Is there any more enduring, but esentially fruitless debate than the enduring question, who is the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT)? Federer vs Samprass vs Laver, Pele Vs Maradona Vs Messi, Woods Vs Nicklaus. The debate rages, on and on, and yet no conclusion is ever reached, because no conclusion can be reached. Comparing across generations is an impossible task, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have its merits as an interesting conversation piece, one thing that is sure is that the question wont go away, whatever the sport
The reason I have been dragged, kicking and screaming, into the issue is that The Golf Channel recently embarked upon an Ultimate Matchplay championship. The top 16 players of all time go head to head in a public vote to decide who truly is the GOAT. Now you can argue about the make up of the top 16 and its possible US bias, the inclusion of Billy Casper and Phil Mickleson, The exclusion of the original masters of the game like Allan Robertson, Tom Morris (Old and Young) and Harry Vardon. It is however a moot point, the line up is still a who’s who of world golf, Nicklaus and Sir Nick, Palmer and Player, Seve and Slammin’ Sam. Despite the grand line up we all knew who would be competing in the final, the only question was over who would win. For those to whom it matters the winner was Tiger Woods
I’m not going to go down the path of discussing The Bear against The Tiger though. Instead I want to shine a light on a man who I believe deserves to stand alongside those two men, Ben Hogan.
Of course I never actually watched Ben Hogan play, I never even saw him interviewed. Perhaps that is part of his mystique. The legends that followed him, the likes of Nicklaus, Palmer, Player and Watson are paraded in front of us with regularity. The conduct themselves with great dignity and respect, impart wisdom that is always worth listening to, and are a credit to the game of golf. But they don’t intrigue me the way Ben does. There is another, more personal, and perhaps rather silly reason for holding Ben Hogan in the highest esteem. For going on 10 years I played irons from the now sadly defunct Ben Hogan Golf Company, I loved them so much I have just gone back to them.
The numbers alone tell a story of a great golfer. 64 wins on the PGA Tour, 9 Major championships, 14 wins in a season in 1946. All exceptional stuff but with Ben the numbers only tell half the story. I don’t have the time or space to tell the full story, but hopefully what I can convey is a picture of a man who is fit to stand alongside any golfer of any era, if you are intrigued enough as I am there will be so much more to learn and discover.
The story of Ben Hogan is one of contradiction, A man who’s early career was dominated by withdrawals, missed cuts and financial hardship, but ended with him being the most feted payer in the world. A man who attempted to win no friends or favour from anyone, and yet received a ticker tape New York parade and became a national hero. A man who for so long hid his “secret” to playing great golf, and then went on to write golf’s most influential instruction book.
The secret to great golf isn’t the only secret that Ben Hogan carried with him, there is another, much darker secret, one that almost defined who he was, shaped his outlook to life and golf, a secret that for many years he hid from even his wife. The defining incident of his early life was the death of his father Chester Hogan who committed suicide in their Fort Worth home, some accounts even claim his father committed suicide in front of him. Many have cited this as the cause of his steely introverted personality. It is almost certain that it’s the source of his determined work ethic. The moment his father pulled the trigger on that fatal shot, the family lost their main source of income. Ben and his older brother Royal, were sent out to work at whatever jobs they could get. Ben took a job selling newspapers on a busy Fort Worth train terminal, regularly fighting off other street urchins to secure the best spot. Life and circumstances certainly toughened him up, instilled in him a work ethic that would be a key to his success.
To give an indication of the trials and tribulations of his early career his 1st professional event was in 1930, he withdrew despite making the cut, the reason he gave was that he felt he wasnt ready to compete. It would be 10 years until his 1st individual PGA Tour Victory, he would go on to record 64 in total, this despite having two full seasons wiped out completely by the 2nd world war, with a further two greatly curtailed. He also played a significantly reduced schedule following his near fatal car crash in 1949.
He may have taken his time to reach the Winners circle, and a further 6 years before he secured the elusive 1st major, but once he did there was no stopping him. That debut victory triggered a spell of golf, almost unmatched in championship golf. He played a 12 round stretch of golf in a combined 34 under par with all but 2 rounds under 70. Exceptional by todays standards, unheard of by the standards of the day. The really eye-popping statistic is that over 216 rounds of golf he missed just two greens in regulation. It was the staggering long game, unmatched control of both swing and ball that became the Hogan hallmark.
