“I dreamed one night that I had 17 holes-in-one and one two, and when I woke up I was so goddam mad.” – Ben Hogan
By Ian Hardie
Ben Hogan was an American professional golfer who was widely considered to be one of the greatest players in the history of the game of golf.
In fact by the time you have finished reading this – you may even consider him to have actually been the best when a few things are factored into the equation.
However, golf is a game that is really only judged on actual results.
So, I’m going to leave him as ‘one of the best at this point’.
As his nine career professional major championships mean that he is tied with Gary Player for fourth all-time on the list behind:
Jack Nicklaus with 18, Tiger Woods with 14 and Walter Hagen with 11.
He is one of only five golfers to have won all four major championships currently open to professionals:
The Masters Tournament, the (British) Open in which he only played once! the U.S. Open and the USPGA Championship.
Currently the other four to have done that are Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Gary Player, and Gene Sarazen.
During his playing career he amassed 69 professional victories of which 64 were on the PGA Tour.
You might be excused for thinking at this point that someone that good – probably came from a privileged background (golf was an elite game back then) and was always destined for golfing greatness but as you will find out – Ben Hogan’s life wasn’t anything like that.
When Ben Hogan was nine, his father Chester committed suicide by self-inflicted gunshot at the family home – it’s been said that Chester committed suicide in front of him – which many people have suggested was the cause of his very introverted personality in later years.
Following his father’s suicide, the family was left in financial difficulty and the children all had to take jobs to help their seamstress mother make ends meet – meaning that at age 9.
Ben Hogan sold newspapers after school at the nearby train station.
When Ben was 11, a friend suggested that he start caddying at Glen Garden Country Club.
As was the custom in those days the young caddies would all eventually pick up a club or two after their ‘work’ and start emulating the golfers they had carried the bag for – sneaking on to the course when it was quiet and playing a few holes.
After becoming ‘too old’ to work as a caddy at age 16 – Ben Hogan having become hooked on the game – continued his development at three public courses in the area: Katy Lake, Worth Hills, and Z-Boaz.
Dropping out of High School during the final semester of his senior year, Ben Hogan became a professional golfer at the Texas Open in San Antonio in late January 1930 – six months shy of his 18th birthday.
His early years as a pro were very difficult for three reasons:
First, there wasn’t much money on the PGA Tour in those days so making a living was tough and in fact most competitors also held down club pro jobs as well as playing on tour.
Second, when compared with the other golfers who were competing, Ben Hogan simply wasn’t as good a player as they were at that time – he was close but not quite at their level.
Third, he ‘battled a hook’ during almost every round he played – which basically means that he was unable to stop his golf ball going to the left in a vicious curve when he hit it.
Something that he later ‘cured’ as you will find out.
The combination of those three things resulted in him going broke more than once during those first ten years but he found a way to continue persevering with the game – winning his first pro tournament as an individual in March 1940, which led to him winning three consecutive tournaments in a row.
Having figured out how to control his game well enough to win on a regular basis, Ben Hogan went on to top the PGA Tour money list in 1940, 1941 and 1942 while winning a total of 15 PGA Tour events but something was still missing – he hadn’t won a Major championship.
World War Two intervened at that point and Ben Hogan served in the U.S. Army Air Forces from March 1943 to June 1945 becoming a utility pilot with the rank of lieutenant stationed at Fort Worth, Texas.
Once the war had ended and the PGA tour resumed, Ben Hogan picked up where he left off – winning 37 tournaments between 1945 and early 1949 including his first 3 major championships – the 1946 and 1948 PGA Championship and the 1948 US Open.
He was beginning to be considered almost unbeatable but then everything changed early one morning, near Van Horn, Texas on February 2, 1949.
Ben Hogan and his wife Valerie survived a head-on collision with a Greyhound bus on a fog-shrouded bridge with what has been suggested to be the selfless act of Ben Hogan throwing himself across Valerie in order to protect her from the crash.
As you can see from the image below – he would have been killed had he not done so, as the steering column punctured the driver’s seat (you can see it to the left of the word ‘reckless’).
The accident left Ben Hogan at age 36, with a double-fracture of the pelvis, a fractured collar bone, a left ankle fracture, a chipped rib, and near-fatal blood clots (he would go on to suffer lifelong circulation problems and other physical limitations).
His doctors said he might never walk again, let alone play golf competitively.
This was something that Ben Hogan couldn’t personally allow – so upon leaving the hospital 59 days after the accident he threw himself into regaining his strength through extensive walking and other exercises – by November 1949 he was back on the golf course.
