Editor’s note: This is a new series on the 70th anniversary of Golf Digest commemorating the best literature we’ve ever published. Each entry includes an introduction that celebrates the author or puts in context the story. Catch up on earlier installments.
Ben Hogan was the man of mystery, known as a recluse, golf’s Howard Hughes. Seventy years after his historic victory in the 1950 U.S. Open at Merion following a near-fatal accident in which his car was demolished by a Greyhound bus, Hogan is still held with equal measures of reverence and curiosity by golfers everywhere. Half a century ago, when this story first appeared, the public interest in him exceeded that of Tiger Woods today. Hogan lived in Fort Worth with his wife, Valerie, in a sprawling house with live-in staff, but no guest bedroom. He went to his office every day at the Ben Hogan equipment company, where his sense of perfectionism was rumored to cause hundreds of clubs to be destroyed routinely if they failed to meet his exacting standards.
At the time of publication, he was unquestionably thought to be the greatest golfer in history, certainly the greatest ball-striker. (Jack Nicklaus had played only half of his career by then.) Hogan essentially retired from full-time competition shortly after winning the Triple Crown in 1953 (three majors—the Masters, U.S. Open and Open Championship). At the 1967 Masters, he re-emerged at age 54, shot a 66 in the third round including a then-record 30 on the back nine, and tied for 10th. His followers were electrified. In 1970, he returned again to play in two tour events, providing the basis for this article. He built the only Hogan course, which he mentions here as one of his goals, at the Trophy Club in 1975 in a northern suburb of Dallas-Fort Worth. It opened to mixed reviews as perhaps too Hogan-like, straightforward in design with the trouble right in front of you, but continues to operate as a successful country club today. Hogan died in 1997 at 84.
The author Nick Seitz worked as a sports editor at newspapers in Kansas and Oklahoma before joining the staff of Golf Digest in 1967; he became the chief editor in 1973-’82. He was one of the rare journalists who had a working relationship with Hogan and occasionally was granted in-depth interviews. Seitz is a gifted profile writer who captures the essence of his subjects with a mix of sharp reporting and prose. The chemistry between Hogan and Seitz led to the access that revealed this extraordinary portrait of an American hero at the end of his playing career. Seitz shared with the elder Hogan a deep interest in art, often visiting the museums and galleries of New York, and his writing about the artwork and decoration in Hogan’s home is told with compelling detail. Seitz, who later became Tom Watson’s instructional collaborator, has always had a fascination with technique, which he delves into here with the game’s ultimate mechanic. And Seitz doesn’t spare the reader Hogan’s political conservatism, which is revealing if not surprising. This piece was published in Golf Digest in September 1970. —Jerry Tarde
The day after the Colonial Tournament, in which he played respectably at the age of 57, Ben Hogan, the blacksmith’s son, sat back in a leather-covered chair after a long lunch in the relaxing atmosphere of the men’s grill at Shady Oaks Country Club in Fort Worth, where he is the most esteemed member. He wore an expensive gray business suit and handsome striped tie, having come from a morning’s work at the Ben Hogan Company. The company, under his direction, is doing so well it cannot produce golf equipment fast enough to fill orders.
He gazed reflectively out a large picture window overlooking the ninth and 18th greens of an exquisitely cared-for course. Beyond, in an exclusive residential area called Westover Hills, Hogan and his lovely wife, Valerie, live in a tastefully sumptuous home, identifiable from this distance by its three chimneys. Contemplating his hard-gained success, Hogan said: “A fella’s never satisfied, I guess.” His voice halted meaningfully. “But … ”
For millions of golf followers it will matter not a shred if Arnold Palmer wins the rest of the schedule, or Raquel Welch becomes a touring caddie, or the price of a hot dog on the course dives to a nickel. The year 1970 was made when 57-year-old William Benjamin Hogan, his swollen left knee squeezed into an elastic brace, limped intently out of retirement to finish ninth in the Houston Champions International and challenge briefly in the Colonial, which he has won five times.
Imagine Joe DiMaggio donning his old uniform and coming off the bench to rip a grand slam before a capacity crowd in Yankee Stadium and you have some idea of the drama that drenched Hogan’s performances on two of the most arduous courses in the sport.
