They beam like three stars in a magnificent constellation.
Memories of Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead continue to dazzle long after their deaths.
While their brilliance still impresses, the real marvel is how their star power radiated with such distinctly different hue and resonance.
They burst into the universe in the same year, 1912. That would have made this their 100th birthday year.
They weren’t just born before television. They were born before FM radio. They were born before the crossword puzzle, the modern zipper and the pop-up toaster were invented. They were born the same year Fenway Park was built, China’s Manchu Dynasty was overthrown and the Titanic sank.
John Byron Nelson Jr. was born first on Feb. 4 outside Waxahachie, Texas, Samuel Jackson Snead on May 27 in Ashwood, Va., and William Benjamin Hogan on Aug. 13 in Stephenville, Texas.
The centennial is being commemorated at GolfChannel.com with a series of stories, starting with this overview of the triumvirate’s legacy, a look at how their distinctly different games and personalities helped save the sport in America and shape a modern, new era of golf.
Hogan, Nelson and Snead (pictured above with Arnold Palmer) were each born into hardscrabble circumstances, poor kids coming of age in the Depression, each finding work and meaning in jobs as young caddies.
They learned to love the game, even to make the indomitable sport yield to their wills, but they did it showing us there is no single blueprint for building a champion. There is no singular path to greatness in golf.
“They defined an era like we had never seen, with three completely different swings, different attitudes, different personalities and different ways of life,” said Ken Venturi, the 14-time PGA Tour winner, 1964 U.S. Open champion and former CBS analyst. “They are the triangle of the game.”
Venturi knew Hogan, Nelson and Snead as well as anyone got to know all three.
When Nelson died, Venturi delivered a eulogy. When Hogan died, Valerie Hogan told Venturi that he was her husband’s first choice to be a pallbearer. Venturi was close to Snead as well.
If you follow golf, you know the major themes of the Hogan, Nelson and Snead stories. You know Hogan as “The Hawk,” “Bantam Ben” or 'The Wee Ice Mon.” You know him as the intensely private man who didn’t suffer fools, as the obsessive blacksmith’s boy forever complicated by the discovery of his father’s messy suicide when he was 9. You know Nelson as “Lord Byron,” the Christian gentleman, an affable and guileless spirit who retired at 34 believing he had a larger calling to help people in and out of the game. You know Snead as “Slammin’ Sam,” the Virginia hillbilly boy with the sweetest swing the game has ever seen.
What’s harder to know, even in all the exhaustive biographies and articles examining their lives, is what they really thought of each other. The relationships they built with one another remain a complicated study.
Given they never fully understood each other, how were historians supposed to figure it out?
“I think, as competitors, they wanted to be apart,” Venturi said. “They didn’t want to be too friendly because they knew they would be in competition. Remember what Hogan said: `There are three ways to beat somebody. You can outwork them, outthink them and intimidate them.’ They were individuals. That’s what they were.”
They were competitors in one of the most ferociously competitive times in the sport, in the wake of the Great Depression, with jobs hard to come by and with paltry tournament purses.
“Those were different times back then,” said Bob Goalby, the 1968 Masters champion. “There wasn’t much money, and there were, maybe, just the top 20 places getting paid. It was much more dog-eat-dog back then.”
As different as they were, Nelson saw clearly the bond they shared.
“The one thing that Hogan and Snead and I had in common was that we wanted to beat somebody,” Nelson once said.
They didn’t just win. They dominated, and they became stars.
The first generation to play with steel shafts and painted persimmon woods, they redefined how the game was played. They saved it doing so.
James Dodson is the author of “American Triumvirate: Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, and the Modern Age of Golf,” a new book scheduled to go on sale next week. Dodson documents how the triumvirate rescued professional tour golf from a possible collapse before the PGA Tour was officially formed.
“It was such a formative time, and the game really could have gone the other way after Bobby Jones left the sport in 1930,” Dodson said in a telephone interview. “The game went into hibernation. The Depression nearly killed it. There were all kinds of conversations about whether they were going to continue the tour from about 1933 to 1937. Half the tournaments folded, and there really were no stars.”
Snead and Nelson changed that, delivering big victories in 1937. Snead won five times in his first full year on the tour. He did so with a country-boy charisma that turned the game on its head. Nelson won the Masters that year in a popular victory. Hogan, who failed mightily as a young pro, would create a spark finally breaking through for his first individual victory in 1940.
Hogan, Nelson and Snead attracted separate die-hard followings as three of the most prolific winners in the game’s history. They combined to win 198 tour titles. That's 39 more than Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player won as the Big Three.
Hogan won three major championships in ’53, and he might have won them all if he could have played the PGA Championship, too. He won five of the six events he entered that year. Hogan’s performances were limited after a nearly year-long absence recovering from his well chronicled head-on collision with a bus on Feb. 2, 1949. Hogan ultimately won 64 PGA Tour titles, nine major championships, with a remarkable six of those majors coming after the crash.
“If Hogan hadn’t been hit by that bus, there’s no telling how good he could have been,” said Hall of Famer Doug Ford, the ’57 Masters winner.
