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Right Up His Alley
Alan Shipnuck
May 27, 1996
Ben Hogan's failing health cast a shadow over Corey Pavin's conquest of Colonial
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May 27, 1996

Right Up His Alley

Ben Hogan's failing health cast a shadow over Corey Pavin's conquest of Colonial

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As for his prognosis, Valerie says, "There's nothing that I've been told or he has been told. It's just a matter of getting over this, and we hope each day is the end of it." And then she adds, "There is nothing life-threatening."

We can only hope, because it is not yet time for Hogan to pass from living legend to heavenly immortal. This yearlong run of ill health came just when Hogan had agreed to allow his accomplishments the celebration they deserve. He had generally shirked public feting. In 1987 Jack Nicklaus asked Hogan to be the official honoree at Nicklaus's Memorial Tournament. "I don't want to be memorialized," Hogan grumbled. Suspicious of outsiders' motives and churlish by nature, Hogan has compulsively refused the role of elder statesman, ceding it to Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson and Arnie and Jack.

"What people have a hard time understanding is that he doesn't want to be celebrated," says Tom Kite, who plays Ben Hogan equipment and has long had a relationship with the company's founder. "That's his personality. That's the way he played. He has always wanted to achieve not for the honors that came with it but for the achievement itself. I wouldn't wish him to change that, either."

But by last year Hogan had softened. Fort Worth declared a Ben Hogan Week leading up to the Colonial, and Hogan was going to speak at the unveiling of his statue. "We had finally talked him into it," says Ken Venturi, a member of Hogan's inner circle since their first competitive round together, at the 1954 Masters. "Valerie and his good friends had been telling him for years he had to do this. We said, 'Ben, people need to see you, they need to remember who you are. And who you were.' "

The cancer took care of all of those plans, and the continuing decay of his health wiped out the golden anniversary revelry this year. What Hogan's friends despair about now is that Hogan may go to the grave misunderstood, his Garbo-like seclusion having shrouded his public persona. An image of Hogan as enduring as him hitting a one-iron into the 18th green at Merion on the way to winning the 1950 U.S. Open is him sitting at the window table of his adopted home, the clubhouse at Fort Worth's Shady Oaks Country Club, a drink in one hand, a smoke in the other and nine empty chairs for company. "Very, very few people have ever gotten to know the man," says one who did, Dave Marr, who was a young assistant pro at Palm Beach's Seminole Golf Club, where in the early 1950s Hogan would do a month of spring training.

Then again, the man never gave people the chance to know him. The icy stare that Hogan wore on the golf course, the look that got him the nickname Hawk, was what he often used in lieu of saying hello, or of saying anything at all. He was "as soft as a fire hydrant," Grantland Rice once wrote.

There is another Hogan, too, the one who cried over the grave of Buster, the scruffy clubhouse dog at Shady Oaks who used to accompany him around the golf course. There is the Hogan who suggested starting the past-champions dinner at the Masters so all the old-timers could keep in touch, and then, according to Venturi, insisted there be round tables, so no man would be seated at the head. There is the Hogan who occasionally charged for his autograph but insisted that the checks be made out to the ASPCA. There is the Hogan who supported the launch of the Ben Hogan tour, golf's minor league (now sponsored by Nike), so that young players would have a home. There is also the Hogan who last year, still flat on his back from the cancer surgery, floored Marr by calling him in his hospital room to wish him godspeed on his recovery from a similar operation.

Says Venturi, "What people fail to appreciate about Ben is that he is a very shy and a very humble man. Those simple qualities have so often been misinterpreted."

The Colonial has always been the one place where Hogan was in his element, especially at the past-champions dinner on Wednesday night, when the golfers would slip on the bad plaid that constitutes a winner's jacket in Fort Worth and then share toddies and the same old stories one more time. "Everything I had ever heard about Mr. Hogan, I found to be untrue," says Keith Clearwater, the '87 Colonial champ. "He was warm and friendly and always going out of his way to make you feel welcome. He is very, very much in love with the Colonial, and there was almost a fraternity feel between him and all the champions."

That would account for the heavy hearts at this year's dinner. Hogan has now missed the big night for two years running. Even away from the past-champions celebration, it has been a long time since his friends have seen him. At least a year for Crenshaw, two years for Venturi and Kite, and almost five for Marr. It has been months since any of them talked to him on the phone, although Valerie is a source of constant updates.

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