The short return to professional golf of the man widely considered the greatest player ever, a winner of all four major championships, a national hero after he overcame the near-fatal effects of a 1949 car-bus crash, gives rise to fascinating questions. Why did he do it? What is his life like today? Has he, as some reports suggest, “mellowed”? What achievements mean the most to him? Hogan long has been the least understood of great athletes, often summarily characterized as “cold” and “aloof,” and the years since he reached his playing zenith in the late 1940s and early 1950s have brought disappointingly little insight into his lifestyle and outlooks.
Hogan permitted me to follow him for a week in Fort Worth, observing and questioning. I took up with him during the Colonial and spent two days with him afterward, as he reverted to his customary activities, which seldom include complete rounds of golf, let alone tour play. In that time, I think I came to know somewhat a Ben Hogan only remotely related to the single-dimensional, distant figure I had been led to expect.
The thing that surprised me most about Hogan was his sense of humor: droll, flavored with an earthy Southwestern spice, often evident. I remember my unsuspecting introduction to it. I accompanied him to Shady Oaks Country Club for lunch—he is the Fort Worth club’s most esteemed member—and he introduced me to the manager, who personally attends him. “This guy has 15 kids,” Hogan said. Expressionless, he added, “Bleeped himself right out of a seat in the car.” I had heard dozens of stories about Hogan’s dourness, and in no way was prepared for this. I nodded innocuously. After a lengthy silence, I suddenly became aware of what he had said, and burst out laughing. Hogan, who had been watching me closely, joined in the laughter. He was amused not at his own line but at my delayed response. His probing blue-gray eyes suggested: Didn’t expect that from the austere Ben Hogan, eh?
Later that afternoon, touring the course on Number 53, his private, plastic-topped green golf car, we stopped to watch a foursome teeing off.
“Hey, here’s the albatross!” one of the players shouted toward Hogan, making reference to Hogan’s lack of success in a local game called The Wheel. A team of two plays against all combinations of several other players. The stakes begin as a $2.50 nassau but multiply rapidly. Hogan, a plus-2 handicapper, some months ago shot 64-64-65-67-67, and lost all ways. “I checked it to ’em,” he says. “I don’t play that game anymore.”
Hogan burned a long drive into the wind. “Who do you think you are?” Goalby asked, “Ben Hogan?” Hogan liked that.
“You going to watch me swing?” Another man asked of Hogan.
“Yeah,” Hogan replied drily. “It’ll give you an excuse.”
Of his friend, Jimmy Demaret, who does not have to be coaxed hard to sing, Hogan says, “I love Jimmy’s voice … but I don’t think I can stand ‘Deep Purple’ again.”
Hogan is no raconteur, but he enjoys hearing a good story. Golf temper stories featuring Tommy Bolt and Lefty Stackhouse are his favorites. And he enjoys, even more, spontaneous humor. Paired with Bob Goalby in Houston, Hogan burned a long drive into the wind. “Who do you think you are?” Goalby asked, “Ben Hogan?” Hogan liked that.
During the Colonial, Hogan did his warming up at Shady Oaks, 15 minutes away. The practice area at Colonial Country Club is not large, and he always preferred to practice by himself anyway. (“You don’t get in anybody’s way, and nobody gets in yours, and you can have your own thoughts.”) At Shady Oaks, he hits balls from a spot between the 14th and 15th holes, across the 14th, 13th and 17th fairways. One morning, some writers covering the Colonial were playing at Shady Oaks and “played through” Hogan’s practice area. Hogan chatted with them and asked one, Kaye Kessler from Columbus, Ohio, about his swing. “It’s kind of disjointed,” Kessler said. “My boss told me I shouldn’t take it out of town because if it broke down, I couldn’t get parts.” Hogan chuckled delightedly. There is plenty of Irish in him.
Hogan spends several hours a day and an occasional evening at Shady Oaks, the club built by his close friend and early backer on the tour, Marvin Leonard. Hogan is comfortable there. It is the poshest club in Fort Worth, but the members treat one another with a congenial irreverence, Hogan included. “Ben gets tired of people getting’ down on their knees when he walks into a room,” Bolt says. “I’ve had some great name-callin’ arguments with him, and he loved it.”
