Friday, June 1, 2012

Ben Hogan

By Dennis Sherrard
Ben Hogan (1912-1997)

Ben Hogan was born in a small town outside of Fort Worth, Texas called Dublin.  His father, Chester, was a blacksmith who eked out a small living as a farrier and iron worker. Ben's life would be changed when he was 10 years old as a result of his father's suicide in 1922. Financial difficulties prompted Ben's mother Clara to move him and his older brother Royal to Fort Worth shortly thereafter so Clara could find work.  Ben was selling newspapers after school at age 9 to help make a little money and a couple of years later a friend of his gave him a tip that a nearby country club, Glen Garden, was hiring caddies.  When I say nearby, it was 7 miles away.  Ben got a job looping (caddying) and walked the 7 miles daily to carry a bag another 2-3 miles on the 9-hole golf course.   While he was at Glen Garden, he met another caddy that would play a large part in his life for the next 30 years.  That other caddy's name?  Byron Nelson.   Hogan started playing golf while at Glen Garden, and had become quite good at a young age.  Byron and Ben played in the annual Christmas caddy championship which Byron would win after sinking a 30 foot birdie on the last hole to tie Ben and force a 9 hole playoff that Nelson would eventually win.  Hogan and Nelson were 15 at that time. 

Hogan dropped out of high school during his senior year and became a professional golfer in 1930 at age 18.  In those days, if you could pay the entry fee, you could declare yourself a professional.   Ben was a good golfer, but didn't find much success early on.  He didn't win his first professional tournament until 1938.  He went broke several times and took jobs as an assistant and finally head professional at different country clubs include the Hershey Country Club in Hershey, Pennsylvania.   

Ben Hogan's success can be attributed to hard work.  Hogan practiced more than anyone in his day, and essentially became an expert on the mechanics of the golf swing to the point that he claimed to have discovered "a secret" that golf professionals today still talk about .  Hogan won 64 professional tournaments between 1938 and 1959, which averages out as winning a little over 3 tournaments a year.  This includes a 2 year break where Hogan was in the army during World War II.  Hogan's breakthrough year came in 1946 when he won his first Major with a victory at the PGA Championship.  Oh, by the way,  he won another 12 tournaments that year as well.  Hogan then went on to win 7 tournaments in 1947, and 11 tournaments in 1948 including two Majors: The PGA Championship and his first US Open.  He seemed to be unstoppable and on his way to greatness.  The press had dubbed him "The Hawk" for his ferocity of play and cool demeanor on the golf course.  He rarely spoke during the tournaments, and had few close friends on the tour.  He once said when asked about golfing with his friends.  "I play golf with my friends, but I do not have friendly rounds of golf".  The man liked to win, and he was doing quite a lot of it until February 2, 1949, in which Ben Hogan and his wife Valerie were nearly killed while driving back home after a golf tournament.  A head-on collision with a Greyhound bus on a fog-shrouded road east of Van Horn, Texas nearly killed the golfer who only survived by throwing himself in front of his wife Valerie.  The steering wheel of Hogan's car was pushed through the driver's seat and would have most certainly killed Hogan had he not moved.  As it was, he had a double-fracture of the pelvis, a fractured collar bone, a broken ankle, and a broken rib.  While in hospital, Hogan had life-threatening blood clots forcing doctors to tie off veins in his legs leaving him with life-long circulation problems.  

Hogan went through multiple surgeries to his legs and hips in order to keep him alive.  He was in the hospital for 59 days and his doctors told him it would be a miracle if he ever walked again, and that he would never be able to resume playing professional golf.  So, Ben, ignoring the doctors got out of bed, and started a personal rehab program that began with him just walking across the room, to walking around the block and then slowly and agonizingly, starting to swing the golf club again.  It was November of 1949 when he started hitting golf balls.  In February of 1950, just one year after the accident, Mr. Hogan played in the Los Angeles Open at Riverside Country Club, and finished in a tie with Sam Snead for first place, but later lost in a playoff.  Now think about this.  A little less than a year after almost dying in a car wreck, and 9 months after getting out of the hospital, Hogan ties for first in a PGA professional event!  Even more amazing, Hogan would in June of that same year capture the 2nd of his four US Open victories.  Much has been made of Tiger Woods' victory at Torrey Pines in 2008 when he had a fractured leg.  Tiger's feat, while amazing, pales in comparison to Hogan's comeback. 

So how good was this guy? Pretty damned good.  From 1939 until 1956, Hogan would never be out of the Top 10 at the Masters!  Hogan would be in the US Open Top Ten from 1940 until 1950 except for the 2 he did not play and those not held because of the war.   Hogan won 4 of the 5 US Opens he played from 1948 to 1953. 

Ben would go on to win 6 major championships after his accident.  1953 was the year that he won the Masters, The US Open and the British Open.  He was unable to play the PGA championship as the schedule with the British Open overlapped  It would be 47 years until someone would win three majors in a single year and that would be Tiger Woods.

Hogan would play professionally through 1967 where he tied for 10th at the Masters that year.  Upon retirement, he would go on to run his golf club company, "The Ben Hogan Company" that he had started in 1953.  He would later sell the company to AMF and be chairman of the board for several years until retiring for good to his home in Fort Worth.

Ben Hogan died in 1997, interestingly enough the same year a young, precision oriented golfer named Tiger Woods won his first Masters tournament.  Woods and Hogan were very similar in their approach to the game and the ferocity by which they played the game.  Hogan, in my view is the better golfer, although Woods has the more championships.  Both are winners, but in my book, Hogan owned his golf swing, made the game one of strategy and precision, and achieved success despite almost being killed.  As Tommy Bolt, no slouch on the links himself once said when asked how good Hogan was:  "All I know is I've seen Nicklaus watch Hogan practice.  I've never seen Hogan watch Nicklaus practice."  Mr. Hogan's numbers:  64 Tournament victories, 9 Major Championships, 12 Top 5 finishes in the Majors, 14 Top 10 finishes in the Majors.

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