The most remarkable part of the Hogan Story is his comeback from the collision with a Greyhound bus in 1949 that very nearly killed him. The story is quite literally the stuff of Hollywood movies. If you want to see the tale of his comeback told with tonnes of syrup poured over it then Follow the Sun is most certainly the film for you. It is however the most remarkable tale of triumph in adversity. The initial impact of the collision was so furious that he was lucky to survive, worse however was to follow. As his condition appeared to be improving, blood clots formed in his legs, if left unchecked these would inevitably be fatal. The decision was taken to perform life saving surgery, effectively closing down the veins in which the clots were located, his life was saved but the blood flow through his legs was significantly reduced. Most doctors believed he would never walk again.
As he had been doing all his life Ben Hogan confounded expectations. Walking 18 holes would forever be a painful exercise and it wasnt uncommon to see him bent double in pain, or reliant on one of his golf clubs to hold him up. He even took to carrying a small stool with him from time to time for when the pain became excruciating. If you think Tiger Woods winning a US Open on one leg was impressive, try winning 6 majors without a leg to stand on. Truly awe-inspiring stuff.
An Iconic Image: Hogan plays to the 18th hole. Merion 1950
There is a famous image of Ben Hogan taken during the 1950 US Open. It is one of, if not the most iconic images ever taken on a golf course. The 1950 even was held at Merion (Incidentally the host of this years US Open) Hogan playing one of his 1st events back following the crash required a par on the last to tie the lead and make the following days playoff. Having split the fairway with his drive he fired a 1 Iron into the heart of the green. The picture shows Hogan holing his pose at the top of his swing. It is an image of a man in perfect control of himself, the balance is so immaculate that it looks as though he held the pose purely for the benefit of the photographers. The patch of turf where the ball once sat is almost as immaculate as it was before the ball was struck, a testament to his precision ball striking. Were it not for the craned necks of the crowd, eager to see the result of the stroke you could be forgiven for thinking the pose were simply for the camera. It is in fact one of the all time great clutch shots.
It would be easy to eulogize for much longer, recalling countless other examples of his mastery of the game of golf. It would be easy to go on and on. Except that the Hogan mystique wasnt only built on the golf course, it was built off it. He was a man of few words, journalists would be met with a cold stare if they asked the wrong question, fools were not suffered lightly. The problem is that the legend has rather taken on a life of its own, it’s quite difficult to separate the fact from the fiction. One tale states that Nick Faldo made the pilgrimage to meet Ben at the Shady Oaks Country Club that was virtually his home in the later years of his life. After a very pleasant meal on the veranda overlooking the course Faldo left to hit some balls asking if Ben could come down to the range to offer some thoughts on his swing. Ben Hogan inquired as to what make of clubs he played, on hearing that Faldo was, at the time signed up to play with Wilson clubs Hogan reportedly replied “Well why don’t you ask Mr Wilson for some advice” whatever he actually said, he certainly didn’t accompany Sir Nick onto the range.
Another tale tells of how he ended his relationship with his long time club makers Macgregor. There were tensions between Hogan and his sponsors over his refusal to play their new ball on the basis that it was “The worst ball ever made”. He was invited to the Macgregor facility where he was shown a series of demonstrations to show the quality of the ball, struck various distances with various clubs by a mechanical swinging arm. At the end of the demonstration an unimpressed Hogan promptly declared “If it’s so F**king great why don’t you enter it into the Open” and left. His sponsorship deal was promptly ended.
Just as with his on course exploits there are countless other tales of the off course Hogan that have passed into folklore. There are also tales of him being a loving father, brother and uncle. Countless examples of him being a kindly, but anonymous donor to numerous causes that caught his attention, as well as individually intervening in the circumstances of persons known to him who had fallen into hardship. Not in keeping with the general image of him, but perfectly in keeping with the person those nearest and dearest to him knew.
This blog is only a tiny snapshot of Ben Hogan, You may find it remiss that his glorious summer of 1953 has gone unmentioned. Its fair to wonder why no mention of his relationship, and rivalry with the other great golfers of his age, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead. I have however tried to include some of the qualities that made him such an intriguing character, and such a phenomenal golfer. In an era of constant access to current players, and where former greats fill our screens with their analysis of the current game, and tales of their own times, its worth, just taking the time to get to know a man with a bit of mystery, a touch of mystique, and a huge slice of Genius