Hogan plays gin rummy and golf with a regular group. “I’m not a very good gin player,” he says. “It passes the time.” Those he plays with say he competes as fiercely as he does at golf. Hogan does not play casual golf at Shady Oaks: “I play with friends, but we don’t play friendly games.” His partners frequently will be bankers John Griffith and O.K. Shannon, precision instrument company owner John Howell and Irving L. Taggart, a maker of panel boards for such things as television sets and airplanes. Last year Hogan played only about 10 rounds, usually in a golf car. This year, his leg improved, he expects to play once or twice a week. “If cars were legal, I could play more tournaments, but I couldn’t play as well. You don’t have time to compose yourself.”
Dickinson says, “I calculated that his IQ was in excess of 175. Genius level is about 160. Ben didn’t go to college—he regrets that—but he’s a brilliant person.”
Early every afternoon, his leg and the weather permitting, he will empty an old shag bag and hit balls for 40 to 90 minutes, starting with a 9-iron and working through the set. With each club he will hit basic shots, then before putting it away will hit two different types of shots, moving the ball to the right or left, or hitting it low or high. “The basics of the swing remain the same,” he says. “But I’m always experimenting, looking for better ways to hit finesse shots. I never hit a shot on the course I haven’t practiced.” His clear voice, neutral at first, takes on more of the drawling intonations of Texas as he warms to talking. “I’m a curious person. Experimenting is my enjoyment. I won’t accept anything until I’ve worked with it for a week or two, or longer. I bring out new clubs from the [Hogan Company] plant and try them out, and I get ahold of clubs that we’ve sold to check them. If something doesn’t work, some part of my swing or a club, I throw it out.”
The scientific method. Hogan is the Linus Pauling of his field, subjecting any hypothesis to rigorous, impartial testing. If it works, he keeps it, generalizes from it. If it doesn’t, into the garbage can it goes. Gardner Dickinson worked for Hogan when Hogan had a club job in Palm Springs in his younger years. Dickinson majored in clinical psychology in college, with a minor in psychometrics—mental testing. Intrigued by Hogan’s personality, Dickinson would slip IQ test questions into conversations with him. “I knew I’d never get them all past him, so I’d give him only the toughest ones from each section, knowing if he could answer those he could get the others.” Dickinson says, “I calculated that his IQ was in excess of 175. Genius level is about 160. Ben didn’t go to college—he regrets that—but he’s a brilliant person.”
One reason Hogan practices where he does at Shady Oaks is to hit into the prevailing wind. When the wind moves, so does Hogan. “If the wind is at your back, it destroys your game. You tend to try to pull the ball, swinging from the outside in, which is bad. If the temperature is below 60 degrees, you lose me. You can wreck your swing playing in cold weather, bundling all up.” Each shot is aimed at a target: a small nursery building near the 18th fairway. He uses no glove: “I never could feel anything wearing a glove.” Traffic is light at Shady Oaks. Such is Hogan’s eminence, when strangers playing the course interrupt his practice, they often apologize.
If he is not too tired, Hogan will chip and putt for an additional hour or two, at the second green, adjoining the clubhouse. For him, two extra holes always are cut in the back of the large green.
Shady Oaks, not as long or difficult as Colonial, where Hogan formerly belonged, is nonetheless challenging, and pretty, if that term may be applied to a golf course. Hogan designed most of the bunkers. They are numerous and imaginatively and variously shaped. They are not difficult to shoot from; they are not deep and do not have high lips. “Bunkers serve two purposes,” Hogan says. “They are for framing a green—to give it definition and to give the player an idea of the distance he has in hitting to the green. And for beauty. They are not for trapping people.”
Hogan holds decided views on what a golf course should be, and no one knows more about shot values. It is his ambition to build The Perfect Golf Course, a project he has contemplated since his touring days. “I’m very close to buying the property now. The market research looks favorable. You have to know where you’ll wind up before you start—otherwise you’ll go broke. You have to have the right piece of land. I’m in hopes of getting a nice, rolling site with a lot of trees. That means it won’t be in the Fort Worth area. I want a course that both the club member and the pro can play.
“Length isn’t necessarily the key. Length has to do with climate. Where it’s humid, you can’t have too long a course. The greens have to be large to provide multiple pin placements and prevent their wearing out. You have to have heavy play, or you’re going to lose money. You give the greens character in the contouring. I like a clean course. You could grow rough for a tournament. Champions Golf Club in Houston is my idea of a tremendous course for the locale.”
