Archive for August, 2014

Excerpt of Ben Hogan chapter from my book “Never Despair”

August 26, 2014

            Ben Hogan loved to practice, but on this warm Texas day his body was working through the recovery process following surgery to remove troublesome calcium deposits from his collar bones.  Before going under the knife, it looked as if the top half of a golf ball was sitting under his shirt, nasty residuals of the car accident that nearly killed him two decades earlier.  The condition was painful and had impeded his shoulder movement.   Although retired from competition and now an old man, he still loved the game and enjoyed hitting golf balls out to his caddy Jody Vasquez.  Hogan took a fairway wood, testing his progress.  “Then, as he swung forward at the ball,” recalled Vasquez, “all I saw was a blast of turf exploding into the air.  The ball jumped forward about 50 yards in front of him.  He must have hit inches behind it…Mr. Hogan stood looking down at the ground for what seemed like an eternity.”

            Hogan leaned on his club, shoulders slumped, head bowed.  After a few seconds he walked over to his cart and sat down.  “This icon of a man looked suddenly mortal,” according to Vasquez.  “He was tired, physically and mentally,” and “must have simply been asking himself, ‘Why am I doing this?’”  Finally, he got up off the cart seat and continued hitting shots .  There was no quit in this man.  He accepted this difficult day as he had each tough day since he was nine years old, and kept pushing forward.

            Sportswriter Charles Price once described Ben Hogan as “a myth everybody knows, and a man nobody knows .”  William Benjamin Hogan was born  August 13, 1912, the third and youngest child of Chester and Clara Hogan.  The family lived in Dublin, Texas until 1921, when Hogan’s father, a blacksmith, was beset with bouts of depression.  Early that year he ceased going to church and at times never left the house to go to work at his blacksmithing shop, which, in an age when automobiles were becoming ubiquitous, was making his trade obsolete. 

            Clara sought treatment for him at a sanatorium in Fort Worth , 70 miles to the northeast, and moved the family there.  Chester underwent calming mineral baths and mild electrotherapy treatments, and five months later declared himself cured.  He returned to Dublin to open his shop again, telling friends he would bring his family back with him.  But he was not a well man.  He was drinking and displaying manic-depressive tendencies, in good spirits one day and down the next.  He came back to Fort Worth  in February and tried to convince Clara to move back to their old home.  Clara objected, telling him she thought it best for the children, Royal, Princess, and Bennie, to remain in school until the end of the term.  Arguments followed throughout the night.

            Despondent, 37-year old Chester Hogan grabbed his .38-caliber revolver on Valentine’s Day 1922, put it to his chest, and pulled the trigger.  He was rushed to the hospital but died twelve hours later.  A newspaper reported that the only one in the room with Hogan at the time was “his six year old son, who was playing on the floor.”   In that moment, Bennie Hogan’s life changed forever.  “Ben’s father was his idol,” explained Hogan’s wife Valerie years later.  “I was told that at his father’s funeral, they were not able to get Ben to go into the church, that he couldn’t bear to see the casket .” 

            The little boy had to grow up in a hurry.  Chester’s death left the family in difficult straits financially.  While Clara took in sewing, Ben sold newspapers  at Fort Worth’s Union Station.  “I was skinny and small and I wasn’t getting much sleep,” he’d remember, “between selling papers and trying to go to school.  I don’t think it did me any good .”  When he was 12, he also began caddying, walking seven miles  each way to the Glen Garden Golf Club.  His mission in life from that point on, he would say years later, was to not be a burden to his mother .  “I sold newspapers until I found out caddies got 65¢ for 18 holes.  That was a lot more than I was getting staying up to 11:30 and 12:30 every night selling newspapers .”

            When Ben reported for caddy duty, he “was given the works,” according to friend Jimmy Demaret.  Hogan was shoved forward in front of the biggest kid and told to fight him .  His opponent soon wished someone else had been picked for the task, noted a Sport magazine article in 1953.  “The skinny kid tore into him with the sharp fury of a wildcat in battle .”  As Hogan remembered it, “they threw me in against one of those fellows and I got the better of him .”  His initiation wasn’t over, as next he was stuffed into an old barrel and rolled down a hill  behind the clubhouse.  After travelling 30 or 40 yards and dropping 20 feet, he emerged a bit battered, but more determined than ever to show his peers he would not be intimidated.  He was also determined to do a good job.  Some Saturdays he would sleep in a sand trap, using newspapers as a blanket, to be first in line for a bag on Sunday  morning.  According to Demaret, when Ben spoke of those early days he’d only say, “They were real rough,” and let it go at that .

            The game appealed to Hogan from the start.  In high school he had tried to play football, but was too small, and baseball just didn’t catch his fancy.  “Why golf did I do not know, but I just loved it .”   He played and practiced as much as he could.  “The grocery where my mother used to send me on errands,” Hogan told Look magazine in 1941, “was a half a mile away and I used to hit a ball all the way there and back.  At home I wore our lawn bare hitting golf balls of it .”  When Walter Hagen came to town in 1927 to play the PGA championship in Dallas, an impressionable Hogan took notice.  Hagen arrived in a purple car and raiment fit for a king.   “I made up my mind,” Ben would remember, “that if golf could make it possible for a fellow to live like that, then I would have a fling at it myself .” 

