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An Odd Couple

It crops up every year, like Love Grass at Pinehurst and heartbreak in Wrigleyville. Each season on the eve of the PGA Tour’s annual stop at Colonial the golf world inevitably pauses to remember Ben Hogan. Driven, introverted and, more often than not, curt, Hogan has spawned more tales of woe and wonder than perhaps any other person who has played the game.

Ask any professional who has been around long enough to have played persimmon woods and conforming grooves, before there were non-conforming grooves, and chances are they’ve got a “Hawk” story.

Al Geiberger remembers playing on his first Ryder Cup team in 1967 when Hogan was the captain. What words of wisdom did his skipper have for the rookie?

“Just two, ‘Don’t lose,’” Geiberger laughed.

Gary Player once called Hogan in search of a swing tip. Hogan, angry with the South African for not playing Hogan Co. clubs, asked what clubs Player used. “Dunlop,” Player answered. Hogan told him to call Mr. Dunlop and hung up.

Fans look at a statue of Ben Hogan at the Colonial
Fans look at a statue of Ben Hogan at the Colonial Country Club (Getty Images)
“Hawk” stories flow like purely hit shots off Hogan’s famous 1-iron, but all one ever had to know about the man is that he lived most of his life in a one-bedroom house with his wife, Valerie.

All of which makes a recent conversation with former LPGA great Jan Stephenson that much more remarkable.

“He was an absolute sweetheart,” Stephenson said without a single qualifier or the faintest hint of hyperbole.

That’s Hogan, Ben – the winner of nine majors, five Colonials and the author of golf’s greatest comeback after a 1949 car accident?

“He was certainly not the Hogan that I had heard about. Maybe he enjoyed female company better than men,” said Stephenson, who met Hogan in the late 1970s when she became a member of Shady Oaks, Hogan’s Fort Worth-area club. “Everyone said to call him Mr. Hogan, but I called him Benny, because in Australia you always put a ‘y’ on the end.”

Shady Oaks is less than a five-minute drive from Colonial – one of two golf courses and a golf hole, along with Riviera and the sixth at Carnoustie in Scotland, dubbed “Hogan’s Alley” – and it’s where Stephenson knew she could find Hogan nearly every afternoon, eating lunch, hitting balls, enjoying an afternoon cocktail.

“He did the same thing every day from 9 (a.m.) to 12. Have his meal. Go out and practice and then two vodka martinis,” she said.

It was that routine that Stephenson was drawn to. Hogan wouldn’t hit balls on Shady Oak’s practice tee. Instead he set up shop near a tree adjacent the club’s nine-hole par-3 course. With each club he would hit two fades, two draws and one straight shot before moving under the tree where he would create a recovery shot because, “you never know when you’ll need that shot.”

It’s interesting that Stephenson was spared the Hawk’s wrath when she switched from Hogan Co. equipment to that of a competitor. “If some company is crazy enough to pay you that much (money) you have to go,” Hogan told her.

It’s also worth noting that Stephenson didn’t actually play much golf with Hogan during her 15 odds years at Shady Oaks. Instead, the two would hit balls together, the young Australian phenom studying the legend’s routine and attention to detail.

“You need to go practice,” Hogan would tell her.

“You need to hit this shot,” he would bark, and when Stephenson said she couldn’t hit a particular shot, “Why not? You need to learn to do it.”

“He always wanted to help me but when he did I hit it horrible,” Stephenson remembers.

That certainly doesn’t sound like the same man who once told Mark O’Meara, according to a recent story in Golfweek magazine, he would watch him hit balls but, “I might say something, I might not.”

Stephenson does, however, remember a quintessential Hogan hang up – putting. Hogan, never considered one of the game’s better putters, believed that putting was over-rated, so much so he once proposed a variation of the game to the U.S. Golf Association that diminished the importance of the flat stick.

“He practiced putting for 15 or 20 minutes every day. I used to laugh at him, ‘It’s like your penance,’” Stephenson said. “If Ben broke it down technically like he did his full swing he could have been a good putter. If things could have been different . . . I wish.”

For Stephenson, an extrovert with an outgoing and inviting personality, Hogan was different. The man who called most people “fella,” including legends Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, was different at Shady Oaks.

“I remember eating lunch at Shady Oaks one day, he always had lunch in the men’s grill, and he came out and said, ‘Why are you not dressed in golf clothes,’” Stephenson recalled. “He told me, ‘Go buy some clothes.’ I’m not going to buy clothes. We were like a couple.”

An odd, and endearing, couple, to be sure.