Hogan will probably build his course in or near sprawling, wealthy Houston. The course is sure to place a premium on driving, which Hogan deems the most important area of play. Expect the par 4s to bend slightly left or right (an equal number each way). The par 3s will call for iron shots, even short-iron shots, precisely placed. “I won’t design it,” Hogan says, inhaling hard on a cigarette. “I’m no architect. A person can have just so much knowledge, and there isn’t enough time in the day to absorb very much and be proficient. I’ll work with the architect, but not in detail. Everything takes a professional.”
Hogan will build only one course.
Hogan and his wife went about the building and appointing of their 10-year-old home on a winding, climbing private road in west Fort Worth with the same attentiveness to detail he is bringing to developing a golf course. From the time they were married in the mid-1930s, while traveling broadly in golf, they compared mental notes on what they wanted in a house. Finally they called in a top contractor, designer and decorator. The results are remarkable.
The one-story house, on a modest acreage, is of off-white brick, in French country style—subtly different from French provincial, which has become démodé. Each brick was molded on the spot with a slight irregularity—under Hogan’s watchful overseeing—to give texture to the exterior. The inside, predominantly white with blue and touches of yellow, as the decorators say, is mindful of a small manor house. Entrance is through a spacious, marble-floored hall with a striking crystal chandelier. The rest of the floors are of pecan, each board personally plucked by the Hogans. The living-room and dining-room rugs were specially designed and made in France with a meticulous process that takes a year.
In the study/library in the evening, in his cozy green lounge chair near the fireplace, Hogan reads newspapers and magazines and an occasional book. The bookcases hold a set of literary classics, a few copies of more recent fiction, golf texts—among them Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons and his Power Golf—art and antiques encyclopedias, and two editions of The Making of the President. The birch paneling is simple and subdued. A distinctive feature is an old regimental drum that serves as a coffee table. “I like antiques that are functional—that aren’t falling down,” Hogan says. On the top of the drum, covered with glass and scarcely noticeable, are a few of his golf medals—the only indication that the man of the house might well be the greatest golfer in history. “I didn’t want a lot of medals and trophies flaunted all over the walls,” Hogan says. (A good-size room just inside the front entrance at Colonial is filled with mementos of his famous victories.) Jimmy Demaret has kidded Hogan that he built a $200,000 home with one bedroom so Demaret wouldn’t come to visit him. However, Hogan says, with his even smile, the large study can be converted into a bedroom for guests.
The house is generously endowed with fine art selected by the Hogans and smoothly blended with the colors and character of the respective rooms. “Ben loves art,” Valerie says. “When we’re in New York he goes gallerying. Lately he even goes antiquing with me. He says he’s just an amateur—he only knows what he likes. He admired these two paintings in the living room so enthusiastically when we were staying with friends in Palm Springs, they gave them to us.” The Hogans’ favorite work, done mainly in pastel blues and white, is a semi-Impressionistic study of a woman by a Vietnamese artist who has synthesized French and Asian styles, and was acquired at the Findlay Gallery in Manhattan.
In the bathroom off Ben’s large, paneled dressing room hang lighthearted sketches, and over the bar are the only golf pictures, four prints, the originals of which Hogan is seeking throughout the world.
Outside in the back is a paved court and pool. There are plants and a live oak that provides shade. To one side is the garage/cottage and four cars, two driven by the help, a married couple who live in. Behind the pool is a low brick wall, and behind the wall is an undisturbed valley. “I own that lot,” Hogan says. “I don’t want a house built there. You put a two-story house in there, and people are going to be looking right down on you.”
We are sitting near the pool, sipping large glasses of Coke over ice brought by the help. I ask Valerie if she plays golf. “No, I never have,” she says. She is demurely dressed in a green and white sleeveless summer day dress, the hemline just at the knees (these things are crucial this year). She is scented with a flowery perfume. Her smile and charming manner are faultless. “I followed Ben during the Colonial. He kids me that I never used to follow him when he was playing well, but I did.”
The Hogans, who are childless, are not inactive socially. Valerie, who has joined committees for charity, occasionally entertains during the day. Ben will cook steaks outside for a small group, or will, with Valerie, give an infrequent large dinner party. “We go to people’s homes, and they come to ours,” he says, “but not once a week. We’ll go to a couple of charity balls a year. I’m not antisocial, I just don’t feel good the next day. I can’t work. Ever since my accident, I’ve had to get a lot of rest. I try to get at least eight hours’ sleep, and I’d rather have 10. I like to go to bed early. I have an awful time waking up. If I’m in a tournament and I have a morning tee time, I’ll get up three hours before.”