            But Hogan was no instant prodigy as was Bobby Jones.  What Jones was born with, Hogan had to acquire , and he also had to overcome the objections of his mother Clara, who was not happy with all the time he spent on the game.  She told him in those early years that he’d never get anywhere fooling around on a golf course.  “It’s time you went to work,” she’d say.  To which Ben replied, “I’m going to work harder than anybody you ever knew ,” adding that someday he was “gonna be the greatest golfer in the world .”  He would work hard, and when self-doubt crept into his mind, he used anger to drive away the fear .

            The same year he saw Walter Hagen, he also met a man who would become a mentor and act as a surrogate father.  Marvin Leonard was a successful business man whose doctor told him he needed more exercise in his life.  In golf, Marvin found an ideal game.  He would rise early to play nine holes, then go home and eat a big breakfast before heading off to work “feeling like a new man .”  When he found young Ben in the caddy yard, there was something about the kid he liked.  He told Ben he was a rank beginner, but that didn’t matter to Hogan.  “That’s okay, sir.  Maybe I can show you something.”  In Leonard, Hogan would find a decent, widely respected man, and the transformative role model he needed . 

            Leonard, 17 years older than Ben, would serve as surrogate father or older brother, just as O.B. Keeler had done for Bobby Jones.  The friendship and support was welcomed by Hogan, who felt the pressure of living up to his mother’s expectations.  He was always hearing, “Why don’t you do it like your brother?”  Ben’s older brother Royal had become Clara’s rock after Chester died, working hard to help the family.  Ben’s golf, on the other hand, was “nothing,” according to his mother.  “And nothing divided by nothing is nothing .”  This, ironically, would become one of Ben’s pet sayings.  Hogan’s wife Valerie always contended that he “had the misfortune to be the youngest of the family .”  

            For Ben, golf became the driving force in his life, notwithstanding his mother’s disapproval.  At Glen Garden, he also found a boy his age who was not only his greatest competition, but would become one of the greatest players in the history of the game – Byron Nelson.   Friends, but never close ones, they would find distinctly different paths to greatness.  Byron began a pattern of superiority in the early years when he beat Ben in the caddies’ tournament at Glen Garden in 1927.  When Nelson was given junior membership at the club instead of Hogan, it left Ben embittered .  He would be spurred by Byron’s early success and a rivalry was born, in part perhaps rooted in Ben’s jealousy of Byron’s easy going personality that made him very easy to like.

            Ben would caddy until he was 16, then went to work in the golf shop at Glen Garden.  On weekends he’d polish clubs until 3 a.m.  “Boy, I’d look at those clubs and they were the most beautiful things, Nichols and Stewarts, all made in Scotland.  I got my own set of mongrel clubs out of a dime store barrel for a dollar a piece .” Hogan kept working on his game, and turned professional at the tender age of 17.  His first tournament, the Texas Open in February 1930 began a 10 year struggle to find his place in the world of golf . 

            As Ben told Sports Illustrated 25 years later, “I didn’t think I was good enough to win anything as a professional, but I figured if I played enough I might make some money…They thought I was nothing divided by nothing.  Although I practiced day and night, I was so small a lot of people didn’t have faith in me .”  Apparently, he didn’t have much faith in himself either in the beginning, withdrawing from his first two events.  In his first attempt he shot 78-75 and withdrew, then did the same thing after opening the next one with 77-76.  “I found out the first day I shouldn’t even be there ,” he would remember, and decided if he couldn’t handle the pressure and play any better than that, he “had no right to be out there at all.”  From the beginning he was an unforgiving perfectionist , a trait that would define his life.

            He returned to Fort Worth and tried to improve his game, doing it on his own.  His method was to watch the best players and try to emulate them  by practicing as much as daylight would allow.  Aniela Goldthwaite, a member of the Curtis Cup in 1934, met Hogan when he was caddying as a young man.  She saw promise in him and gave him a dozen brand new golf balls and a new pitching wedge.  A month or so went by and Hogan went to see her, and asked politely is she might be able to give him more balls.  Had he lost them all, she asked?  He gave her the box with all the balls inside, with covers so worn that the dimples were almost smooth.  There were no cuts or creases; Hogan had simply worn them out . 

            As he kept wearing the dimples off his practice balls, he found various jobs to put money in his pocket.  He was a mechanic, he worked in a bank and a hotel, and even as a croupier at the Blackstone Hotel before trying the circuit again in 1932.   “I don’t know why Ben denies having been a croupier,” said Jimmy Demaret.  “He was a hungry kid.  It was an honest game.  Hell, there was nothing to be ashamed of .”  Hall of Famer Paul Runyan recalled card games in the clubhouse with Hogan, and marveled at how he dealt cards “so fast they just spilled out of his hands.” 

            After going bust on the tour again during a brief stint in 1932, Ben returned home and rented the golf shop at Oakhurst Country Club.  “No friend ever showed up,” he told writer Herbert Warren Wind 23 years later.  Said Wind: “I’ve never heard a man so bitter .”  At Oakhurst, Hogan practiced 4 hours a day and hustled gamblers in his spare time.  Hogan would bet that he could hit drives to his friend Buell Matthews from 220-240 yards and have Matthews catch them barehanded.  This ploy hooked a lot of suckers, who would usually give up after Matthews shagged maybe 7 of 10 without breathing hard .

