pros nicknamed him ‘The Surveyor’ and stung by the tag, claimed it a brutal tag to be placed upon a guy just trying to be the best he could be ! An example of his meticulous approach to golf is best illustrated by his sole appearance in the British Open, at Carnoustie in 1953. Having never used the British size 1.62 inch ball in competition, he gave himself two weeks to acclimatise to its different feel and extra distance obtainable. Used to the US size 1.68 inch ball, he was truly amazed at the extra 15 yards he gained with the long Irons. During one practice session, Hogan instructed his caddie Cecil Timms to stand on the green to observe and record what happened to the balls upon landing. In advance, Timms was told that the first ten balls will be landing in the front right portion of the green, second ten in the front left, next ten in the back right and so on. Imagine this preparation with a two iron; unusual today but it must have been unheard of in 1953.
In some quarters there has been unrest, alluding to the suggestion that perhaps Ben Hogan didn’t put as much back into the game as he should have. I have always felt this to be the harshest slur on Hogan’s character and surely these people were unaware of the extremely private nature of the man? Unlike the outgoing group of Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Arnold Palmer who have written collectively over twenty instructional books and many other types of golf books - Hogan simply didn’t feel the need to put pen to pad every two or three years. However, Hogan did write two masterpieces and unlike other famous golfers of the day, they were not ghost written! The well compiled ‘Power Golf’ first appeared in 1947 and then in 1957, came the blockbuster ‘The Modern Fundamentals Of Golf’ which still is the all-time highest selling golfing instruction book. It was here, he first illuminated us with the famous ‘pane of glass’ theory to assist golfers staying on their backswing plane. Today, swinging on plane is the cornerstone of much modern teaching.
Does the accusation of Hogan not putting enough back into the game, stand the test of scrutiny? I would say that to lend your name to the ‘Hogan’ tour for struggling or newer professionals in need of experience, was something special enough - as was the outstanding quality and reliability of the golf clubs Hogan’s company produced for the world golfers - as was the nurturing of a couple of young professionals he took under his wing; most notably Gardiner Dickinson who graduated to become a Tyder cup star with the US team. Surely, the demanding exercise of being US Ryder Cup Captain on two occasions is proof enough that he did his share? But yes, he was roundly criticised for resisting all attempts to get him swinging on the Seniors tour; still, a chronic yiper in the pre broomstick era had his pride! In the highly commercial American world, some people forget that it’s okay to be introverted and Hogan was plainly introverted. He shunned publicity at all costs and yet if persuaded the cause was just, spoke eloquently and at times, even humorously.
Where does Hogan rank amongst golfers? As anyone knows, comparing sportsmen from different eras is a futile effort and statistics along cannot be conclusive. However when people sit around and ponder the ‘greatest ever’ golfer, three names should never be omitted from any ones ‘short’ list! Bobby Jones - the most successful ever amateur and possibly the greatest of all, winning 13 major championships before retiring at 28 years of age. If natural brilliance and denomination of an era is to be measured, look no further. Jack Nicklaus, second on the all-time USPGA tour victories and holder of 20 major titles. If Majors tally alone is the criteria, Nicklaus is your man. What of Ben Hogan? He won 62 PGA tours events - third on the all-time list; inc nine majors. If you place credence upon a golfers courage ‘under fire’, ability to overcome injury, set-backs, achieve greatness after virtually no amateur career to speak of, to be able to win majors approaching the forbidden age of 40 years and beyond with infirmities, Hogan will get your vote. Tommy Bolt, a contemporary of Hogan’s was asked once to decide between Nicklaus and Hogan. After a short lull he stated, "Well now, I’ve seen Big Jack watch Ben Hogan practice on many occasions but I’ve never seen Hogan watch Nicklaus. Does that answer your question?" Nicklaus himself had the ultimate respect for Hogan and said, "As a young college golfer, it was the record of Bobby Jones that I most tried to emulate, but I wanted to do it Hogan’s way; fading the ball from left to right. The argument of ‘greatest ever’ will never be settled but Ben Hogan remains the most ruthlessly accurate ‘shotmaker’ the world has ever known. With precision as his trademark, he more closely courted ‘perfection’ than any golfer, before or since! Rest in peace ‘Mr Hogan’.
- by Paul Daley
taken from Hacker Golf Quarterly magazine.