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Sports Articles: Sporting Icons 1: Ben Hogan - Golf

Sporting Icons 1: Ben Hogan - Golf
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Ben Hogan 'The Hawk' 'Bantam Ben' 'The Wee Iceman'

 

"Is Tiger Woods the best ball striker you have ever seen?""No,no - Ben Hogan, easily." - Jack Niklaus

On the 13th August 1912 in Stephenville, Texas, the youngest of three children was born to Chester Hogan and Clara Hogan nee Williams. William Ben Hogan, known as Ben, was brought up in Dublin, Texas, where his father was a blacksmith, as was his father before him. In 1921 the family moved to Fort Worth but there his young life was turned upside down just a year later.

It was the night before Valentine's Day in 1922, with Ben just 9 years old, when his parents had an argument and his dad went into another room, pulled a .38 revolver out of his bag and shot himself in the heart. Friends of Ben's later claimed he was in the room at the time and saw his dad kill himself.

After his father's death, the family hit financial difficulties, his mother's wages as a seamstress were simply not enough to make ends meet and the children had to get jobs to help out. Older brother Royal quit school, at the age of 14, to deliver office supplies by bicycle, while Ben would head to the nearby train station after school to sell newspapers. He would often have to fight other boys to protect his pitch.

Then a friend told him, when he was 11, that he could earn more money carrying golfer's bags, so he hiked the 7 miles to Glen Garden Country Club, a local 9 hole golf course, to become a caddy. There he was up against a boy who was later to become a tour rival, Byron Nelson. As usual when boys gather, there was hazing galore and Ben had to fight, literally, for his chance to work there. In later stories told about him it would be blamed on him being unpopular, but it was common practice for young caddies to fight to establish a pecking order, as the top dogs got the pick of the caddying jobs.

"I was born left-handed - that was the normal way for me to do things. I was switched to doing things right-handed when I was a boy but I started golf as a left-hander because the first club I ever came into possession of, an old five-iron, was a left-handed stick." - Ben Hogan

As he was small, which is why he gained the nickname of 'Bantam Ben' (a name he disliked) in those days, he would usually be seen as a target, until he won the respect of the others. Though his habit of spending hours on the driving range practicing after caddying was unpopular. In December 1927 Hogan and Nelson were both 15 and were tied for the lead of the annual Christmas caddie tournament on the 9th and final hole thanks to a 30 foot putt which Nelson sank. They played a further 9 holes to break the tie and Nelson won by just one stroke.

That win made a huge difference to the two, as they went their separate ways afterwards. Nelson was given the only junior membership the club offered and, as the Glen Garden banned caddies who were aged 16 or over, Hogan had to move to other courses. He spent the next few years going between three scrubby daily-fee courses - Katy Lake, Worth Hills and Z-Boaz.

In 1930, with Hogan just 6 months shy of his 18th birthday, he dropped out of Central High School and turned professional. He struggled badly to make ends meet in those early years, but luck was on his side when he reacquainted himself with Valerie Fox in 1932, someone he had known in Sunday School in Fort Worth in the mid-1920s before her family moved to Cleburne. Despite his lack of income, he was working a low-paid club pro job in Cleburne, hence the two meeting once more, while failing to get the tournament win he needed to launch his career, they were married in April 1935 at her parent's house.

"You hear stories about me beating my brains out practising, but....I was enjoying myself. I couldn't wait to get up in the morning, so I could hit balls. When I'm hitting the ball where I want, hard and crisply, it's a joy that very few people experience." - Ben Hogan

1932 was also the year of his first PGA Tour event, the Los Angeles Open, where he finished joint 13th and picked up a $50 pay cheque. It was 1938 before he won his first tournament, the Hershey Four-Ball, where he was paired with Vic Ghezzi as his partner. It took time because he was struggling badly with a hook, which caused him real problems early on. With the support and backing of wife Valerie, and his own incredibly intense practices, he eventually developed what became known as the "Hogan Fade".

In part due to his decision to never use gloves, which he claimed affected his control of the ball, Hogan developed a swing which produced a lower than usual ball flight which faded from left to right. He was able to develop a control on the flight of the ball that no one else has ever been able to achieve, both before and after. That fade took him to his first tournament win in March 1940 when he said after: "I won one just in time. I had finished second and third so many times I was beginning to think I was an also-ran. I needed that win. They've kidded me about practising so much. I'd go out there before a round and practice, and when I was through I would practice some more. Well they can kid me all they want because it finally paid off. I know it's what finally got me in the groove to win."