            Even after another failed try to play the tour in 1934, including a missed cut in his first U.S. Open, Hogan was not deterred.  He was stubborn, practiced all the time, didn’t seek help, and rarely hung out with other players in the bar at the end of the day.  Aside from golf, he was also spending considerable time with Valerie Fox, a pretty young woman he had met when he was 14.  She was attending Texas Christian University majoring in journalism when they started seeing more of each other .  She would recall the early struggles before they were married. “When he got home one year, he talked about the day he hit bottom.”  He was playing well, with Horton Smith in his group.  If he made a putt on the last hole, he would have made a nice sum of money.  But as his ball approached the cup, the caddy couldn’t get the flagstick out of the hole in time.  She didn’t know if the ball hit the stick or what, but he finished out of the money .

            Valerie remembered Ben describing that day.  “I went over and sat on a bench and just felt like I didn’t want to live,” he told her.  “But then Horton Smith came over and sat next to me.  Horton told me, ‘Ben, I know you think the world is against you because that was a bad break, but you must get over this and go on.  You’ve got a wonderful future.’ ”  Even if he was only trying to be gracious at the time, Smith turned out to be a prophet.  Part of that bright future began when Ben and Valerie married on April 14, 1935.  They both found in each other something they needed.  She believed in him and pushed him when his resolve flagged.  Ben’s mother claimed: “Valerie is the only one who can honestly say, ‘I told you so.’  The rest of us hoped Ben would make it, but Valerie was always sure he would .”

            Of the relationship, Valerie’s niece Valerie Harriman believed they filled a void in each other’s lives.  “She needed his strength of character and he needed someone to wholeheartedly believe in him through thick and thin.  He provided her with a life she could never have found on her own, and she rewarded him with unwavering devotion and loyalty .”  When Hogan ventured out on tour again in 1936, she went with him.  When he ran out of money after missing the cut again in the U.S. Open, Marvin Leonard, who over the years had built a small business empire with his brother, never forgot his young friend, and helped Hogan out financially.  In January 1936 Leonard also opened Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, which would host the U.S. Open in 1941 and remains one of the most famous courses in America, thanks in large part to Hogan’s later association with it as winner of five Colonial Invitational tournaments.  But success was only a dream when Ben Hogan ran out of money again in 1937.

            “I tried to quit this game thousands of times, because I didn’t feel I was taking care of my wife in the manner I should have…We were staying in crummy hotels and driving broken-down cars.  That was no way to live and certainly no way to take care of a wife.”  But Valerie wouldn’t let him.  “She kept saying, ‘You can’t give up now.  You’re so close.  I just know it.’…So in a lot of ways, in those days, my wife was my sports psychologist .”

            When he complained to her that he wasn’t making enough putts to win, she suggested matter-of-factly that he should just hit the ball closer to the hole .  Jimmy Demaret claimed that Ben hit the ball as well in the Thirties as he did in the late Forties, but he couldn’t buy a putt.  As Demaret put it, “I thought that he would never get the touch.  Most good putters are born that way, not made.  But Ben made himself into a great putter.  To me, that will always be one of the most amazing parts of his success .”

            Hogan kept pushing himself to make it on the tour, perhaps motivated by the fact that his old caddy mate Byron Nelson had won the Masters in 1937.  But it was not an easy life.  Bob Harlow founder of Golf World and early manager of tour events, once said that the tour was an “education in survival of the fittest…If you found a way to make it one week, well, you graduated to another week…pro golf was like university education, a higher institution of hard knocks .”  By 1938 Hogan had an advanced degree in hard knocks, and the turning point of his whole life would come early that year.  By the time he and Valerie reached Oakland, they had $86.00 left out of the $1,400 bankroll they started with.  He had promised her that if he could not make it this time – if they ran out of money – he’d give it up and find a job in Fort Worth. 

            They were staying in the Lemington Hotel, which gave the pros the best rate in the city, and he parked his car in a lot across the street.  As he told the story, he was playing fairly well and on the last day had a chance to make some much needed money: “I had a fairly early starting time and left the hotel after breakfast and went across the street and my car was jacked up.  And my two rear wheels are sitting on rocks .”  Sam Snead and some other pros saw what happened.  “He was as close to tears as that tough little guy can get,” recalled Snead . 

            Hogan later told Jimmy Demaret that at that moment he didn’t have a bit of hope left, but Valerie bucked him up.  “Don’t be silly” she told him.  “Things will be okay.  We’ll just ride out to the club with somebody else.  Don’t get upset about it .”  He got a ride to the course, but it is interesting that in a 1983 interview he could not remember who took him there – his old friend and rival Byron Nelson.  “So I played.  I won $385.00.  It was the biggest check I’d ever seen in my life.  And I’m quite sure it will be the biggest check I’ll ever see .”

            This was his defining moment and a turning point.  Later that year Hogan teamed with Vic Ghezzi to win his first event, the Hershey Four-Ball Invitation.  Ghezzi said in an interview fifteen years later:  “Maybe I was imagining things, but his face seemed to turn gray from the almost violent effort he put into every shot.  I knew from that day on nobody, but nobody, was going to stop Hogan .”  By the end of year Ben finished 15th on the money list .

                Before he got to Hershey, Hogan had earned the admiration of that year’s Masters champion, Henry Picard, who hadn’t even seen him play.  Hogan’s reputation as a hard worker made Picard curious.  When Ben arrived for the tournament, Picard sought him out for a practice round.  “And on the third tee,” he remembered in a 1990 interview, “I watched that swing and I said, ‘You can beat the world.’  That’s what I saw .” 

