The Hogan We Never Knew

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I have this recurring dream in which Im playing golf with the great Ben Hogan.
 
Of course, this is something akin to an apprentice barn painter on professional probation dreaming that he is talking shop with Rubens, Picasso and Da Vinci. But the dream persists.
 
At first, I am nervous about making mistakes and disturbing the great mans rhythm. But as he says very little and maintains an even demeanor, I soon relax and find that Im able to keep pace and enjoy the day.
 
Long about the 13th hole, after hearing no more than Youre away and Check behind the palmetto, we see a bald eagle fly low over the pond fronting the green of the par-3 where we are about to tee off. We watch it sail into the distance. Mr. Hogan stares into the sky, pronounces a single word ' Pretty. ' and sets up over the 6-iron that he will soon cut to about 18 inches.
 
Ah, another side. Trouble with history is that it can miss facets, those intriguing tributaries that run parallel to the mainstream of a personality. The stuff that doesnt make it into the primary source material, the basis of written history, is often left outside to erode in the shifting currents of memory.
 
Fortunately, some material, even some memory, survives. Tom Stites, the veteran club designer and director of product creation for Nike Golf, grew up in Fort Worth, as Mr. Hogan did, and worked at The Hawks right hand when Mr. Hogan was making clubs under his name. Much of what he knows about club design, Stites learned in those years. In the new Nike club development center near Fort Worth, Mr. Hogans loft-and-lie machine still occupies a place of honor.
 
Researching a story earlier this year, it struck me as odd that Stites, a Hogan disciple, has designed some of the most modern-looking clubs in the market, including the Slingshot irons and the CCi, a players iron that features a half-cavity and tungsten weighting. And how about the square Sumo2 driver?
 
Or was Mr. Hogan less of a chrome-plated, classic-shape traditionalist than we all took him for?
 
You are the first to ever ask this or scratch close to the real truth, Stites said. Fact: Mr. Hogan was a pros pro who had knowledge, talent and a love for pure clubs. But another part of him was a self-trained and motivated scientist. From what I have learned about his early career, he was constantly working on his own clubs and finding creative ways to improve. He was much more radical in his experiments than most would ever believe.
 
Radical? Mr. Khaki-pants-white-shirt-my-eggs-better-be-cooked-just-so? I mean, I understand he was a nice fellow. But Mr. Hogan had a reputation for exacting standards.
 
He was such a perfectionist (who made and sold pure players clubs), Stites said, that his creative wild side was never really known. He showed me how to fan off the toe of a wood. He was the first (to my knowledge) to put a multiple face bulge on a wood. Both of these things were not obvious, but some of his lab experiences were very non-traditional.
 
Mr. Hogan cut in a geometry channel in the toe ' essentially, a speed slot. During my time working with him we did several very non-traditional designs that would shock anyone who thought Mr. Hogan was only a pure blade and persimmon block man. These prototype projects came directly out of his head and mouth. I saw how he could have a traditional love of pure clubs and still have a kids fascination for creating unusual prototype clubs.
 
And ' this is the best part ' there is a legacy.
 
I learned that it was O.K. to be a traditionalist and a wild inventor, even on the same day, Stites said. So for the last 20 years I have tried to guide my work this way. We make clubs that are pure for look and traditional performance; these clubs have won over one hundred PGA TOUR events and every major several times. We also work hard to craft new techniques and technologies that might be unconventional -- but performance-enhancing ' for those who are less skilled.
 
Which might lead the dream Hogan to utter another pithy sentence ' Nice shot. ' in the next episode of my dream.
 
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