"I hate a hook. It nauseates me. I could vomit when I see one. It's like a rattlesnake in your pocket" - Ben Hogan

Following his first tournament win, he won three more tournaments that year, two more solo events the following year, as well as two four-ball events, one of which was the beginning of a long-running partnership with Jimmy Demaret. Despite winning tournaments, Hogan still needed a day job to make ends meet. He worked as an assistant professional as Century Country Club in Purchase, NY, rising to head pro before leaving in 1941 to take the same job at Hershey Country Club in Pennsylvania. Five more tournament wins followed in 1942 before the Second World War intervened.

He had been the leading money winner on the PGA Tour in 1940, 1941 and 1942 and won the Vardon Trophy, awarded to the player with the lowest stroke average in PGA-approved tournaments in 1940 and 1941. Hogan's game was based on 'shooting a number', meticulously planning and executing a strategy to achieve a score for a round on a particular course. He caused a stir one year at the US Open in Merion by leaving out the 7-iron from his bag, saying that "there are no 7-iron shots at Merion".

"Hogan plays one game and the rest of us play another." - Dave Marr

His ball striking was something he was known for, still today he is considered probably the best striker of a ball the game has ever seen, in large part due to his obsessive practice, as he practiced far more than his contemporaries. Hogan was often said to have "invented practice". That was based on his belief that a golf swing was "in the dirt" to start with and that mastering it took plenty of practice and repetition. He became one of the first to match particular clubs to yardages or reference points around a course, such as bunkers or trees, to improve his distance control.

There was more to it than just shooting a number, Hogan also spent a long time contemplating the theory of a golf swing, trying out a range of theories and methods, even late in his career when he had settled on one. He even went so far as to try out different club types, such as when he tried out a putter with a longer handle than normal, cradling the handle in his armpit to try and maintain control. Hogan came up with the idea after watching a young child practising with his father's club, which had been too big for the child and Hogan saw him come up with a method to make the club work for him. Hogan quickly returned to his old putter, though putting remained the main weakness of his game.

Hogan spent the war years serving in the USAAF between March 1943 and June 1945, stationed at Fort Worth in Texas as a utility pilot with the rank of Lieutenant. After the war, Hogan went back to winning tournaments, and was the leading money winner on the PGA Tour in 1946 and 1948, as well as winning the Vardon Trophy and PGA Player of the Year in 1948. He seemed on course to set records but then 1949 was to change everything for him.

"As you walk down the fairway of life you must smell the roses, for you only get to play one round." - Ben Hogan

Hogan and his wife Valerie were driving home from the Phoenix Open on 1st February 1949 and stopped off about halfway in the El Capitan Hotel in Van Horn, Texas overnight. The pair of them set off early the following morning and began the drive home in fog. They reached a bridge and halfway across saw a pair of headlights travelling towards them on the wrong side of the road. It was a Greyhound bus doing over 50mph trying to make up time by overtaking a truck despite the low visibility. Despite the Hogans driving cautiously, they had nowhere to go with concrete barriers on the sides of the road.

Valerie said, surprisingly calmly, "honey, I think he's going to hit us." As he had no seat belt on, Ben dived across the seat to protect his wife with his body, which was what saved his own life, as the steering column went straight through the driver's seat. The car was crushed, later being used by safety agencies to warn people of the dangers of driving unsafely, trapping both of them inside with Ben laid unconscious on Valerie's lap. Initially Valerie thought her husband had died, but he came to as passers by tried to help them out of the car. He would slip in and out of consciousness but when awake he would tell them "I'm not hurt, Help my wife. I'll be okay." He feared that the car would catch fire and once more put his wife's life before his own.

It took over 90 minutes for an ambulance to arrive and Valerie let the coach driver know how she felt during the wait, calling him a coward and telling him that he should go and see what he had done to her husband. It took another two and a half hours for the for the ambulance to get him to Hotel Dieu Hospital in El Paso, while news wires were reporting that Hogan had died in the accident. Hogan's golf partner and friend Jimmy Demaret was playing in a Pro-Am tournament at the Tucson Country Club when the then-owner of the New York Yankees, Del Webb, told him Hogan had been killed in a car crash. Demaret walked straight off the course and phoned the Texas State Highway Department, who informed him that Hogan was alive. "It felt good, damned good to know he was alive," Demaret said.