            Picard was also a kind man who offered Hogan financial support if he needed it.  He recalled seeing Ben and Valerie arguing in a Chicago hotel.  Their finances were low and they were a long way from home, and Picard sensed their predicament.  “Well, I don’t have all the money in the world,” he told Hogan.  “But I’ve got enough to support you…And that’s the way it’s going to be.  And of course he never did call me for money .”  Hogan never forgot that gesture.  “Picard gave me a terrific boost.  Even if you’re digging as hard as you can, you like to have somebody on your side .”  In 1948 he would write in his book Power Golf, that “knowing that help was there if I needed it helped me forget about my troubles.”  

            In the next couple of years Hogan would seek out Picard for practice rounds, and pick his brain.   In early 1940, he asked Picard why he wasn’t winning.  “What are you worrying about, a duck hook?  We can change that in five minutes.”  He weakened Hogan’s left hand grip and Hogan liked the results.  Hogan practiced at Pinehurst for 12 days in preparation for the North and South Open, a major event in those days.  They played together, and Picard was amazed by the display of golf.  “I’ve never seen such power in my life from a man that size.”  Hogan was hitting it 25-30 yards past long-hitting Craig Wood .   Hogan broke thorough, winning three tournaments in a row by an accumulated 34 under par , remarkable scoring in those days.  He ended up the leading money winner with $10,655.  

            Hogan won 4 tournaments in 1940 and 5 in 1941, but was still fighting the hook off the tee.  “I hate a hook,” he would tell Sports Illustrated in 1955.  “It nauseates me.  I could vomit when I see one.  It’s like a rattlesnake in your pocket .”  That rattlesnake had its origins in the caddy  yard at Glen Garden, when the caddies would have driving contests to determine who would shag the balls they hit.  Hogan, being small, employed a strong grip and long backswing to maximize his distance, but it was an action that created a tendency he fought until the late 1940s. 

            In the 1942 Miami Biltmore Four-Ball the hook rose up with a vengeance as he lost in the first round with partner Lawson Little.  He sought out Picard, who weakened his left hand grip again.  Harry Cooper also noticed that Ben was re-gripping the club at the top of the swing, and told him so.   The struggle with the hook would continue, but when World War II came, many players, including Hogan, enlisted, and he lost two years of his career to the war.

            Before entering the Army, he was quoted as saying, “I know a lot of people don’t like me.  They say I’m selfish and hard, that I think only of golf.  Maybe I do.  But there’s a reason.  I know what it means to be hungry.  I sold papers around the railroad station in Fort Worth when I was 12.  I never intend to be hungry again .”  Forty years later, when asked what drove him so hard to succeed, he responded:  “Three things.  One, I didn’t want to be a burden to my mother.  Two, I needed to put food on the table.  Three, I needed a place to sleep .” 

            Hogan would never forget the “hunger” he spoke of, and could never escape the tragic consequences of his childhood.  His behavior in adulthood was not difficult to understand. Counselors who work with suicide survivors point out that a child without an adequate support system lacks a strong capacity for intimacy and trust.  This leads to detachment and bitterness, and the child often becomes a loner.  Many become workaholics  as adults.  Hogan’s dedication to the game was his obsession, and left little room for friendly banter on the golf course.  “He let it be known early that he was all golf and no fooling around,” Paul Runyan remembered.  “Some of the fellas began to even fear getting near Hogan – that icy look he would give you that said, ‘That’s far enough, friend .’”  

            Hogan would explain his approach when he started out this way:  “I was so broke I couldn’t afford to talk to other people, because I was afraid of losing my focus.  So I stayed to myself on the golf course …”  Tommy Armour once said Bobby Jones was the “most ruthless, ravenous destroyer ” on a golf course he had ever seen, but that was before Ben Hogan came along.                                 

            Hogan’s refusal to let up, no matter what the score, was never better demonstrated than the 1941 Inverness Four-Ball.  He and partner Jimmy Demaret were five up, when Demaret suggested they coast to a win.  “We’re five up now,” protested Hogan, “but what’s wrong with winning by eight or ten ?” His perfectionism was legendary.  “You got the feeling,” noted Sam Snead, “that he hated – I mean, hated – the mistakes he made .”  This is the answer to why he kept trying to build a swing he could rely on. 

            Even though he won 6 times in 1942 – and after the forced break caused by the war – 5 in 1945, he was still troubled by the hook that crept into his game.  Where most people would be content to win and accept an imperfect swing, Hogan could not.  “I was in Chicago, as I recall it,” he told Ken Venturi in 1983, “and I was hooking so badly that I couldn’t get a 4-wood off the ground, and I had to use iron clubs all the time.  I came home and I said to myself, ‘you can’t play this way .’”  

            In the famous 1955 Life magazine article that described the “secret” to his success, he related how he found his flash of genius in 1946:   “I left the tour and went home to Fort Worth about as desperate as a man could be.  I sat and thought for three or four days.  I didn’t pick up a golf club, although I wanted to in the worst way.  One night while laying awake in bed I began thinking about a technique for hitting a golf ball that was so old it was almost new .”  What he came upon was the concept of wrist pronation – that is, keeping the left wrist a few degrees concave at the top of the backswing and on the downswing supinating it on the downswing so it was bowed outward coming onto the ball, allowing him to swing as hard as he wanted without the clubface closing coming onto the ball and causing a hook.   “It worked.  It worked all day long.  And the next day.  And the next day, too .”  

