BEN HOGAN - an endless fascination

But this man is not easily deciphered. I suppose it’s entirely appropriate that the search to understand Hogan, the method, and the man, is not easily done. It reflects his own journey through life, at times frustrating, often fruitful, seldom easy. So, how did this one man come to have such a wide ranging effect on the golfing world? Allow me to explain……

In his best years, be they fellow competitors, scribes, teachers, or the golfing public, most people who witnessed Hogan hit a ball believed he was the best striker they’d ever seen, actually, most could not imagine the ball being struck better. Literally exploding off the club face, his shots would streak through the air like rifle shots. Towards the end of their flight they would fall gently to the right, the signature Hogan fade, so marginal you would only pick it if standing directly behind. Besides the directional control, the other aspect of his shots which impressed was the trajectory. When Hogan addressed the ball it was as if a small window opened in the sky to allow his ball to pass through, always at the same consistent height for the particular club in use. As every good player knows, if you control trajectory, you control distance. In the days before yardage books and range finders, Hogan, playing by eye, was renowned for being relentlessly pin high.

The golfing community was understandably fascinated by the swing that could produce this flight. Hogan was not a tall man and weighed only a 135 pounds yet, with a compact action, he was one of the longest hitters of his time. Modern analysts believe he created, then transferred energy more efficiently than anyone in history. When watching top players, especially long hitters, it is evident that their lower body starts moving forward as their upper body, arms and club are still completing the back swing, winding the spring tight. You can usually only pick this up in slow motion. In Hogan’s swing this dynamic move is plainly visible even at normal speed, such was the accentuated nature of this power multiplying move.

Possibly Hogan’s greatest influence on modern technique, however, comes in the area of swing plane. Hogan didn’t invent the idea of swinging on plane, but he certainly elevated its importance in the lexicon of golf speak. His personal image of the ideal plane, (famously rendered by Anthony Ravielli in “Five Lessons”), extended like a pane of glass from the golfer’s shoulders to the ball, is possibly the best known image in all of golf instruction. Generally, if you sit down with a group of teachers, after they stop talking about Hogan, they start talking about the key that unlocks good ball striking, swinging on plane. As Hank Haney, Tiger’s coach says, “Swinging on the correct plane is the most difficult thing in golf because it is the most important thing. In fact, the swing plane isn’t just the most important thing, it is the only thing”

(For the best understanding yet of what made Hogan’s swing tick, refer to Jim Hardy’s ground breaking book “The Plane truth for Golfers”, detailing the workings of the One-Plane Swing, Hogan being its ultimate exponent.)

I think what fascinates people about the development of Hogan’s swing is not just that he became the ultimate technician. There’s been other great strikers, Nicklaus was, and Tiger is a great striker, but they were always great, when they were fifteen, they were both the best  fifteen year old in the world. People admire them, but they can’t necessarily associate with them.  Whatever golfers say about “just playing for the fun of it,” scratch just under the surface and they generally all believe, with enough work, they could maybe be a pretty good player. What’s intriguing to them, about Hogan, is that he seems to have made this progression.  He was really pretty average during his first ten years on tour, having a tendency to hit duck-hooks doesn’t generally lead to instant success. But Hogan was one of the first great practicer's. Saying that he “dug it out of the earth” is a quite literal explanation of the process he went through. In fact, considering it was the time of the Great Depression, he was lucky he lived in Texas and not the mid-west, with the amount of soil he shifted, they might have though he was responsible for creating the Kansas dust bowl!

When he finally did find his personal “Secret,” a weaker grip and fanning the club face open on the back swing, he cured the hook, and was phenomenally successful. For average golfers believing that their own swing secret, however elusive, may be just around the corner is integral to their enjoyment of the game. In fact for many it's the only the reason they keep playing. Hogan’s progression from average to immortal is this philosophy taken to its ultimate expression, proof positive that you can find that one swing thought, that Holy Grail, which makes it all hang together.

Of course it takes work to find it. In later years when people quizzed him about his famous “secret” he was fond of saying “The secret’s in the ground.” Guess what? The bad news for most people, this writer included, is unfortunately, it’s still in there.

Great golf swings on their own mean nothing unless you win with them. A few years ago, when short game guru Dave Pelz was compiling statistics to see who out of the tour players was the most accurate ball striker, a chap named Allen Miller came in second just behind Lee Trevino at an average of just 5.06% off target on all full shots.  Ever heard of him? Don’t worry he’s not alone, golf’s littered with great technicians whose records never quite matched their talents. Moe Norman, Tom Weiskopft, Bobby Clampett, even our own Bob Stanton, could all drop a three iron on a fifty cent coin. However somewhere along the line they either got lost in a mire of technical theory and made unnecessary swing changes, or just never learned how to win.  The list of casualties stretches almost to the end of the practice fairway.  Hogan was different.  Once he worked his swing out, he won with it, and won prolifically. He was driven to perfection but not consumed by it.