Returning to the PGA Tour to start the 1950 season – he tied with Sam Snead over 72 holes at his first event – the Los Angeles Open but lost the 18-hole playoff the next day.
Playing a much reduced schedule of events due to the lingering effects of his accident – Ben Hogan only won a single tournament that year – his 2nd US Open title.
Winning three events in 1951 – his first Masters, his 3rd US Open and a PGA Tour title and a single PGA Tour title in 1952 – most people considered Ben Hogan to be doing fantastically well considering his physical state after the accident.
In 1953, that all changed when Ben Hogan had his finest year of golf.
A year in which he won five of the six tournaments he entered – including three major championships – The Masters, the US Open and the (British) Open (a feat that was known as the Triple Crown of Golf back then).
It still stands among the greatest single seasons in the history of professional golf.
The big question is, would Ben Hogan have been able to win what’s currently known as The Grand Slam – all four Major golf championships in the same year?
We will never know as Ben Hogan, was unable to enter — and possibly win — the 1953 PGA Championship because its play (July 1–7) overlapped the play of the British Open at Carnoustie (July 6–10) which he had previously committed to attend.
Something that simply isn’t possible these days – due to an effectively global tour when it comes to large events but back then – no one would have even considered the possibility of someone winning all of the Major’s in a single year.
It’s worth noting that at the time of writing – the only other time that a golfer has won three major professional championships in a year – was when Tiger Woods won the final three majors in 2000.
Ben Hogan would however, only win once more on tour after that stunning year – the 1959 Colonial National Invitation.
Although his ball striking was still as good as ever from tee to green.
His putting had deteriorated to the point of being a poor putter by professional standards as a result of his 1949 car accident – which nearly blinded his left eye and impaired his depth perception greatly.
Toward the end of his career, Ben Hogan often stood over the ball for an inordinately long period of time before drawing his putter back – a sure sign that he was suffering badly from the putting “yips”.
In fact, one of his most famous quotes sum up his struggles on the green:
“Hitting a golf ball and putting have nothing in common. They’re two different games. You work all your life to perfect a repeating swing that will get you to the greens, and then you have to try to do something that is totally unrelated. There shouldn’t be any cups, just flag sticks. And then the man who hit the most fairways and greens and got closest to the pins would be the tournament winner.”
Ben Hogan is widely acknowledged to have been among the greatest ball strikers ever to have played golf – even though he had a formidable record as a tournament winner – it is this aspect of Hogan which mostly underpins his modern reputation but I’m not so sure that was his greatest strength.
It was simply the result of how he applied himself to the game in a way that was different to what most of the other golfers were doing at that time – for a start.
Ben Hogan was known to practice more than any other golfer at the time.
In fact, it’s said that he ‘invented’ what we now know as ‘practice’.
When asked about that Ben Hogan said “You hear stories about me beating my brains out practicing, but… I was enjoying myself. I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning, so I could hit balls. When I’m hitting the ball where I want, hard and crisply, it’s a joy that very few people experience.”
That wasn’t the only thing he did differently though, as he was also one of the first players to match particular clubs to yardages or reference points around the course such as bunkers or trees – in order to improve his distance control.
Something that a modern player doesn’t think twice about doing but back then was seldom thought of as useful.
Interestingly, Ben Hogan played and practiced golf with only bare-hands.
He never wore a golf glove as he felt that it reduced the amount of feeling he could sense from the leather grips of his golf clubs.
Ben Hogan is thought to have developed a “secret” which made his swing nearly automatic and there are many theories as to its exact nature – I’m not going to discuss what that was (or wasn’t) – as having read a few of the ideas about what it was over the years.
I’m not so sure that was his real point of difference over the other golfers.
Known as “The Hawk” – he possessed a fierce determination and an iron will, which combined with his unquestionable golf skills – formed an aura which could intimidate opponents into competitive submission.
He had built himself a golf swing that was designed to perform better – the more pressure he put it under – and as he was fond of saying ‘he dug it out of the dirt’.
Ben Hogan rarely spoke to anyone during competition and if he did, they would be only a few carefully selected words – such was his focus on the task at hand.
He was highly respected by fellow competitors for his superb course management skills – in fact during his peak years – he rarely, if ever attempted a shot in competition which he had not hit in one of his daily practice sessions.
A secret move in his golf swing?
He was so well prepared and focused that he didn’t really need one.
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