            Hogan was resilient enough to try new things and had the strongest of minds and spirits when dealing with adversity.  After losing the 1946 Masters by 3-putting from fifteen feet on the last hole, he didn’t curl up and disappear, but came back to win three of the next four events.  That June, after failing to get into a playoff at the U.S. Open – again on the final hole – he came back the next week to win the Inverness Four-Ball with Jimmy Demaret .  Then, at the end of the summer, he won his first major championship, the PGA, in Portland, Oregon.  He beat Ed Oliver in the final, but it was his thrashing of friend Demaret 10&9 in the semi final match  that drew the attention of reporters.  Lawton Carver wrote that Hogan was the most “ruthless, most cold-blooded and least compassionate” of competitors.  “He doesn’t merely want to beat you.  He wants to trample you underfoot .”  He was Tiger Woods before Tiger Woods.

Excerpt from my book “Never Despair: : Trials and Triumphs of Golf’s Great Champions”

August 26, 2014

            “Golf is the closest game to the game we call life.  You get bad breaks from good shots; you get good breaks from bad shots – but you have to play the game where it lies .”  So claimed O.B. Keeler, the famed golf writer who, from 1916-1930, travelled over 120,000 miles covering the career of Bobby Jones.  We do indeed play the game where it lies.  Each day is different, even if the course remains the same, and the challenges are at once maddening and intoxicating.  We play the game.  It doesn’t matter if frost covers the ground in winter, if rain water fills the cups on the greens in the spring, or if wind blows sand in our eyes after a bunker shot in the summer. 

            We just love to play.  Walter Simpson, in his 1892 book The Art of Golf, seemed to understand the golfer’s psyche.  He wrote that the game “has some drawbacks.  It is possible, by too much of it, to destroy the mind. ”  His admonition notwithstanding, true golfers rarely get enough of it.  We know that if we keep plugging along and keep trying, sometimes good things come to us when we least expect them, just as in life.

            Golf is a game with incredible staying power, having been played for over 500 years.  Men and women; young and old; royalty and artisans; CEOs and taxi drivers; people with bad backs and creaky knees; amputees and the blind, all play it.  A few even play from wheelchairs. What is it that draws people to golf and holds them in its grip until they are too old and feeble to play any longer?  The reasons are many.  The game engages both body and mind in a very particular way, and some might argue, the soul as well.  

            James Balfour, who began playing golf in Scotland in the 1840s, explained it this way in Reminiscences of Golf on St. Andrews Links

It is a fine, open-air, athletic exercise, not violent, but bringing into play nearly all the muscles of the body…It is a game of skill, needing mind and thought and judgment, as well as a cunning hand.  It is also a social game, where one may go out with a friend or with three, and enjoy mutual intercourse…It never palls or grows stale, as morning by morning the players appear at the teeing ground with as keen a relish as if they had never seen a club for a month.

It is a game requiring not only physical skill but the ability to control our emotions, as we try to beat our best scores each time out, as well as the scores of our friends who join us in the endeavor. 

            The game is different because the ball must wait for us.  It isn’t baseball or tennis where a ball comes towards us that we have to react to in a split second.  The golf ball just lies there passively, sometimes seeming to taunt us.  It’s up to us to make it go.  “There is no hurry,” wrote John Low in Concerning Golf, “we fix our own time, we give ourselves every chance of success.”  It is this deliberate quality of the game which “makes it so testing to the nerves; for the very slowness which gives us opportunity for calculation draws our nerves out to the highest tension…”  

            Golf certainly can make our stomachs churn and scramble our brains.  Mark Train famously described it as “a good walk spoiled.”  In the short space of the fifteen minutes or so it takes to play a hole, it’s possible to experience a full gamut of emotions – you name it and it can be felt, in a million different combinations.  Fear and trepidation of the opening tee shot, followed by joy and relief after a great drive nailed straight down the middle, then anger and consternation at the fat second shot plunked into the water, and ending with sadness and disappointment when we walk off the green with a triple-bogey.  Herein is the great part of the golf’s attraction . 

            People are also drawn to the game because it takes them into the great outdoors; to open spaces away from the office. Theodore Haultain discussed the tactile lure of the course, each with its own personality and varied terrain, in his book The Mystery of Golf .  Speaking of the delights of the game in 1910, he described the varied elements that stimulate our senses:

The great breeze that greets you on the hill, the whiffs of air – pungent, penetrating – that come through green things growing, the hot smell of pines at noon, the wet smell of fallen leaves in autumn, the damp and heavy air of the valley at eve, the lungs full of oxygen, the sense of freedom on a great expanse, the exhilaration, the vastness, the buoyancy, the exaltation. 

“We live in small spaces,” wrote Henry Leach in The Happy Golfer, “with many walls and low roofs .”  Away from the city, and its cacophony of angry noises that strangle silence, the golf course provides us with a few hours of refuge.  Steaming asphalt and concrete, honking horns, and the incessant buzz and clatter of people coming and going gives way to a quiet oasis of cool grass, green trees, chirping birds and the smell of pine needles.  “A golfer on the links is uplifted to a simpler, freer self,” claimed Leach.    

