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Byron Nelson
August 04, 1997
After the death last week of the legendary Ben Hogan, his longtime rival reminisces about the man who influenced so many but befriended so few
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August 04, 1997

The Mystique Lives On

After the death last week of the legendary Ben Hogan, his longtime rival reminisces about the man who influenced so many but befriended so few

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I was in my woodworking shop last Friday morning when the gall came. It was my family doctor—Ben Hogan's doctor, As well—with the news that my old friend and tournament rival had died. The phone started ringing within the hour and didn't stop until around four that afternoon. Reporters wanted my reaction. Friends just wanted to talk. I tried to respond truthfully and without exaggeration. I was saddened by Ben's passing, but I hadn't seen him since we posed together for a picture five years ago on the 18th green at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth. (I had just turned 80, and he was going to be 80.) Ben treasured his privacy, and I respected that.

He was a peculiar person, and I'm a peculiar person, so it's no surprise that ours was a peculiar relationship. I was never in Ben's home, and I didn't have his private telephone number. Yet I think I was probably Ben's best friend on the pro tour, with the possible exception of Jimmy Demaret, who was his partner in many four-ball tournaments. When we did see each other, Ben was always friendly. We were intense competitors, even-in exhibitions, and we knew the rivalry was good for us. I remember an exhibition in Detroit in which Ben went out in 30, and I shot 34. Then I came back in 30, and he shot 34. Our best ball was 60, so you'd have to say we gave those folks an all-out effort.

Our rivalry started in the caddie ranks in Fort Worth, but we didn't advance at the same rate. I progressed reasonably quickly in the pro game, whereas Ben struggled. People say he worked so hard on his game because he wanted to catch up to me, and that may be true. He said things at times, not unkind things, but things that showed he saw me as a rival. In 1940 we were tied after 72 holes in the Texas Open, and we were asked to do an interview on a San Antonio radio station. There were no tapes or live remotes in those days, so we had to go downtown to the studio. When the interviewer asked me about Ben's game, I was very complimentary. I said, "If you ever beat Ben, you know one thing—you've beaten a great player." Then he asked Ben about me. Ben kind of smiled and said, "Well, you know, Byron's a pretty good player, but he's too lazy to practice." Well, compared with him, I didn't practice much. Nobody did. So I just laughed. I must have practiced enough, because the next day I beat him.

I thought Ben's problem was shyness. He was uncomfortable with strangers, so people found him cold and rude. But he was also the most dedicated, hardworking person I ever met. Some people say Ben was obsessed with practice, but I see nothing wrong with working as hard as you can to reach a goal.

Of course, he had that "Hogan mystique." I can't explain it because I'm not a psychologist, but players were genuinely afraid of Ben, afraid of playing with him. He wasn't ugly to them, but there was something about that cold stare of his. One year we played a round-robin at Wykagyl Country Club in New Rochelle, N.Y., and Ben and I shot the same medal score—only he ended up plus-51 in his matches and I was plus-26. What does that tell you? The other fellows were afraid of him.

He won 63 tournaments, including nine major championships, but what success and money did for Ben was free him up to be as private as he wanted to be. He was close to his wife, Valerie, and his brother, Royal, but he rarely went out. Somebody asked Ben's secretary if she and Ben were friends, and she said yes, very good friends—but she'd never had a meal with him. Even when he was starting the Ben Hogan Company, in the mid-'50's, he was rarely seen around Fort Worth. I was in an airline ticket office one day when I looked out a window and saw him standing on the opposite corner. The two girls in the office ran to the window and gaped. "That's the first time we've ever seen him," one of them explained. "Somebody always comes to pick his tickets up, and he never makes his own calls."

It would be wrong, though, to say Ben was unfeeling. I went to see him a few times when he was recuperating from his horrible automobile accident in 1949, and he was amazed at the letters, cards, calls and wires he was getting. He said, "You know, people are great. They really like me, don't they?" I think that helped him the rest of his career. After the accident he knew that people cared about him and thought he was all right.

But as I've told the people who have called since Ben died, the Hogan mystique will never be explained—not even by those of us who got as close to him as he would allow. He was a most unusual man.