Ford played the last 36 holes with Hogan when Hogan won his final PGA Tour event at the Colonial Invitational in 1959.
“He hit the best shot I ever saw,” Ford said. “At the 11th hole, a par 5, he drives it maybe 8 yards in front of me. With trees left, out of bounds on the right. I laid up, but he gets to his ball in the fairway and he takes out his driver. He hit this shot that ended up 3 feet from the hole. That was the best shot I ever saw. After, he says, `You know, that’s the first time I’ve ever reached this green in two.’ That was funny, because this was his home course. He played it all the time, but it just showed how he plotted his way around, how much he didn’t like to take a gamble as a player.”
If Nelson had not retired as a full-time player in 1946 at age 34, there’s no telling how much more he might have won.
Nelson claimed 52 PGA Tour titles. He won five majors, but he is most remembered for his record tear in 1945. That’s the year he won 18 PGA Tour titles, a staggering 11 in a row. While critics have scoffed that the titles came against depleted fields in the war years, history shows Snead and Hogan played in most of the events that year.
“Sam Snead thought Byron was the best he ever played,” Goalby said.
Bob Toski, the PGA Tour’s leading money winner in 1954 and a Hall of Fame teacher, admired Nelson’s swing, one of the first real upright strokes.
“I loved watching Byron play, the way he stepped into the ball,” Toski said. “He moved into it like a dancer. I tell you, if Tiger Woods could drive the ball like Byron Nelson did, he would have already passed Jack Nicklaus’ record.”
Snead won a record 82 PGA Tour titles, seven of them major championships. Of course, he was tortured over never having won the U.S. Open.
“Hogan was convinced Sam had the finest swing of anyone who played the game,” Dodson said.
And yet Hogan cringed at what he perceived as Snead’s occasional reckless course management.
“Sam doesn’t know a damn thing about the golf swing,” Hogan was quoted saying by Curt Sampson, who wrote “Hogan,” a biography. “But he hits the ball better than anyone else . . . If he could have played golf with my brain, he would be the only name in the record book.”
While contemporaries say Hogan, Nelson and Snead were cordial and had great respect for each other’s games, they weren’t especially close. And when they got closer than they liked, there were sometimes difficulties.
Nelson and Hogan, who grew up as boys caddying together at Glen Garden Golf & Country Club in Fort Worth, appeared to be close in their youth. They traveled together as pros in their early tour years, sharing a car and hotel rooms.
“They were definitely close, early in their lives, no question,” said Mark Frost, author of “The Match,” the book that documented the pairing of Nelson and Hogan against amateur champs Ken Venturi and Harvie Ward in a monumental competition in 1956. “It just became harder for Byron, mostly because it was hard for Ben, who was just a different guy, with a lot of internal turmoil and resentments. It was hard for Ben to get close to anyone.”
Nelson was hurt when Hogan called him “lazy” in a radio interview before Nelson beat him in a Texas Open playoff in 1940. They slowly drifted apart after that.
Still, even in the time they traveled together, Nelson never felt like he really understood Hogan.
“We never knew that Ben’s father had died the way he did until after Ben died, and it appeared in one of the golf magazines,” Peggy Nelson, Byron’s surviving wife, said. “That obviously explained a number of things about his personality and being a private person. Byron said: ‘I always considered Ben to be a good friend.’ Ben came to the opening of his tournament, the Byron Nelson in 1968, but we did not have Ben’s personal phone number, and Byron was never invited to his home.”
Hogan was the first of the American Triumvirate to die, passing in July of 1997, after a bout of bronchitis and two years after colon cancer surgery.
With Hogan’s passing, Nelson was quoted saying he wished Hogan would have opened up more to the world.
“It always struck me as unfortunate that Ben Hogan never really permitted the world to see who he really was,” Nelson said. “And by that, I mean to say not just the cold and intimidating figure so many people think of, but the nice man I knew growing up, and the friend I grew close to when we traveled together.”
Dodson says Hogan’s wife, Valerie, was so offended by the comment that she scratched Nelson’s name off the pallbearer’s list. Snead, however, was among the pallbearers.
“Sam told Valerie in the car, `I loved Ben, he was just the best there ever was,’” Dodson said. “And Valerie reached over and patted Sam and said, `He loved you, too. He loved you best.’”
Even in death, the relationships were complicated by what was won and lost over the years. But Dodson said even after Hogan and Nelson drifted apart, Hogan never forgot the kindness and support Nelson offered as Hogan struggled early in his career.
Snead died in 2002, six weeks after the Masters, four days before his 90th birthday.
Nelson was the last to go, passing in September of 2006.
“It’s an extraordinary story, these three guys,” Dodson said. “We’re in a time where athletes grow up preordained from an early age, where there are systems for growing athletes. These three guys never imagined they were going to be wealthy or famous. That always surprised all three of them. They became so dominant, and they did it traveling across the land in cars and sleeping in crummy little motels. It’s an extraordinary story. It’s very American, their story.”