            Michael Murphy, in his classic book Golf in the Kingdom, spoke of golf in terms of “walkin’ fast across the countryside and feelin’ the wind and watchin’ the sun go down and seein’ yer friends hit good shots and hittin’ some yourself.  It’s love and it’s feelin’ the splendor o’ this good world .”  To David Forgan, who crafted “The Golfer’s Creed” in the late nineteenth century, golf offers “a sweeping away of mental cobwebs, genuine recreation of tired tissues….It is a cure for care, an antidote to worry.” As Balfour and Murphy point out, golf is also a social game, one we play with fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and friends in our Saturday foursome. We even play with strangers who join us on the first tee when we sneak out for a quick nine holes after work. The game allows time for conversation between shots. “How’s the job going?” “How are the kids?” “What about that game last night?” “How’s the new car?” There is also considerable time for thought directed at how we are succeeding – or failing – in getting the ball from the teeing ground to the hole, as we commiserate with each other around the course.

            We may enjoy the park-like setting of the golf course, the competition, and the chit-chat, but the most intriguing element of the game is trying to hit that little damn ball where we want it to go.  “Without doubt,” wrote Hautlain, “the ball must be impelled by muscular movement; how to coordinate that muscular movement – that is the physiological factor in the fascination of golf .”   

            When one considers the physics involved, this is a daunting task.  We apply about 32 pounds of muscles to swing a golf club almost four feet long in an arc of twenty feet around our body, while shoulders and hips turn, arms move up and down and five separate torques may act upon the club .  All of this motion is focused on making contact with a ball 1.68 inches in diameter squarely in the center of a two inch square club face on a path that will propel the ball with sufficient force to send it the correct distance to the target. 

            The ball is in contact with the face of the club for half a thousandth of a second (as the club travels about three quarters of an inch), and the margins of error are incredibly slim.  If the club face is open or closed just 2 or 3 degrees with a driver, the ball will fly 20 yards or more off line, depending on the speed of the swing .  Sometimes just hitting the ball at all is a challenge, and a proper club/ball contact that sends the ball straight to our intended target seems a minor miracle.  All of these gyrations are produced with one objective: to put that ball in a four and a quarter inch hole placed in the ground hundreds of yards away.  All the while around we have to negotiate water hazards, bunkers, trees, and perhaps wind and rain – in addition to our own nerves and tempers.

            Yet, in spite of these considerable challenges, on the occasions when things work, by design or divine intervention, and the ball is struck solidly online, it provides a palpable physical thrill.  The feel of an iron crisply pinching the ball off the turf and whistling it to the green; the drive smacked right in the middle of the clubface and blasted down the fairway; the 40-foot putt stroked with perfect line and speed and rolled into the bottom of the hole.  As the old golf adage goes, “one good shot keeps you coming back.”  All the rest, the ones topped in the water or sliced into the woods, are shoved aside, as we choose to revel in our modest successes.  “I did it once,” we say to ourselves.  “I can surely do it again, even better.”  Our minds and muscles drive us, and our memories plug into feelings of how we did it right yesterday, a week ago, or ten years ago .

            Pembroke Vaile, an intriguing and pensive man from the last century, wrote expressively on the “soul” of golf.  Among its elusive elements, he claimed, is “the sheer beauty of the flight of the ball,” and the almost “sensuous delight which comes to the man who created that beauty, and knows how and why he did it .”  There is something intoxicating in the harmonically pure meeting of club and ball.  Ben Hogan, one of the best to ever play the game, loved to practice and hit golf balls from sunup to sundown.  He once said that the perfectly struck shot “goes from the ball, up the club’s shaft, right to your heart .”  This is the true essence of what has attracted people to the game for 500 years.  For whether it’s a hickory shafted club from the 1800s or a modern graphite shafted titanium driver, the player still has to execute the shot properly.   

            Golf is a game that has been called a microcosm of life, as every day offers a new set of challenges.  To succeed you must work hard to develop your gifts, possess healthy doses of self-confidence and patience, and persevere when times get tough.  Golf has been described as a “self-reliant, silent, sturdy,” game, which “leans less on its fellows,” and “loves best to overcome obstacles alone .”  Success or failure depends on one person, ourselves.  There are no teammates to help us out when things go wrong, and unlike baseball, we have to play our foul balls.  To

excel at the highest levels, particular and rare talents are required.  Not only physical skill, but a strong and resolved character is necessary in order to overcome the adversity that will undoubtedly come.  As Charles Blair Macdonald, one of the founding fathers of American golf put it in 1898:  “No game brings out more unerringly the true character of a man or teaches him a better lesson in self-control .”

            The people in this book all possessed confidence in their abilities and were dogged in their pursuit of excellence.  But without natural talent, they would never have been heard from.  Each of us is born into this world with certain gifts, which, if fully exercised, lead us to the life path we are meant to follow.  There are different kinds of gifts, and different kinds of work, but the same God works those gifts in all men  and women.  So says the Bible.  To express our gifts and build a fulfilling life around them is the highest expression of our true essence.

            These champions – all of whom, with the exception of caddy Bruce Edwards, are members of the World Golf Hall of Fame  – came from different times and had different backgrounds, but they all shared a gift for the game of golf.  This is what defined them, just as our gifts define us.  Horton Smith, winner of two Masters Tournaments, claimed that “golfing genius strikes seldom.  It is something that cannot be attained by practicing any more than a really great voice.  It can be developed but before a man is a genius at golf, he must have within him a spark that is the gift of the Almighty .”  Three-time British Open champion Bob Ferguson said over a century ago that nerve, enthusiasm, and practice are the three essentials to succeed in golf.  But to be great requires the gift .  