Two points are worth noting in considering Hogan’s record of nine major championships and sixty eight total victories. Firstly, for Hogan, putting was a requirement rather than an enjoyment. Hogan aficionados kindly refer to his putting as “streaky.” Yes, there were times when he holed putts, you can’t shoot the kind of scores he shot without doing that. But life on the greens was a constant battle, there were hot days, but more often his putting oscillated between workmanlike and downright awful. As Dave Pelz ascertains “Hogan once said, “Putting is a different game.” And he meant it! Ben thought putting was so different that it shouldn’t count in one’s score.” In an attempt to stare down his demons, a bad day on the greens would inevitably be followed by an evenings practice session on the hotel room carpet. Hogan would commit himself to hitting the leg of a chair a hundred times in a row from six feet. Those nights must have been a lot of fun for Valerie. These are not the actions of a man at ease with the flat stick. It’s a fact of life that if Hogan had been comfortable on the greens his record may well have been greatly enhanced.

The second point: Many felt the horrific 1949 car accident in which Hogan threw himself across his wife Valerie as a Greyhound bus ploughed headlong into them on a fog bound isolated stretch of Texas highway, robbed him of more victories. It may be so, Hogan was just starting to fulfill his potential before the tragic event. But the strange thing is, the swing Hogan rebuilt after the accident was in many ways superior to the first incantation. More compact, reliable and efficient, it was as if the convalescence period had given him time to conceptualise what the perfect action might be, then when he was able to start practicing again, realise it in its physical form.

Hogan was famously taciturn and supposedly without humour, the stories have passed in to golf folklore. Gary Player ringing him late at night to ask a question about the swing only to be asked what brand of clubs he was playing, “Slazenger” replied Player, “Well maybe you should ask Mr. Slazenger your question.” (Hogan had recently started the Hogan equipment company). Or his reply to 1959 USPGA champion Dave Marr, when as a young assistant professional Marr passed him on the clubhouse steps and good naturedly said, “Good morning, Mr. Hogan.” “Son, don’t ever call someone mister that you might have to play someday.” Hogan was just brutally honest, with the world, and himself, and it often jarred.

Golfers develop their on-course persona early on in their careers. At his first try on tour Hogan had had to hitch-hike home and had paid his caddy with his watch. In 1940, just before the Pinehurst North and South Open, he was down to his last $36. In this situation I guess you don’t tend to worry too much how warmly you’re coming across to the galleries or your fellow competitors. You’re slightly more concerned about making a check so you won’t have to go back to your club job and be cleaning the member’s shoes. Niceties are more often the realm of the successful and this was not Hogan’s domain early on. As he did become successful, I think he also realised being unapproachable had it’s advantages, if you never say anything it’s hard to be misinterpreted and it freed him from distractions whilst playing. At times his intense concentration could come across as arrogance. Legend has it a fellow pro once made a hole in one whilst playing with Hogan, the gallery went wild, Hogan didn’t react, but stoically made birdie himself. When they reached the next tee Hogan still hadn’t said anything. By this stage his fellow pro was boiling and couldn’t stand it any longer,” Nice birdie,” he voiced sarcastically. “Thanks,” said Hogan, “What did you make?” So focused was he on his own game he genuinely hadn’t noticed…

A modern parallel could be that of Nick Faldo, who would have guessed at the playful, irreverent sense of humour Faldo was keeping at bay during his competitive years. Playing partners tended to feel warm and fuzzy if they got a “good luck” at the start and “well played” at the end. He’s now very funny and enlightening in interviews and his stints of commentary. But he, like Hogan obviously thought this was the best way to get the job of competing done. Different people react differently to pressure. For example Lee Trevino was always quick with a joke and a laugh when spectators were around. But it was well known amongst the press he could be less charming outside the ropes, as one well known British golf writer found out when he asked for a quick interview as he walked through the hotel lobby during a British Open one year, “F--- Off” Trevino replied without breaking stride.

The public and private sides of a personality can often be contradictory. In his private life Hogan may not have been quite the killjoy he seemed on the course. His best friend on tour was Texan Jimmy Demaret, a part time nightclub singer, and ebullient personality. I don’t imagine they were discussing the finer points of green reading when they went for dinner. And in his latter years Hogan used to answer the phone with his self appointed nickname “Henny Bogan,” just to amuse whoever was at the other end.

One of the stories I find amusing about Hogan is that he’d gotten so out of practice at being nice to people during his playing days that, during the latter part of his life, the cronies at Shady Oaks actually wouldn’t let him in the card game. They said he was too overbearing, tried to hard to be friendly and put them on edge. He was saying hello when it was time to say goodbye and vice versa, sadly tragic, but funny in a way.

So there you have it, innovator, battler, genius, legend, misfit, yes Hogan was all of those, and more.  I would say we’re highly unlikely again soon to see anyone have the kind of influence he’s had. In a way it makes perfect sense…that only the greatest of men, should have a lasting impact on this, the greatest game of all.