It is common for a legendary athlete, no longer very active competitively, to sell his name—to let it be used for promotional purposes or to open doors, as the saying has it. Ben Hogan does not play the game of business that way. “I don’t consider myself a businessman,” he says crisply. “Once you consider yourself something, you fall flat on your face, you see.” He is behind the wide wooden desk in his spacious office in front of two framed full-color maps. Several neat foothills of mail have accumulated while he was playing the two tournaments.
A high-salaried executive in the employ of AMF, with stock options and the rest, he is in full command of the Ben Hogan Company, a firm which is doing so well it can’t produce golf equipment fast enough to fill the orders. He does not play golf with customers. He plays company golf once a year, at the principal sales meeting. He makes a few speeches, although he is a captivating speaker. “Some people love that sort of thing. I don’t like it. If I accept a speaking engagement, I do the best I can, but I’m not comfortable.”
The plant and offices are in a nondescript, outlying warehouse district. Fronted by a perfectly kept expanse of putting grass, they stand out. A visitor is asked to sign in with a receptionist, then is led to Hogan’s office by Claribel Kelly, his trusted executive secretary. There are no slick public-relations people around Hogan. He is not easy to see, but Claribel is his only visible shield. She went to grammar school with Hogan and remembers him and his mother, who still lives in Fort Worth, attending a music recital she had a part in. She has worked for him for 18 years. She calls him “Mr. Hogan” as often as “Ben.”
She opens his mail but does not screen it. He reads it all, scrawling terse notes across the tops of letters for her to amplify. Hogan is sterner in his office. Trying to reach a businessman on the phone, Claribel enters Hogan’s office to report that the man is in a meeting and will call back. “When?” Hogan asks. Gene Sheely, the man who puts together the models for Hogan clubs, comes in with a wedge special-ordered by a tour star. Hogan puts on the glasses he wears for close work. “I found out playing in the Colonial, I’m gonna need ’em to play golf, too. I couldn’t see the pins. I had to ask the caddie.” Hogan asks a couple of pointed questions, soles the club on the carpet. Sheely wonders if the player should be charged for the club. “Well, heck, yes,” Hogan answers softly but firmly. The player endorses the clubs of another company. “That’s one reason we don’t have playing pros on our staff,” says Hogan. “Just me.”
In the Hogan company’s early, struggling years, Ben worked 14 to 16 hours a day to set up a system that was just as he wanted it. Walking through the plant, nodding at employees, occasionally stopping to inspect work at a particular station, he says, “I’ve done all these jobs myself. I like to work with my hands.”
Dealing with his help, Hogan relies on direct communication. He does not phone them or send them memoranda, he has them summoned to his office and talks to them. Directly.
Today, Hogan usually will work only in the morning, and is perhaps the only executive in the country who consistently can take off at noon for his golf club and not be second-guessed. He cannot understand modern golfers—or executives—who say they do not have time for golf. “I have other business interests that I find time for. I piddle around in the oil business. I fool around with the stock market quite a bit. I’m in the process of looking for a cattle ranch. I’ll find what I want. I want it within 150 miles of Fort Worth. I keep hearing there’s no money in it, but if that were true you couldn’t buy a steak.”
Each year, Hogan is offered well-played peripheral jobs, such as commentating on golf telecasts. Each year, he declines. “Television is a different business entirely,” he says. “It takes a professional to do a professional job. And I’m fed up with traveling.”
He has been approached many times about involving himself in a tour event that would carry his name, but always has refused, in part because he is wary of lending his name to an undertaking if he does not have complete control over the quality, and in part, probably, because he has had it in mind to build his own course, the natural site for a “Ben Hogan Classic.”
Hogan is considering writing an exhaustive instruction book. “It would be this thick,” he says with thumb and forefinger as far apart as they will stretch. “It would confuse a lot of people, but I can’t help that. I get so darn tired of these bromides that don’t mean anything. Explain to me the expression ‘coming off the ball.’ What does it mean? What caused it, that’s what I want to know. I never see that explained. Or ‘stay behind the ball.’ What does that mean?”
Gardner Dickinson says he has seen Hogan turn down $500 for a five-minute lesson. Why doesn’t Hogan teach? “You can’t find anybody who wants to learn.” A silence. “I did teach at one time.”