            To be great requires the gift.  It is this unique and branded gift that set the truly great above all the rest.  The men in this book: Harry Vardon, Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Charlie Sifford, Ken Venturi, Bruce Edwards; and the lady, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, all had gifts they exercised freely and rigorously, never squandering them, even when circumstances might have forgiven them for fading away quietly. They never quit, even when things looked bleak. Bobby Jones  claimed that golf “is the most rewarding of all games because it possesses a very definite value as a molder or developer of character.”  It was character which guided these people’s lives and girded them against persistent struggles in the face of adversity that threatened their very lives.

            Harry Vardon was at the peak of his game when struck down with tuberculosis, but he resolved to play on, winning two more British Opens, and acting as a mentor to promising new players; Bobby Jones was stricken with a rare and debilitating spinal disease that would confine him to a wheelchair when he was still a young man, but he kept building the Masters Tournament, writing about golf, and being an ambassador for the game; Ben Hogan nearly died in a car crash that permanently damaged his body and caused him chronic pain for the rest of his days, but he came back and won six more major championships, and built a company bearing his name. 

            Babe Didrikson Zaharias was struck down by colon cancer but wouldn’t quit.  She became a spokesperson for the American Cancer Society and was an inspiration to fellow sufferers, especially after winning another Women’s U.S. Open before the cancer returned; Charlie Sifford was the victim of incessant racism which included harassment and death threats, but he never bowed, and was a winner at the highest levels of the game, paving the way for the likes of Tiger Woods.

            Ken Venturi lost his game after a car accident and later to carpal tunnel syndrome, but would capture the U.S. Open in some of the most trying conditions the championship ever produced and later have a successful broadcasting career; Bruce Edwards was afflicted with ALS, or “Lou Gehrig’s disease,” but kept going and inspired people with his fight, carrying the bag for one final major victory with boss Tom Watson before succumbing to his illness.  What kept them going?  They all loved the game.  It was what they did.

            “However mean your life is, meet it and live it.”  These words of Henry David Thoreau could describe the lives of all the people in this book, who faced tremendous physical and emotional trials in their lives, yet persevered and overcame. The strength and resilience of the human spirit – indeed, its stubborn persistence – was a common denominator in facing their struggles. Golf can be a vexing and cruel game, and teaches us much about ourselves. 

            Golf has been described as “a contest, a duel, or a melee, calling for courage, skill, strategy and self-control.  It is a test of temper, a trial of honor, a revealer of character.”  Jerome Travers, the great amateur of the early 20th century, believed the character of an individual is laid bare under “the microscope of golf influence.  The good and bad qualities in our make-up are exposed to view under the spell which golf casts over man …”  In the end, as with most of life, our success hinges on the character and spirit we possess. 

            How would our tempers be tested if we were struck down by a serious illness, a near-fatal accident, or some career-threatening injury from which we would never fully recover?  How would our honor be preserved if we had people telling us we were washed-up, unwanted, and persona non-grata on the golf course? 

            How would our character be revealed if Lou Gehrig’s disease robbed us of the ability to walk and talk?  

            How would we face the fear?  Would we give in to self-pity, or persevere and keep going?  Where would we find the strength to actually carry on with our careers with any measure of success? 

            The people in this book displayed their character vigorously by not giving up or giving in to the suffering that afflicted them.  This is not a chronicle of the tournaments they won and lost, but an examination of how they applied their gifts and pushed themselves to achieve success.  Champion golfers have been identified as sharing certain qualities; among them tough-mindedness, confidence, self-sufficiency , and emotional stability – all of which provide players with the armor to press on when things look hopeless.  The very nature of the game prepares one for adversity, and rewards a persevering spirit that doesn’t accept surrender without a fight.  “It is merely a blessing,” claimed Jerome Travers, “if our temperament is such that we are able to blind ourselves to the drudgery which usually goes with indomitable persistence and hard application ” in overcoming obstacles. 

            The stories of these champions bear witness to their courage and discipline, but also to the love and support of family and friends who helped them.  As Robert Tyre Jones, grandfather of Bobby Jones, claimed, “No man ever accomplishes anything really worthwhile alone.  There are always two additional forces at work – other people and Providence .”  Their families and friends bolstered them, but the game itself offered them refuge and therapy for both body and mind when they were suffering. 

            In recent years Golf Digest magazine has featured a series called “Golf Saved My Life,” which focuses on this therapeutic side of the game.  Whether the men and women telling their stories have struggled with cancer, autism, bipolar disorder, or serious injuries brought on by war or accidents, they all reveal how the game has helped give renewed purpose to their lives. 

            This theme is nothing new.  In 1965 Golf Journal ran the story of a James Ranni, 62-years old at the time, who had suffered a major stroke years earlier.  The neurosurgeon who saved his life was a golfer, and had come to see the game “as an additional therapeutic measure to help patients overcome serious handicaps and regain health that has been lost.”  As for Ranni, he claimed that when people spoke of “how close you can get to God on a golf course,” he knew exactly what they meant.  “I can’t tell you how important it is to me to be an example of what golf can do in rehabilitating the disabled .” 