Hogan was just 36 at the time, at the peak of his career and he was left with a double-fracture of the pelvis, fractured collar-bone, left ankle fracture and chipped ribs. Doctors were not even expecting him to walk again. Even so, he was still thinking about golf, when his friend Herman Keiser visited him in hospital Hogan asked him if he would check on his clubs. Keiser fetched the clubs from the wreck and stored them under Hogan's bed for him so he would know they were safe. Even then Hogan was not quite out of the woods, as severe blood clots in his legs endangered his life and doctors had to essentially seal the main arteries to his legs to stop the clots travelling up and reaching his heart.

Hogan, who had become an international hero as the story of how he had put himself in front of his wife to save her life, proved everyone wrong by walking again, only to be told he would never play golf again. He left hospital 59 days after the accident on 1st April 1949 and did lots of walking to regain his strength, eventually resuming golf in November. People then said he would never compete again but he proved them wrong by returning to the tour in 1950, only to then be told he would never win again. Hogan was still not listening to what people said.

"People have always been telling me what I can't do. I guess I have wanted to show them. That's been one of my driving forces all my life." - Ben Hogan

He returned to the PGA Tour the following year, his first tournament was the Los Angeles Open, where he finished tied for first with Sam Snead after 72 holes, only to lose the 18-hole play-off. This despite the injuries, which had left him with eyesight problems and badly affected his putting, which was always his weakness anyway. The injuries also made it difficult for him to take part in many tournaments, due to his struggles to even make it round the course. He would have to wrap himself from toe to waist in tight binding to stop his legs and feet from swelling up too much. He had to limit the number of tournaments he took part in and would often have to miss the PGA Championship due to its requirement of playing 36 holes in a day.

Despite all his problems, he was back to winning ways before the year was out, winning the US Open and it led to him being awarded the PGA Player of the Year award for 1950 as crowds, who previously found him cold and calculating, loved the story of his accident and recovery. Over the following years he was limited to just 6 or 7 tournaments a year, despite this he won The Masters, US Open and World Championship of Golf in 1951, to repeat his PGA Player of the Year award. 1952 was not as successful, with just one more tournament win to add to his growing collection.

1953 was to prove to be the pinnacle of his career, a pinnacle that no one matched until 2000 when Tiger Woods did so. This was despite Hogan only being able to enter 6 tournaments that year, but he went on to win 5 of them to achieve the Triple Crown. It is just a shame that he was forced to choose between the British Open and the PGA Championship as the two overlapped that year, so he could not even attempt to make it a Grand Slam. His attention to detail was so important to his success, which showed through in his one and only appearance at Carnoustie for the British Open.

To prepare for the British Open, he spent two weeks practicing at Panmure Golf Club just 2 miles away, with just his caddie Cecil Timms there. At the time the British ball was smaller and the links grasses were less forgiving than he was used to and would prevent him taking his customary long divot. He taught himself how to get the ball in the air and went on to win the British Open by 4 strokes, improving his score each day until he set a course record of 68 on his final round. Panmure still has a bunker on the 6th hole named 'Hogan's Bunker' after he suggested it.

When he returned from the British Open he was given a ticker-tape parade on Broadway and his achievements were also recognised by Hogan winning the PGA Player of the Year award and Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year for 1953. Somehow he also found time to start the Ben Hogan Company, his golf equipment company that is still going today and took up most of his concentration from then on, meaning he only won one more major tournament in his career, the 1959 Colonial National Invitational.

"The most important shot in golf is the next one." - Ben Hogan

Another great achievement was captaining the 1967 US Ryder Cup team, where he showed he could be a leader. Even his introduction of the team showed he knew how to boost confidence when he said: "Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce the finest golfers in the world." He also showed he can speak from the heart and produce a good speech when needed, at least according to Johnny Pott who said that his pep talk was:

"Boys, there's nothing to being the captain of the Ryder Cup. You guys are all great players. Pairing is really easy. I'm going to pair together you guys who drive crooked, and I'm going to pair together you guys who drive straight. And the first ball is going to be hit by Julius Boros, 'cause he don't give a shit about anything. So y'all just go play your game. You got these uniforms here. If you don't like the way they fit or whatnot, don't wear them. I never could play in someone else's clothes. Doug Sanders, if you want to come out here and dress like a peacock, that's fine. Whatever you want. But let me tell you boys one thing - I don't want my name on that trophy as a losing captain."

That particular Ryder Cup was the most one-sided winning margin the USA have ever achieved, as they beat Europe 23.5 points to 8.5, despite having to drop Arnold Palmer for a session after he buzzed the course with his place. Palmer went 5-0 overall anyway as Hogan's team demolished the Europeans.

