1912: A Year That Changed The Game - Ben Hogan
- By Rex Hoggard
- Mar 15, 2012 8:00 AM ET
FORT WORTH, Texas – At the 1967 Ryder Cup in Houston Al Geiberger was a lanky rookie on a U.S. team that was in the middle of 13-match winning streak when non-playing captain Ben Hogan walked up to offer the week’s only advice.
“Don’t lose,” the stoic captain icily told the newcomer.
It was quintessential Hogan, gruff and unapologetic and perfectly placed with hundreds of other similarly indifferent anecdotes that have come to define the game’s most mysterious figure. Since Hogan’s death in 1997, it is the stories, more so than the man, that are real.
But on a cold February morning at Colonial Country Club the first of many Hogan illusions and assumptions begin falling with, of all things, his historic U.S. Open record. Hogan, you see, claims he won five U.S. Opens, not the four the U.S. Golf Association now gives him credit for.
In a small alcove on the second floor of Colonial’s stately clubhouse is a Hogan shrine that is filled with assorted golf clubs, pictures, one of his signature hats and tucked perfectly behind a glass frame five nearly identical U.S. Open medals.
The medals represent victories at the U.S. Open in 1948, ’50, ’51 and ’53 and the 1942 Hale America Open, which was played instead of the U.S. Open that year yet awarded a nearly identical “Open” medal and was considered by Hogan his 10th major.
It is a telling piece of omitted golf history, yet it doesn’t begin to span the gulf between the Hogan myth and the much more complicated man.
One story, traded like currency over the years, suggested that all one needed to know about Hogan was that he lived in a one-bedroom house in the tony Westover Hills neighborhood adjacent Shady Oaks Country Club for most of his adult life, eschewing company of any kind and the trappings of social interaction.
Lost in that generality is the famous corner table that once overlooked Shady Oaks’ ninth and 18th greens and where Hogan spent nearly every lunch hour with a group of friends affectionately referred to as the “gang-some.”
Hogan would dine each day at an eight-top table, normally on his standard navy bean soup and a hamburger. Sometimes he would play a few holes, but mostly he would drive a golf cart to some corner of the property that afforded him the desired right-to-left wind he enjoyed holding his signature fade against.
In this the stories seem to dovetail with reality. Hogan was a driven perfectionist whose career was nearly derailed by a snap hook and a near-fatal car crash in 1949. He spent countless hours, and more than a few sleepless nights, perfecting an action that would set the standard for shot making.
“One day he spent almost the entire session hitting wedges,” recalls Jody Vasquez, who started working at Shady Oaks as a caddie in 1964 when he was 16 and later wrote “Afternoons with Mr. Hogan.” “I asked him later why he was only hitting wedges and he said he couldn’t get the ball to do what he wanted it to do and that it didn’t feel right. For him it was the only way to do things, until they were right.”
Few outside of Hogan’s circle of competitive contemporaries can appreciate the surgical artistry of the Hawk’s swing like those who shagged golf balls for him in the Texas heat.
Lindy Miller – who would go on to have a respectable professional career on the PGA, Champions and Nationwide tours – would volunteer as a teenager to shag balls for Hogan.
“It was a pretty easy deal,” recalls Miller. “You’d put the bag down and he’d hit seven or eight shots per club all the way through the bag. You never had to move more than two or three steps to get the ball.”
The USGA may have named the famous hitting machine Iron Byron after Hogan’s rival Byron Nelson, but it was the Hawk’s repeatable action that would be remembered as machine like, and he came by it honestly.
The man who would become arguably the game’s best ballstriker was nearly forced out of golf by a devastating hook. His first four years on tour he never finished better than 48th in earnings and those early seasons were a constant ways-and-means struggle.
Hogan, who was as meticulous in his record keeping as he was with his golf swing, chronicled his career in a collection of black notebooks that now rest alongside dozens of golf clubs deep within the bowels of Shady Oaks. On each page, listed in clinical fashion, is an account of tournaments played, prize money won and caddie fees. In May 1938, one notation stands out for $285 in earnings; the tie for sixth at the Oakland Open was Hogan’s largest check of the season and, more importantly, something of an economic stimulus plan.
“He had his tires stolen off his car that week,” said Robert Stennett, the executive director of the Ben Hogan Foundation who grew up at Shady Oaks. “That was the most important check of his career.”
The stories of Hogan’s swing are as mysterious and varied as his signature stoicism. Some say the famous swing secret was nothing more than hard work.
“Do not try to swing the golf club like him, try to work like him,” Vasquez says. “His emotional commitment to what he’s doing was amazing. He would tell people who would ask him for a lesson that the best lesson he could give them was to hit 10,000 balls. Once you’ve hit 10,000 balls one way or another that 10,001st ball is going to be better than the one they start with.”
Others say his countless hours dissecting the golf swing had actually unearthed a singular notion that simplified the art of playing golf to the extreme and his book “Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf” is still relevant decades after it was published.
But what was more important, at least to Hogan, was that his peers thought he had a secret.
“If you played golf with the same three guys every week wouldn’t you want them to think that you had a secret,” says Mike Wright, Shady Oaks' longtime head professional.
What wasn’t a secret was Hogan’s dominance during an era that included Nelson and Sam Snead, who were also born in 1912. In June 1950 Hogan won the U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club just 16 months after a collision with a bus on a desolate Texas road nearly took his life.