            The National Amputee Golf Association was formed in 1954 in response to World War II veterans returning home with missing limbs and wanting to get back into the game.  It has followed the motto, “It’s not what you’ve lost, but what you have left that counts.”   Bert Shepard, who lost his right leg in WWII, spoke to Golf World in 1997 of how people claimed he had “the guts to go out and play golf and all that.  What about some credit to the game of golf?  I’ve seen guys who never got out of the house get fascinated with golf, and it changes their lives .” 

            Thomas M’Auliffe is a wonderful example of doing his best with what he had left.  In spite of losing both arms in a horrible accident when he was 9-years old, he learned to play golf.  In 1915, the then 22-year old told his story to The Golf Monthly.  By gripping the club between his cheek and shoulder, he was able to hit the ball 100 yards with a driver.  With a “combined swing and jerk of the body and shoulder,” the article explained, “he is able to give the ball a telling stroke,” and it noted that he had shot 108 at the Buffalo Country Club.  M’Auliffe was certainly a positive thinker.  “I never permit the thought of my accident to take possession of my mind,” he declared, “nor do I think of anything being impossible for me to overcome.  When the time comes, I just go ahead as best I may, and somehow, someway, I generally get there without any great difficulties .”

            A decade before Thomas M’Auliffe, there was the story of Old Tom Morris.  His son Tommy, who like his father won four British Opens, died on Christmas Day 1875, three months after his wife and baby died during child birth.  Old Tom would see his wife and all five of his children die before him, and he claimed that if not for his God and his golf, he would not have found the strength to go on .  The game sustained him – he died in 1908 at the age of 86 – and played up until the end.  The game was a soothing therapy for him and others, just as it would be for Vardon, Jones, Hogan, Zaharias, Sifford, Venturi, and Edwards.

            Golf is a test, Arnold Hautlain claimed, “not so much of the muscle, or even of the brain and nerves of a man,” as it is a test of his or her innermost self…

…of his soul and spirit; of his whole character and disposition; of his temperament; of his habit of mind; of the entire content of his mental and moral nature… it is a physiological, psychological, and moral fight with yourself; it is a test of mastery over self .

            What is there to learn from the challenges these golfers faced and how they overcame them?  Why should we care?  Hautlain once again offers insight.  “In a picture, a sonata, a statue – the color, the sound, the form assuredly may interest us,” but these “are but vehicles for the artist’s thought and emotion.”  He continues:

It is the artist’s conception of life that is so interesting.  So it is with sport.  We like immensely to know exactly how a man boxes or fences or drives; but underneath this, we like immensely to know how he fights the battle of life; for he will do the one as he does the other – that we feel. [italics added]  So there is a great kinship between artist and sportsman.  Each reveals himself in his work; and it is in this self-revelation that humanity takes an absorbing interest. 

The professionals play golf, while we play at it; they know they can succeed, we hope we can.      For those who have the gift of golf, we wonder what it is that makes them special.  This is especially true when they triumph over adversity that could just as well crush them.  What are they really like?  As a spectator once asked a reporter who was covering Babe Zaharias, “Is she tough?”  “Is she nice?” “I’d sure like to know how she really is.  I mean, how she really is .”  We want to know about their lives, but are at the mercy of what they tell us, or want us to know.

We do our best to find out what they are really like?  In the heat of battle, how do they react?  How do they deal with victory and defeat, both on and off the course?  These are questions this book attempts to shed new light on. 

            These individuals, with the exception of Mr. Sifford, have all passed away, but their struggles are as relevant today as ever.  They were connected, in more than a casual way, to each other by the game.  Consider Harry Vardon, the greatest player of his era, knew Old Tom Morris and played with Bobby Jones in the latter’s first U.S. Open in 1920.  He told reporters the young Jones would be one of the very best golfers ever seen, and was right.  After Jones retired in 1930, he played an exhibition in Houston attended by Babe Zaharias, which “fired up” her own golf aspirations.  Earlier that same year, Jones started the Masters Tournament, which Ben Hogan won twice.  Jones used to say if he had to choose one man to hit one shot to win a major championship, he would pick Hogan because of his “spiritual ” assets.  Hogan, late in his career, saw a tenacity in Ken Venturi that he admired, and took him under his wing.  They became great friends, and Ken was a pallbearer at Hogan’s funeral. 

            Venturi befriended Charlie Sifford in those days when racism dogged him.  When the restaurant at Pensacola Country Club wouldn’t let Charlie eat there, Venturi spoke up, and took his own breakfast and joined his friend in the locker room.  Bruce Edwards worked for Tom Watson, whose teacher was Byron Nelson, the same man who tutored Ken Venturi.  The first tournament Edwards and Watson won together was the Byron Nelson Classic.  Amazingly, the chain of golf history is often connected by one or two links, much less than the well known “six degrees of separation.”  

            The talent of the seven people in this book, in concert with character, defined the lives and created more links in a chain going back to the beginnings of the game.  Today, we still remember them.  When Old Tom Morris died over a hundred years ago, his achievements as a golfer were well known and documented, and were sure to endure.  The greatest moral of his life, it was stressed upon his passing, was that “no matter in what sphere, it is character that achieves the greatest victories.”   As Arnold Hautlain wrote plainly, “It all comes back to character; not intellect or acumen or ability…just character .”

            In many ways, the legacy of how these champions dealt with the physical and emotional trials life handed them is more impressive than the records they set on the golf course.  “We define and admire greatness,” wrote Mark Frost in his wonderful book, The Greatest Game Ever Played, “not only by the magnitude of achievement but also for the degree of difficulty that person has to .”