"If you can't outplay them, outwork them." - Ben Hogan

Hogan eventually retired from competitive golf in 1971, with 69 professional wins, 64 PGA Tour wins and 9 Majors in his trophy cabinet. His 9 Majors ties him with Gary Player for 4th all-time with Gary Player, behind just Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Walter Hagen. He is one of just 5 golfers to win all 4 Major championships and was elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974. Hogan competed in 292 PGA Tour events and finished top 3 in 47.6% of them and top 10 in 241. Those percentages are much higher than any other golfer.

Hogan also co-authored two golf tutorials, Power Golf and Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf, the second of which appeared initially as a five part series in Sports Illustrated and has gone on to be one of the two most widely read golf tutorials. His greatness was recognised by the game with the PGA Tour naming their developmental tour after him when it was founded in 1990 and there were 2 awards named after him. One for the male college golfer of the year and the other for a golfer who overcomes injury or handicap to remain active in golf.

Hogies, the commonly played golf betting game was also named after him and there was a biopic called Follow The Sun: The Ben Hogan Story starring Glenn Ford made about his life. One thing that he was unable to do was to get putting eliminated from golf, something he suggested, possibly because the damage he had suffered to his left eye had deteriorated to a point where he could barely see out of it and it had badly affected his depth perception. It was his struggles with putting that stopped him winning many more tournaments.

"There are no shortcuts on the quest for perfection." - Ben Hogan

Even before his death in 1997 at the age of 84, there was a very real perception that Hogan was taciturn and cold, with the likes of ESPN painting a description of him as a loner in their '50 Greatest Athletes' video. They described him as "a great golfer and difficult man", stating that he had "spooky eyes that were hard to look at". Paul Runyan described him as "the most self-centred great champion I've ever known".

There are also lots of stories that are told about him, such as that he had a house built with just one bedroom to remove the possibility of overnight guests. Also that Jimmy Demaret had entered the clubhouse to find Hogan sat alone at a table and turned to the golfers with him and said: "Hey, there's Ben Hogan sitting with all his friends." Another of the tales regarding Hogan is that Gary Player once called him to ask for advice about his swing, but Hogan just asked if he was affiliated with a club manufacturer, when Player told him it was Dunlop, Hogan told him to phone Mr. Dunlop.

It was also said that a friend of his had said: "Those steel-grey eyes of his. He looks at you like a landlord asking for next month's rent." There was also the time that Ben Crenshaw was emerging in college golf and a friend of Crenshaw's tried to arrange a game with Hogan, but Hogan told him that he "didn't want to play golf with a long-haired hippie". He also famously failed to notice playing partner Claude Harmon had hit a hole-in-one as he was so absorbed in his own game and the fact that he had birdied the same hole for the first time ever.

"When I play with him, he talks to me on every green. He turns to me and says, 'you're away.'" - Jimmy Demaret

There was some truth in the stories, but it was not as simple as it was suggested. Jimmy Demaret said of Hogan in his book 'My Partner Ben Hogan' "he is a man of strong character and fine qualities. He is difficult to know for a couple of reasons. One, he is an introvert, plain and simple. The other is that he spends most of his time on the golf course... But, take it from someone who knows him well, he is also a fine, courageous and warm human being."

While he did reject the chance to play Crenshaw as he had reservations about his hair, which he felt could damage the sport's popularity and code of decorum, when Crenshaw turned pro and was struggling to make it, Hogan gifted him a custom-made set of golf clubs. Gary Player admitted that the problem was his end, as he had agreed a deal with Hogan to use his clubs, only to go with a different manufacturer without informing Hogan. So, when he later phoned for advice, it was little wonder he was told to ask the club manufacturer.

Hogan knew how he was seen, but he would make jokes of it, once saying: "If I had my game and Demaret's personality, I'd really be something." But he was not against using his reputation to have a little fun, such as a time recounted by Gardner Dickinson when they arrived at the first tee just as a group of professional golf coaches were all waiting in line to tee off. "Each group insisted that Hogan and his foursome tee off in front of them, but Ben waved them on, saying, 'oh no, go right ahead. I'll wait my turn.' I have never seen golf pros make swings like I saw that day. Ben laid those steely blue yes of his on the poor fellas, then kept on staring at each one as they drove off. Pretty soon their hands began to tremble, their throats to clog, and their waggles reduced themselves to wiggles. As each addressed the ball, Ben would turn to me, close his eyes and silently shake his head. Sure enough, here came the sky balls and duck hooks. Balls fell everywhere - right rough, left rough, sometimes not even a hundred yards from the tee. It was pathetic. For twenty minutes no one, as I recall, hit a decent drive."

