Hogan, Ben (1912-1997)

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Hogan, Ben (1912-1997)

With his perfect swing, golfer Ben Hogan achieved a kind of mythic stature in the collective mind of the American public. During his career, Hogan won sixty-three tournaments, including nine major championships. He was the PGA tour's leading money-winner five times, won the Vardon Trophy for lowest scoring average five times, and was one of the first inductees into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974. As awesome as that record is, the folklore concerning Hogan's arduous rise to the top of his profession and his famed comeback after a near-fatal auto accident nearly transcends it.

Perhaps the most famous photograph of Hogan (collected in The Hogan Mystique, 1994) captures much of the essence of the mystique: a shot of Hogan's flawless swing taken at its height and from the golfer's back, it extends outward to feature an attentive gallery on two sides of a tree-lined fairway. Thus, Hogan's face is not shown; his personal identity is subordinated to a frozen image of the mechanical perfection of his golfing prowess. Throughout his career, Hogan was notoriously aloof from competitors, the press, and even his public. In addition, the peak years of his achievement preceded the wide coverage of golf by television; thus he was not captured repeatedly in widely distributed images as were Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, and Lee Trevino. Hogan became, though, something of an icon to these later figures, and what they admired was "Hogan's game" and the story of the literally painful way in which it had been developed.

The son of a blacksmith, Hogan was born in small-town Dublin, Texas, in 1912 and moved with his family to Fort Worth in 1921. His father, who had suffered from depression and alcoholism, committed suicide the following year, and Hogan's family was immediately plunged into poverty. In order to help out financially, young Ben became a caddie at Glen Garden Country Club, thus discovering the sport that would change his life. At Glen Garden, he met a fellow caddie, Byron Nelson, with whom he quickly became a fierce competitor.

Hogan turned professional in 1930 but would achieve success only after years of relative obscurity. Throughout this early period, his status on the PGA tour was always subordinate to that of Nelson. Hogan was not in effect a natural golfer and only realized his famous swing by regularly practicing until his hands literally bled. Perfection resulting from a puritan work ethic, long a central ingredient in American mythology, would become an essential element of the Hogan mystique. This grim self-creation was also a key factor in his legendary aloofness; always struggling to improve, he never felt that he had time for, nor did he see any point in, small talk with his playing partners or courting tournament galleries.

Hogan did not win his first tournament on the tour until 1940, when he won four. He followed that with five victories in 1941, but his new success was interrupted when he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943. It was in the immediate postwar period that Hogan began to dominate the PGA tour and his legend started to take form. He won his first major title, the PGA tournament, in 1946. In 1948, he repeated his success in the PGA and, in a rare exhibition of golfing perfection, won his first of four U.S. Open championships. Just as he seemed finally to have reached the peak of his success and his career, he was nearly killed in an automobile accident in February of 1949. His doctors were not certain first that he would live, then that he would walk again, and then that he would play competitive golf again. Hogan did all three, returning to the tour in January of 1950. In that year, he won his second U.S. Open: the often recounted "Hogan comeback" was under way, and the final ingredient was added to the Hogan mystique, that of the courageous underdog who survived extreme adversity.

The story would prove so compelling that Hollywood would have to film it, even if inadequately. Follow the Sun, supposedly the story of Hogan's life and climaxing with his comeback, was released in 1951. Its script was cliched; and Glenn Ford, as Hogan, was badly miscast. In the words of Hogan biographer Curt Sampson: "Ford, an unathletic man whose hobby was gardening, held the club as if it were a trowel and swung it like a rake."

In 1953, Hogan reached the pinnacle of his golfing career when he won the U.S. Open, his second Masters tournament, and his first British Open, thus sweeping three of professional golf's four major events (he did not enter the PGA tournament that year). The British Open win in Carnoustie, Scotland, especially contributed to the Hogan myth. Already known as "Bantam Ben," he was nicknamed "The Wee Ice Mon" by Scottish fans who were simultaneously paying tribute to his determined concentration and his triumph over physical adversity. (Hogan was, in fact, of average height). In July of that year, he was treated to a ticker tape parade down Broadway in New York City.

Hogan wrote a popular five-part series on the basic elements of the correct golf swing for Sports Illustrated beginning March 11, 1957. After retiring from competitive golf in 1971, Hogan fittingly devoted his time to manufacturing and selling golf clubs until his death on July 25, 1997.

—James R. Giles

Further Reading:

Campbell, Malcolm, and J. M. Fox. The Random House International Encyclopedia of Golf. New York, Random House, 1991.

Davis, Martin, et. al. The Hogan Mystique: Classic Photographs of the Great Ben Hogan by Jules Alexander. New York, Broadway Books, 1994.

Diaz, Jaime. "One of a Kind." Sports Illustrated. August 4, 1997, G6-G10.

Matuz, Roger. Inside Sports Magazine Golf: Your Ultimate Tour Guide. Detroit, Visible Ink, 1997.

Nelson, Byron. "The Mystique Lives On." Sports Illustrated. Au-gust 4, 1997, 26-29.

Sampson, Curt. Hogan. New York, Broadway Books, 1996.