No golfer was emulated more than Ben Hogan, yet no player was more distinct. He had been transformed into an immortal long before his death last week at 84, becoming more concept than corpus, his name attached to the word mystique.
Hogan may or may not have been the greatest the game has ever seen. It doesn't really matter. The name, Hogan, has come to stand for an intimate and unyielding attempt to master an unmasterable sport. As a golfer Hogan was pure, not only because of the clean contact he made with the ball but also because he found fulfillment in the task. He possessed nobility and had soul. For all the outward severity of his manner and all the setbacks the game dealt him, any examination of Hogan reveals that he took profound pleasure in the physical and mental challenge of hitting wondrous golf shots.
Hogan's aura was palpable, its own advertisement and something that inspired other players. Almost exclusively by actions instead of words, Hogan influenced more future greats than any 10 other golfers. Billy Casper so admired Hogan that he suppressed the loose, wise-guy bent of his youth in favor of a stoic on-course persona gained through a form of self-hypnosis. Gary Player, who among the top players most closely resembled Hogan in size, work ethic and skill, dedicated his early professional career to duplicating every facet of Hogan's swing. Under the tutelage of a Hogan contemporary, Jack Grout, a teenage Jack Nicklaus committed himself to sound course management and the more controllable left-to-right ball flight that had turned around Hogan's career in the late '40s. In 1964, when Lee Trevino saw the Hawk hitting soft cuts with a four-wood on the practice ground at Shady Oaks in Fort Worth, he junked his own low hook for a fade and four years later won the U.S. Open. Johnny Miller admits that "the way I wore my hat and squinted my eyes, all that was from Ben Hogan." Nick Faldo, proud to be called Hoganesque in his approach to the game, has spent hours studying film of Hogan's action. So has Tiger Woods, whose teacher, Butch Harmon, used to sit at the family dinner table enraptured as his father. Claude, and Hogan discussed the fine points of the game. "There's a lot of Ben Hogan in Tiger Woods," says Harmon.
Among players of less talent Hogan was even more fervently studied. Late in his career it was common for Hogan's galleries to be sprinkled with fellow competitors seeking an epiphany. The most openly imitative in swing, dress and manner was Gardner Dickinson, who, when out of hearing distance, was often called the Chickenhawk. For every emulator who made a mark, there have been hundreds of hard-practicing, flat-swinging, earnestly pronating, white-cap-wearing, no-talking perfectionists whose identification with every aspect of Hoganness allowed them to believe their failures were simply necessary steps on an inevitable, if very rocky, road to success. Hogan's methods and habits were such common knowledge, the jagged curve of his journey such an apparent blueprint, that it obscured the fact that genius can never be duplicated.
Hogan's early struggles—he didn't win a Tour event until seven years after turning pro—at first made him appear more accessible than other greats like Bobby Jones, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead, whose early successes dwarfed Hogan's. Later, though, those failures added to the perception that Hogan's golf carried an extra conviction, as if it were more valid, more part of a purposeful design, more earned.
A telling illustration of this phenomenon came in 1950, when Hogan was named player of the year. Snead had won 11 events that season, taken the money title and set a scoring-average record of 69.23 that still stands. Hogan won just one tournament, but it was the U.S. Open at Merion, and it came only 16 months after he had suffered near-fatal injuries in a head-on collision with a bus on a lonely road near El Paso. Snead was a golfer, and a great one. Hogan, because of his dedication and courage, was a hero.
Hogan wasn't only about intangibles. He had 63 victories from 1938 to '59, and at his peak was the most efficient winner of major championships in history, winning nine of the 16 majors he played in from the 1946 PGA through the '53 British Open. Still, because of his inscrutable manner, there was always a sense that he carried something deep within that was even more interesting than his talent. Intentionally or not, Hogan fostered some of this. Whereas Jones. Nelson and Snead, and later Nicklaus, were generous and open with their views about the game, Hogan created an enormous appetite for his ideas by withholding them. In 1957 he finally wrote, with Herbert Warren Wind, Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf, and it remains one of the game's alltime bestsellers. In public Hogan would politely refer people to his book whenever the subject of the golf swing came up, while in private he cut them dead with a pith that is part of his legend. Miller remembers approaching Hogan in the dining room of the Olympic Club after the fourth round of the 1966 U.S. Open. Miller, then 19, had just tied for eighth as an amateur and was excited about meeting his idol, who had finished 12th. But before Miller could get his name out, Hogan, without looking up from his plate, froze the youngster with the words "Can't you see I'm eating my soup?"
Such brusqueness contributed to Hogan's solitary life, but it was grounded in honesty. Hogan believed talk was cheap and that by his silence he was pointing others toward action rather than verbiage. Whether mean-spirited or not, he was ultimately imparting the real Hogan Secret to success in golf: "It's in the dirt."
Hogan wanted the standards he left for the game to speak more eloquently than his words. He was proudest of the control he gained over the golf ball. To an elite player, judgment and putting may actually have a greater influence on score and winning tournaments, but ball striking demands the greatest degree of virtuosity. It is also the most difficult area of the game to master, particularly so for Hogan, whose goal was to execute the ideal shot for every situation. If the flagstick was in the back left portion of the green, Hogan produced a low draw that landed in the middle of the green and ran toward the hole. If the hole was cut in the front right, Hogan feathered a high fade that sat down quickly. The chief reason he had such control was the amazingly quick rotation of his hips on the downswing, a move that cleared out room for his right side to release and featured an abnormal extension of the right arm to the target. Even after his accident in '49, Hogan had a supremely athletic-swing that made shotmaking possible.
Hogan's style of playing died out in the '70s, after his impact had faded and players began to realize that it is simpler and less risky to master one shot shape and use it conservatively. Hogan's way required constant maintenance, even for the most talented players, something that never fazed the originator. For him, particularly after he reached his peak, the means was the end.