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Book Review: Ben Hogan -- An American Life

I first learned about Ben Hogan watching the Golf Channel. Oh, I'd heard his name before but other than that, I knew next to nothing about him. I was intrigued by someone who--long after his retirement--loved spending his free time on the golf course driving balls. For Ben Hogan, a lifelong workaholic, it was a way to relax.

For this reason I picked up and read "Ben Hogan: An American Life", by James Dodson. It's a lovely portrait of one of golfing's greats, a book I found endlessly fascinating. I particularly enjoyed Dodson's descriptions of the great golf courses, and of how Hogan performed on them. Indeed, Dodson has the unique gift of recreating the drama of world-class golfers competing on some of the world's most difficult holes in golf, under terrific pressure, and particularly of how Hogan fared during his time of the tour. My one complaint with Dodson's book is that it doesn't have an index.


Before Tiger Woods, before Jack Nicklaus, indeed, before Arnold Palmer, Ben Hogan was the best golfer on the planet. Between 1940 and 1959, excluding the nearly-two years he was in the U.S. Air Corps during World War II, and one year in the hospital recovering from a near-fatal car crash, Hogan won sixty-eight golf tournaments and dominated professional golf as no one before ever had (including the great Bobby Jones), a total that included four U.S. Opens, a pair of PGA Championships, two Masters Championships, and the only British Open Championship he ever played in. Only four times has a PGA Tour player achieved double-digit victories in one calendar year. Hogan has done it twice--with thirteen wins in 1946, and with ten wins in 1948.


Ben Hogan was a sharp dresser. None of the garish colors and loud plaids for him. Writes the author: "His chosen attire was simple, expensively made, immaculately maintained, and almost always muted in shade . . . flannel grays and muted blues . . . and no commercial logo ever graced a garment Hogan wore in the public eye or in competition." The author quotes golfer Tom Weiskopf's reaction in seeing Hogan: "The first thing that struck me about Ben Hogan . . . was his perfect clothes. His shoes were immaculate, his belt always looks brand-new . . . The creases in his pants looked as it they had just been pressed . . . Nobody ever looked the way Hogan did." Hogan favored driving a black Cadillac Fleetwood.

Interestingly, Hogan was a natural left-hander, until taking up golf, when (inexplicably) he switched to being a right-hander. Like most golfing greats, Ben Hogan stood just under six feet tall, at a trim and fit five-feet-nine inches. He wore a fedora in public, and a white flat-hat on the golf course.


The most famous photo in all of golf was taken of Ben Hogan on the 72nd hole at Merion Golf Club, during the 50th United States Open Championship. Writes the author: "The elegant black-and-white photograph provides rich visual detail of what many consider to be the most marvelous clutch shot ever played in the throes of Open competition." It's a photo taken from behind Hogan, at the moment he follows through on a long drive, with upraised hands clutching his one-iron driver over his head. Before him lays the down-sloping fairway, and distant flag on the eighteenth green, with fans lined three-deep on all sides. After a near perfect drive, Hogan would go on to birdie the hole and win the tournament.


Because Hogan was among the least athletic of golfing greats, he had to practice relentlessly to compete and win. Tournaments were won or lost, he believed, almost entirely in how well one prepared. He said, "The more I practice, the luckier I get." Between tournaments, he hit at least six hundred golf balls twice a day: three balls every minute for three-and-a-half hours in the morning, followed by three-and-a-half hours of practice in the afternoon. Playing in the actual tournament, he said, was "almost secondary," an anticlimax--"simply going through the motions," as he put it. He once told the Dallas Morning News: "I always wished the days were longer so I could practice and work (more)."


It was golfing great Bobby Jones who said it: a golfer is only as good as the players he's up against. In Hogan's time it was fellow Texan Byron Nelson, and the wry Virginian, Sam Sneed. Together, the three of them officially collected 208 tournament victories and 17 majors and, more lastingly, says the author, "transformed American golf from a largely sleepy rich man's country club game into a national obsession and major spectator sport--quadrupling post World War II purses and galleries in less than two decades on the job." The three so dominated American golf they became known as "The Great American Triumvirate."


Ben Horgan was born in the small West Texas frontier town of Stephenville, on August 13, 1912. His childhood was relatively happy, until his ninth year, when his father--whom he worshipped--took his own life with a pistol shot to the heart. After that, the emotionally devastated family moved seventy miles northeast to Forth Worth. The author says his father's suicide helps explain Hogan's reticence around strangers, and his tightly held emotions.

