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

            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.



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