Hogan says the movie about his life, “Follow the Sun,” is going to be reshot to bring it up to modern technical standards, and that he would be a consultant. “I hit all the shots before, and I’ll probably do it again.” Followers of golf have devoted many hours to trying to guess the identity of the supporting character who was Hogan’s friend and rival. Some have guessed Byron Nelson. Others Jimmy Demaret. Others Lloyd Mangrum. “It was a composite,” Hogan says with a mischievous smile.
It is a virtual certainty that Hogan will not approve Peter Fonda, or any other long-haired pop actor, to play his part. In areas such as dress and hair style, Hogan is staunchly conservative. “Sometimes I’m damn glad there’s a generation gap,” he says emphatically. “I think it’s just ridiculous the way some of these golfers look. Here they’re asking important people around the country to put up millions of dollars for a tournament. … If it was my tournament, I wouldn’t let ’em in the front gate.” His hands are expressive, gesticulating. Of one pro with whom he has been friendly, but who recently grew heavy muttonchop sideburns, Hogan says: “I don’t even speak to him anymore. He looks like his head’s on upside down.” Hogan’s own thinning hair is short and neatly combed when not covered by a straw hat or a golf cap.
Noticing one day that his vinyl-topped new Cadillac, his cuffed golf slacks and the grips on his clubs all were gray, I asked him if gray is his favorite color. “It doesn’t offend anybody,” he said.
Hogan, like a couple of hundred million others, has sharp opinions on the state of the nation. “I’d like to know where in the heck half of my tax dollar goes,” he says. “If I were president of a small country, I think I’d start a war against my neighbor, so the United States or Russia would jump in and give me a million dollars. Then the other one would give my neighbor a million. It’s darn foolish.” Maybe Ben and the kids aren’t so far apart after all. Then he says: “The trouble in this country started when I was young, when the vote was extended to people who had no property. A lot of them don’t give a darn. Now, I don’t know what you can do.” The kids wouldn’t groove so well on that.
Frank Beard, one of the best of the current players, has a theory about Hogan the man. “The uncanny thing was that he seemed able to concentrate and pour it on from the moment he got up until the time he left the course,” Beard says. “But it’s not true that he is a shy, withdrawn, cold man. I heard him speak at a dinner once, and he was about as warm and witty as can be. I think at one time he was a regular guy. He acted like most pros—chatted and larked around—and was in no way an enigma. But early in his career, he decided to dedicate himself to golf. Wholly. To forfeit many family and social pleasures. He did this as a man might take to religion. And this regimen made him detached, the way an obsession with science or medicine might have. By the time I met him, he had mellowed. Several of us had some drinks one night after an exhibition in Fort Wayne a few years ago, and from 10 until 2 Hogan told stories about his early days on the tour that regaled us. It was great to see him so relaxed.”
I quoted Beard’s theory to Hogan and asked him to react to it. “I think he’s right,” Hogan said. He was silent for a full minute, as he often is when answering a hard question. He will give an almost blunt initial response, and then, if the questioner meets his glinting look and does not interrupt his thought processes, he will elaborate, often at near-loquacious length. “I got credit for a lot of things I didn’t do, but I did dedicate myself to the game. And I loved every minute of it. And I’m the same person today I was then.”
I asked him if his popular reputation as a grim, machine-like person bothers him. “I couldn’t care less,” he said caustically. “I get along with everybody I know. I know who started those stories, and why, and he’s sorry, and that’s enough. Too many people hear or read something written from uneducated preconceptions, and it takes off. There’s a great difference between intelligence and wisdom. You might have a college sheepskin, but that doesn’t make you educated. Life’s too short for me to go around explaining myself. A lot of people don’t understand modesty. Not everybody wants publicity, you know.”
Beard is correct about Hogan’s ability to reminisce enthrallingly. Hearing him speak about the formative years of the tour is a remarkable experience. “I’ll tell you how the tour got started, and I’ve never read this anywhere,” he said one noon as we ate chalupas, a zestful Mexican dish that is perfect by Fort Worth criteria—hot enough to make your eyes water, but not hot enough to make you choke. “The wives of a handful of club professionals in the East—Bob Cruickshank, Al Espinosa, Tommy Armour, I believe—took it on themselves to book a tour in the 1930s. Their husbands were off work in the winter. Before that, you just had a smattering of tournaments across the country. The wives wrote to chambers of commerce and so forth in California, and convinced several cities to have tournaments. Some of the purses were only a few hundred dollars, and we’d go to civic-club lunches to promote ourselves. The wives kept up all the correspondence and handled the books. Then the manufacturers saw what a great promotional vehicle the tour could be and hired Bob Harlow, Walter Hagen’s manager, to conduct it. Later the PGA got in on it. That’s how this $7 million business began.
