On a hot, Houston-humid day in May 1971, Ben Hogan played his final round of competitive golf. After consecutive par 4s on Champions Golf Club's three numbingly long opening holes, Hogan stepped to the tee on the 230-yard, par-3 4th. An unkempt ravine defended the left side of the green, and the flagstick was stuck on the left front. A sucker pin, but Hogan aimed a two-iron right at it. The ball rifled toward the flag. No one had expected to see him inside the ropes again.
Since playing in the 1967 U.S. Open, Hogan had undergone a fourth operation on his left shoulder, and four birthdays had come and gone. His return had caused a sensation: Someone counted 31 touring pros in his gallery in Houston. They shyly asked him for bits of wisdom in the locker room or for his autograph. But Hogan had less interest in changing their grips or swings than in telling those Age of Aquarius golf pros to dress more sensibly and to get a damn haircut.
The kind, cooperative, elder statesman's role fit him like wife Valerie's shoes. Golf magazine photographer Leonard Kamsler had been told to go to Champions and get a sequence of Hogan swinging. "That camera was too noisy to take out on the course, so every day I waited on the practice tee for Hogan, and he never showed up," Kamsler recalls. "So I went into the bag room and one of the guys said, 'I'll tell you where he practices. Go over to the 5th fairway on Champions' Jackrabbit course about an hour before his starting time and you'll see him warming up.' So I did, and I saw him, and he saw me walking across the fairway, draggin' wires and batteries and everything. And he immediately put his club in his bag and walked away."
Hogan's two-iron shot reached its apogee, drifted two yards left, and fell into the hazard. His audience gasped. He teed up another, same club, same shot, and again it went into the Cypress Creek gorge. As did, stubbornly, a third two-iron and a third ball. There was silence from the crowd now, as if they had witnessed an embarrassing accident. Hogan trudged grimly down the fairway and descended into the hazard. While climbing down among the rocks, bluebonnets and Dallis grass after his third ball, he twisted his left knee—the same knee he had injured in his near-fatal car crash with a bus 22 years before. He took a 9 on the hole and made the turn with a 44, eight over par.
Hogan played on, his limp more pronounced with each step. It looked to be too much for him—the heat, the pain, the length of the golf course. The back nine began with par 4s of 453 and 460 yards, and 12 was another killer par 3,213 yards. Hogan had money and 58 years of age, and he had never needed applause. So what was he doing there?
He had a dozen reasons. His friends Jimmy Demaret and Jack Burke Jr. owned the place, and they made him comfortable, allowing him to develop a routine: The club manager oversaw his meals, the waiters knew his drink, and he and Valerie stayed in a cottage across the street. He had his own table in the dining room—second from the fireplace, back row—and he ate there every night at seven sharp. Demaret spotted him sitting alone one night, apparently waiting for Valerie to join him. "Hey, look, you guys," Demaret said to his jolly companions. "There's Hogan sitting with all his friends." Hogan liked the course: Just the year before he had finished tied for ninth in the Houston Champions International. Yet he was kidding himself if he had begun to pretend that a tie for ninth would satisfy him.
His overriding motive for being in Houston was somewhat sad—he had nothing else to do. Other men his age were entering grandfatherhood or peaking in their business careers and making firm retirement plans. But Hogan's undiversified life had none of these things.
He parred the 10th hole. On the 11th tee he swung and slipped so badly he almost fell. The self-deception ended. He had his caddie pick up the ball and said "so long" to his playing partners, Dick Lotz and Charles Coody. Then he rode back to the clubhouse in a cart, his arms crossed, his eyes down.
Later he joined a gin rummy game in Champions' big, churchlike locker room. A man insinuated himself into the ring of spectators around the table. He cleared his throat and extended his hand. "Mr. Hogan," he said, "my name is Joe Smith. You might not remember me, but we played golf together once back in about 1958."
Hogan let the man rot for a minute. He kept his hands and his eyes on his cards. "You're right," he finally said. "I don't remember you."