At age 11, young Ben took a job as a caddy at the nine-hole Glen Gardens Country Club, outside Fort Worth, thus beginning his life-long obsession with golf (among his fellow caddies at Glen Garden was Byron Nelson.) In his spare time, Hogan practiced his golf swing relentlessly, in the hope of becoming a teaching pro. While his swing improved markedly, he learned he had little patience teaching others. Indeed, once he was famous, the requests for private lessons skyrocketed, and while Hogan turned down one and all, he would offer advice to a new touring pro, if asked.

Hogan and Nelson entered a few local tournaments, one of which Nelson won in a playoff with Hogan (shades of things to come). Encouraged, Hogan dropped out of high school during his senior year, and turned pro six months shy of his 18th birthday.

Hogan met his future wife, Valerie Fox, in Sunday school. However, any plans of getting married depended on Hogan making a living, which he found very difficult playing golf during the Great Depression. He was always broke, worked various odd jobs, and continued to work hard improving his game. With help from friends, he managed to rent his first place, and in 1935, married Valerie Fox, in a quiet ceremony at her parents' home.

Of the two, the naturally flamboyant and outgoing Byron Nelson found success early on the tour, while Hogan struggled. Indeed, Byron Nelson was winning majors long before Hogan. It was painful to read about the many occasions Hogan came close to winning, and fell short, often in a playoff. Hogan's breakthrough year was 1940, when at age 27, he won his first tournament (the first of three consecutive events), in North Carolina. After these three wins, coupled with a few endorsements, life became much easier; Hogan bought his first Cadillac, and his wife joined him on the tour.

Hogan's next obstacle, was winning his first major. Once again, he came close many times, until his breakthrough win, which didn't come until after he had enlisted in the U.S. Army Corps, taking the PGA title in 1946. Two years later, he won his second PGA title, and his first U.S. Open. Those two years--1946 and 1948--were among Hogan's most dominant years, accruing a total of 23 wins. However, the best was yet come.


Such was Hogan's success on the golf course, in early 1949, he was the subject of a Time Magazine cover story. The magazine appeared on newsstands while Hogan was playing in a golf tournament at the Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles, a tournament he had dominated so thoroughly they referred to the golf course as "Hogan's Alley." Hogan played poorly that year, commenting afterward: "It was just one of those things." After a brief stopover in Phoenix, Hogan pointed his Cadillac toward his home in Fort Worth, Texas. Two days later, on the final leg of his journey, motoring in a light fog on route 80, he was struck head-on by a Grey Hound bus. Had he not been driving at a reduced speed of about 30 mph (due to the fog), and taken quick evasive action, it's likely Hogan and his wife would have been killed.

An hour-and-a-half after the accident, an ambulance arrived to take the couple to a hospital in El Paso. While Hogan suffered several broken ribs, the worst of his injuries was to his legs. The examining doctor predicated Hogan would never walk again, let alone ever play golf again. However, once out of the cast, ever goal-minded, Hogan set his sight on winning the 1950 U.S. Open. While still in the hospital, he fought off excruciating pain, and managed to take his first steps. When he returned to the golf course one month after the accident, it was not to practice his swing, but to walk the golf course to regain his leg strength.

One year after the accident, Hogan returned to the PGA Tour at, where else? -- Hogan's Alley--for the Los Angeles Open. While perpetually tired from walking the hilly course, his golf game was as sharp as ever. He tied Sam Snead over 72 holes, but, having run out of steam, lost to Snead in an 18-hole playoff. While he didn't win a single tournament that spring, the level of his game was such that he was among the favorites to win that year's U.S. Open.

Just outside Philadelphia, the course at the Merion Golf Club, was devilish, and presented particular problems for Hogan, because the final 36 holes were to be played in one day, which for Hogan meant walking the 18-hole golf course twice, and being on his feet for six hours. While Hogan's game was as good as ever, the question was whether or not his legs were up to the challenge.

Hogan struggled while walking between holes, but kept his focus, and put himself in a position to win. And thanks to his miraculous play on the eighteen hole (the subject of the famous Hogan photograph), came from two strokes behind to win by a single stroke.