“We’d play five exhibitions apiece to pay our Ryder Cup expenses. We got no money from the PGA. If somebody on the tour died or had troubles, we’d work out an exhibition schedule to help out. I never did make money playing the tour. It cost me more, total, than my purse winnings. I had to do other things.
“We traveled together and ate together and sat around hotel rooms and talked at night. We were a smaller group, and invariably more closely knit. It seems to me like we used to have a more gracious life playing tournaments in those days. In many places we dressed for dinner, in dinner jackets. I cringe when I see fellas today walking into nice restaurants in golf clothes.”
Hogan does not begrudge the modern stars their riches. “The money is fine. It’s only a 35-cent dollar anyway. I am a little dubious about the future. Commercial sponsorship for tournaments is shallow. These companies might come in for three years and get out. Civic sponsors are best for the game.”
How does he compare the quality of play? “There is so much more of everything today. More players, more tournaments. There are more good players, of course, and the best ones might be better. Competition improves people. Fifteen years from now, the level of play will be better still. You have to beat the competition. To do that you have to find a way. You have to have an edge.” Hogan’s voice hardens, as if he were himself hungering for that edge all over again. “The fundamentals of swinging are the same, but the technique of hitting the ball has improved, and the equipment is slightly better … not as much better as the individual and his technique. All golf shots are missed to a degree. Today, fewer are missed. These boys think better. They’re bigger and stronger, and they practice harder. These fellas putt better—more boldly. That’s due to practice. When I started, they used to laugh at me for practicing.
“The fella who starts today has a better chance to be a real good player than I did. The facts are all laid out for him. All you have to do is read and apply what you read through hard work. I had to dig it out for myself. It took me from age 12 to age 35, trying things, proving and disproving.” Hogan paused and studied his clasped, permanently calloused hands, then said, “But maybe that made me a better player, a better competitor. Most of the enjoyment in life is in improving. If I didn’t think I could improve right now, why … ” He shook his head sideways and stopped, appalled.
Does Hogan expect the emergence of another great player, a man whose name will stand out in brilliant relief from the rest? “I think all sports have to have leaders. Golf is getting away from that a little bit with this multitude of good players. But I suppose it’ll happen. One leader, with half the crowds coming to see him win, and half to see him get beat. It’s hard to find that type person.” A pause. “He’ll have to be an awful-dedicated man.”
I asked Hogan which of his 60-some victories, including nine of the modern major championships, an unequalled three in the same year (1953), means the most to him. The 1950 United States Open at Merion was his answer because there he proved to himself, in a tense, wearing, 36-hole final only a year after that horrendous car/bus accident, that he could be the best in spite of his injuries.
The past and the present were joined this spring when Hogan, away from tournament golf for nearly three years, his last victory 11 years ago, played back-to-back tournaments, and made them quite special. Each time he walked slowly onto a green with that rolling, purposeful stride, his younger playing partners often lagging respectfully behind, he was met with an ovation, an ovation very different from the usual. There was none of the raucous shouting that welcomes Arnold Palmer. This was loud, prolonged, sincere applause with an added depth. Bearing himself with customary dignity, Hogan nonetheless was moved. He frequently tipped the white cap he special-orders by the dozen. “I’m very grateful,” he said in the locker room after one round. “These people are just wonderful, and I wish there was some way I could thank them.”
He was, of course, thanking them merely by his presence. His huge galleries were heavily peopled with fathers in their 40s and 50s who had brought youthful sons to see a man who was the best at his profession, who elevated it to the level of aesthetics. But there were, not entirely expectedly, thousands of teenagers on their own and young couples in their 20s. Yes, there were even a few dozen hippie types, protesting nothing except that it was damned difficult to get a look at Hogan.
Bob Goalby counted 31 of his fellow pros following Hogan on a hot afternoon in Houston, and said they were impressed. Hogan’s swing appeared superb. His putting stroke, once a shambles, was smoother. His yogic concentration, a striking amalgam of intensity and composure that suggests utter transcendence, seemed not to have been impaired by the long layoff; Herb Wind’s description of Hogan competing “with the burning frigidity of dry ice” came to mind.