"I play with friends, but we don't play friendly games." - Ben Hogan

When Phil Romaine went to work for the Ben Hogan Company, his bag contained Ping long irons and Hogan short irons. Thinking he had better get Hogan long irons if he is going to work there, Romaine bought a brand new set of long irons. He was setting up to hit some balls for Hogan, when Hogan spotted how clean and new the long irons were. He looked at Romaine quizically and joked, "son, you're either one hell of a long hitter or you play very short golf courses!"

Hogan once said of Trevino (with a grin): "He tried to talk to me. He tried to talk to my caddie when he was around. Then he tried to talk to his caddie. If none of us would listen, he tried to talk to the crowd, and if no one there would listen, he started talking to himself." Writer Dan Jenkins, who did consider himself a friend of Hogan, was once having a terrible time playing alongside Hogan in a charity event and was intimidated by the large crowd watching them play. Jenkins: "All I wanted to do was dig a hole and disappear. I could hear giggles in the gallery... Then I realised Ben was walking beside me and he gave me the greatest golf tip at the time under those conditions I've ever had. This proves he had a sense of humour. He said: 'You can probably swing faster if you try hard enough.'"

He was also not afraid of laughing at himself, the head golf pro of Shady Oaks Country Club, Art Hall, remembers they were in the clubhouse watching a mutual friend miss an easy 3 foot putt. Hogan shook his head in disgust and turned to Hall saying, "you know Scott is the worst damn putter in the club". Hall turned towards Hogan and lifted his eyebrows. Almost immediately Hogan raised both hands as if caught out and said, "ok, ok, he's the second worst putter at the club."

"I've never forgotten what my mother told me when I was a boy. She said we might not be well off, but I was as good a person as anybody else in the world. Your name is the most important thing you own. Don't ever do anything to disgrace it or cheapen it." - Ben Hogan

Following his first ever round with Hogan, Tom Weiskopf was talking over the round with a group of fellow pros, and reciting how he was in the woods on one hole, while Hogan was in the fairway. On a different hole he was in the water, Hogan was again on the fairway. On another he was in the rough and once more Hogan was on the fairway. His wife interjected at this point, "Tom, you shouldn't be so hard on yourself. Hogan was boring. You were more exciting to watch. You were in the trees, the water, the sand and he was just in the fairway all the time. He was just boring - in the fairway all the time."

George Archer was paired up with Hogan and Arnold Palmer in the Masters: "I'll never forget the third hole, where Palmer hit one of those low drives and the crowd roared like crazy. Hogan took the cigarette out of his mouth and threw it down on the ground. He threw it so hard it bounced off my shoe. I was stunned. He then hit this little low fade and people clapped because it was down the middle. I then hit a three-wood down the left side. When we got down there, there was one ball about even with me and then the third ball was about eighty yards ahead. I got down there first to my ball. Meanwhile, Hogan and Palmer were walking and talking, and their caddies were with them, and all four walked right by the first ball near me, and they all went to the long ball up ahead. So I'm thinking, 'who's going to be the one to have to turn around and walk back to his?' Hogan got down there and never looked at the ball. He just puffed on his cigarette and looked at the green. Palmer had to bend over and look at the ball, and then turn around and walk back to his ball. And the crowd was like 'Wooooo'.... he had hit his drive about 310."

Hogan would have been amongst the greatest players to play the game under any circumstances. He was one of just two players Tiger Woods said 'owned' their swing. His obsession with practice made him exceptionally consistent with his hitting. He would practice by getting a caddie to stand by the pin and hitting balls at him while a bag was lying at his feet. It is said nearly half the balls would end up in the bag. What makes him a real legend is that he came back from a crippling accident that nearly killed him, that left him with injuries that made it almost impossible for him to be competitive, yet he not just competed, he won. Hogan may not have set records for numbers of tournaments won, but he was competing in a fraction of the tournaments his peers were. How many would he have won if he could have taken part in the same number? That is not even to consider the eye injury that left him struggling with degrading eyesight in the left one. If ever a man deserved his place in the Golf Hall of Fame it is Ben Hogan.

"A well hit golf shot is a feeling that goes up the shaft, right through your hands and into your heart." - Ben Hogan

 

Requested by Idontlooklikeklopp

Written by Tris Burke April 27 2019 12:27:23