Hogan's auto accident and miraculous comeback, was the stuff of Hollywood. Sure enough, in 1951 Hollywood came calling, and with Hogan's cooperation made a movie about his career, entitled "Follow the Sun", with Glen Ford in the starring role. While Hogan personally coached Ford to mimic his swing, he was never satisfied and, to give the movie greater authenticity did several stand-ins for Ford, as himself. While the movie did well in the box office, the critics generally panned it.

However, Hogan's golf career was far from over. He gave himself several goals to shoot for: winning ihis first Masters, and his third U.S. Open. Both of which he accomplished, capping his best season to date. However the best was yet to come. In 1953, he won both the Masters and the U.S. Open, and set his sight on a new target: The Open Championship (a.k.a. the British Open), which was being played that year at the Carnoustie golf course, in Scotland.


Links golf in Great Britain was a decidedly different game than American golf, and those who didn't know Hogan well, predicted he would fail. However, those familiar with Hogan's thorough preparation, believed he would adjust his game and find a way to win. Hogan's preparation called for him to arrive early in Scotland, get a hotel room near the course, find a local caddy, and spend the week before the tournament, practicing from sunup to sundown. Typical of Hogan, while he employed a caddy experienced with the vagaries of the Carnoustie links golf course, he did not seek or want advice, wishing to avoid anything that might interrupt his laser-focus.

While Hogan was a quick study on mastering the art of links golf, the best he could manage in the opening round was 73, which was very good for a first-timer on the toughest links golf course in Scotland. With each round, however, Hogan played progressively better, with a 71 on Day Two, a 70 on Day Three, and a sparkling 68 on Day Four, to cap a remarkable win. Writes the author: ". . . missing only one fairway in 108 holes of golf, Ben's Carnoustie triumph matched any championship in Open history for drama and courage. . . ." After winning, Hogan and his wife boarded an ocean liner to New York.

Like a conquering hero returning from an oversea's war, Hogan was welcomed in New York with a ticker-tape parade down Broadway.


Being something of a fussbudget with his own golf clubs, it was probably inevitable Hogan would form a company to manufacture golf clubs, which is what he did in 1953, producing Ben Hogan Golf Clubs.


Hogan's next goal was to win a record fifth U.S. Open, which in 1955, was being held for the first time at the Olympic golf course in San Francisco. Hogan played exceedingly well, well enough to win the tournament outright. That said, he was outplayed by a young Jeff Fleck, who had come from seven strokes back to tie Hogan on Saturday, after a grueling thirty-six holes of continuous golf. In a playoff, the following day, Fleck bested an emotionally-drained Hogan by three strokes. Ironically, Fleck beat Hogan with golf clubs bearing Hogan's name, which Ben had given him gratis mere days before the tournament began.

Golf is a maddeningly difficult game. The general idea is to hit a very tiny ball down the fairway, avoiding the tall grass and trees on either side, then strike it safely onto the putting green, and sink it in the cup. And do it with the fewest strokes as possible.

Thanks to his incessant practice on the driving range, Hogan was a master at keeping the ball safely on the fairway. As he grew older, however, and especially after his car accident, which impaired his vision slightly, his difficulty was in sinking the ball in the cup. And it cost him several tournament wins in the later half of the 1950s.

He played well enough to win in the '56 Open, but on the closing holes was let down by his putter, with several near misses, and finished second once again. In 1958 and '59 he played well enough to finish in the top ten. In 1960, after 54 holes, he was in contention once again, with several pundits predicting that this time Hogan would win his record fifth U.S. Open Championship. However, a combination of tired legs and an errant putter let him down, and once again failed to win, but did finish in the top ten.

The great Jack Nicklaus, new to the Tour , and in contention until late on the final day, found himself paired with Hogan in an early round. Later, Nicklaus said, he'd been led to believe from other Tour players that playing with Hogan was a draining experience. "'Hogan was cold,' they said, 'and he concentrated so explicitly on his own game that he was hardly aware that anyone else was on the course.' This, I discovered early in the day, was absolutely wrong. Ben couldn't have been pleasanter to play with. He didn't talk a great deal, but whenever I produced a better than average stroke, he'd say, 'Good shot,' and in a way that you knew he meant it. In a word, he treated me like a fellow competitor, and I liked him."


After retiring from the Tour, Hogan sat down and wrote "Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf". The book became an instant best seller, and today is considered a classic on the game of golf.

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