Always his own severest critic, Hogan knew better. He devoted months to modifying his swing in favor of his aching left knee, hurt in the automobile accident but no bother to him until the past couple of years. A tendon transplant last year fixed an ailing shoulder, but doctors were afraid to operate on his knee, for what probably is torn cartilage, because he might not be able to walk again. Hogan had been taking diathermy treatments three times a week and lifting weights on the edge of his bed at night, and sleeping with heat pads. A dull pain always was present, and occasionally when he swung a sharp pain would pierce the knee. “I wouldn’t recommend that anybody swing the way I’m swinging,” he said. “I used to go in on my left leg as much as anybody, or more. I’ve had to take the left leg out of the swing. I opened my stance and moved the ball back toward my right foot, and I lay back on my right leg. I used to play the ball up and go forward to catch it. If I played it up there now, I’d hit back of it every time. I still need a lot of work. I hit one heavy or thin occasionally.”
Hogan looks to be putting on a count. It is “one-two-three-hit” from the time he positions the putter behind the ball to the time he initiates his stroke. Hogan says he is not. Speaking of the recent years when he would freeze over the ball, then jerk his stroke, he said: “It was so bad for a while there I didn’t know whether I could get the putter back. I moved the ball way forward, and now the only thing I can do is take the putter back.”
He gloomily assayed his concentration. “I know I wasn’t ready mentally. It would take six months of playing tournaments. I would never expect to go through that process. Golf and tournament golf are as different as baseball and hockey. I can’t describe the tournament feel you have to have. … Call it toughness.”
Hogan always has said he would not compete unless he believed he could win. Possibly he has softened the stance. Why did he play at Champions and Colonial? “I don’t know what in the world he is trying to prove,” Byron Nelson had said. Claude Harmon said he didn’t know if Ben was trying to inspire business for the Ben Hogan Company, but that Winged Foot, where Harmon is the head professional, is selling a lot of Hogan balls to guys who never bought them before.
Hogan says he expects a business residual from his tournament appearances, but that isn’t why he played. “I couldn’t play until I got better,” he says. “Plus, I was overweight, and this is a good way to lose it. I used to run in place a lot and exercise. I like to hunt but had to quit. I was up to 175. Now I’m about 165. In the 1940s, I weighed 130 to 135, then after my accident it was 145 to 150. I was curious—I wanted to see if I could walk for four days. I wanted to see if I could play some kinda decent golf hitting off my back foot. The fact it was the 25th anniversary of the Colonial had something to do with it. I’ve played a lot, but I’ve missed a lot of years. I missed three years in the service. I missed a year after the wreck. I missed two years because of my shoulder and two years because of my knee. Time’s runnin’ pretty short if I don’t play now. I enjoy practicing and playing in tournaments. Besides, I haven’t really done what I wanted to do.”
“What is that?” someone asked.
“I haven’t won enough tournaments.”
Hogan’s tournament plans in June were indefinite. His knee is no worse. His legs, sore through and through for a week after the Colonial, feel better.
Do the doctors give him clearance to play?
“No. I tell myself when I’m ready.”
He wants to play more tournament golf, but not in successive weeks. “That’s just too much for me,” he says. “I was much more tired in the Colonial. … I’ll have to practice shots around the green. I didn’t have time for that before. It’s just ridiculous to enter a tournament if you can’t hit every shot you have to hit. If I can find a tough, flat course where there’s a tournament, I’ll go play. Unfortunately there aren’t many like that. I’d love to play the Masters, but I can’t. If the course isn’t flat, there’s too much pressure on my legs. When I get an uphill, downhill or sidehill lie, I can’t hit the ball right. I have no plans to play any place at the moment, but I’m not ruling it out.”
During the Colonial, a newspaper reporter asked Hogan if he intends to enter any senior tournaments, being over 55 and eligible. [Editor’s note: Senior age for pros didn’t change to 50 until 1980.]
Hogan—the mellowed Hogan—skewered the man with a disbelieving glare. For a long time he said nothing, debating, probably, whether to dignify the question with an answer.
Then he said, not coldly, but making himself very clear: “Not until I’m a senior.”
Originally Appeared on Golf Digest