Hogan spent two months in a hospital and an assortment of injuries likely cut short his career. In 1954 he played 24 events but he never played more than 20 tournaments in a single season again. His last Tour event was in 1970 in Houston when he was 57, although he continued to be a Shady Oaks staple for years afterward.
But if the 1949 accident defined Hogan’s adult life, his early years were also molded by tragedy. Shortly after the Hogan family moved to Fort Worth from tiny Dublin, Texas, Hogan’s father shot and killed himself. Ben was 9.
Across town from Shady Oaks, in a scruffy, less-healed corner of Fort Worth, is Glen Garden Golf & Country Club. If Shady Oaks offered a glimpse into the complex Hogan psyche, Glen Garden is the ultimate snapshot into how he became that way.
Shady Oaks is where Hogan perfected his famous action and felt most comfortable encircled by a small yet close set of friends, while Glen Garden is where Hogan fell for the game, if not the people associated with it.
It was the ultimate cosmic tumbler that landed Hogan and Nelson in the same caddie yard and for armchair psychologists much can be gleaned from their time together.
From the outset, Nelson was one of Glen Garden’s own, growing up in a house adjacent the club’s third fairway, while Hogan walked to the club almost every day, a distance of about seven miles.
History says Nelson beat Hogan in a nine-hole caddie tournament in December of 1927, but various versions of the story suggest that even as a teenager Hogan’s gruff exterior, or social aloofness, depending on who one asks, defined him.
“There was a rumor that Hogan was leading after nine holes and a member extended the match another nine holes,” says Glen Garden’s head professional Jason Rocha. “Nelson was their favorite.”
In 2000, Nelson attended the ground breaking for Glen Garden’s new clubhouse. As best anyone can tell Hogan never made the 30-minute drive across town to visit his old club, but that probably had more to do with the painful association with youthful memories than any lingering distaste for the club.
“I would equate it to there is a level of pain in your life, why would you want to revisit that pain?” Vasquez reasons.
It was as a caddie at Glen Garden, however, where Hogan met Fort Worth businessman Marvin Leonard. Some say Leonard would become something of a surrogate father to Hogan while others contend it was more of a close friendship. Either way, Leonard – who founded Colonial Country Club and Shady Oaks – played a profound role in Hogan’s life.
“They were best of friends,” Vasquez says. “If it hadn’t been for Leonard I don’t think (Hogan) could financially do it. (Hogan) literally failed his first few years, so he had to have some help. It was more of a big brother type deal, someone emotionally that he leaned on.”
The man who famously lived in that one-bedroom house would hold court almost daily at Shady Oaks, even on Mondays when the club was closed, with Leonard and the other members of the “gang-some,” a group that included oil wildcatter W.A. “Monty” Moncrief and Western Company founder Eddie Chiles.
The group would play three to four times a week and Hogan would make the occasional cameo. If Hogan was aloof to his tour contemporaries, he was at least accommodating to the Shady Oaks faithful.
“One day Mr. Hogan was eating lunch at his table (in the Shady Oaks grill) and these two little girls are walking by and they hear a tap on the glass and there he is sticking his tongue out at them and laughing,” Stennett recalls. “He was probably most approachable by a young person. He had a soft spot for kids.”
It’s these stories that fail to dovetail with the legend of the Hawk that offer a glimpse behind the legend’s steely blue eyes.
He would, if asked correctly, sign autographs, pose for pictures and even offer the occasional tip on his way to one of his normal practice spots on Shady Oaks’ “little nine” course or adjacent the 11th fairway.
Wright, who met Hogan as a 21-year-old assistant pro at Shady Oaks, even recalls a particularly emotional moment following the death of the “club dog,” a beat-up schnauzer named Buster who had been nearly killed a few years earlier by a UPS truck.
Buster would sit in a golf cart while Hogan hit golf balls until the dog’s death in 1993. One night shortly after Buster’s death Hogan and his wife, Valerie, came to the club for dinner.
“Mrs. Hogan asked me to show Ben where Buster’s grave was,” Wright says. “He took his hat off and put it over his heart, kissed his finger tips and put them on the grave and stood there a moment . . . There is a very unique side to him.”
It’s a side that goes far beyond the anecdotal encounters that have come to define Hogan.
Gary Player, who had turned down an endorsement deal with the Ben Hogan Co. and signed with Dunlop, once called Hogan in search of a swing tip. After a short conversation Hogan ended the call with a terse, “Ask Mr. Dunlop.”
But that story, like so many others, rings hollow when compared with the softer side of the Hawk. Hogan was complicated and curt and, according to Stennett, “he didn’t suffer fools.” Yet the only constant in his life, other than Valerie, was an affinity for golf that reached well beyond the thrill of competition.
In the mid-1990s, not long before his death, Wright remembers Hogan emerging from the club room with his driver and three golf balls.
“The 10th hole runs south and I watched him tee up his driver and hit one, a classic little fade. He teed up another one and hit close to the first one,” Wright recalls. “Now I’m paying attention, he hits the next one real close to the first two. I never saw him hit balls again.”
For a man who seemed to have no use for misplaced sentimentality the episode offers an endearing snapshot into a psyche that defies instant analysis. It’s enough to make one believe that the myth didn’t exactly fit the man.
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