In the late 1970S I became obsessed with Ben Hogan. A columnist for the Dallas Morning News, I had heard what sounded like ghost stories about how Hogan could be glimpsed only through the trees when he hit balls, alone, in a practice fairway at Shady Oaks Country Club in Fort Worth. I'd heard that Hogan had become a bitter recluse, even shunning interviews with writers who had followed him for years.
I couldn't help but be curious about why, after playing his final tournament in 1971, Hogan had turned his back on a world that marveled at his quest for golf perfection. Three times I called his secretary requesting an interview. Each time she said, "Maybe in a couple of months." I got the message.
So in the summer of 1980, when Hogan was 67, I began to interview pros from Hogan's era and Shady Oaks members who had observed him from a distance. Several pros expressed resentment and sympathy. They resented perhaps the greatest golfer ever for refusing to lend his ticket-selling mystique to the Legends of Golf tournament. Yet most were painfully familiar with the demons that had robbed Hogan of his ability to play golf.
It wasn't merely that Hogan suffered from the putting yips, as any 67-year-old might. No, Hogan's affliction was so severe that he could no longer even attempt to putt. Several members vowed that Hogan still struck the ball as purely and consistently as ever—at 64, they said, he shot his age on his home course by smothering the flag so often he had "five or six gimme birdies." But soon after that, they said, Hogan hit his approach shot on number 1 about five feet from the cup—then stood over the putt for several minutes before leaving his ball on the green and returning to his private table in the club's Terrace Room. There, as usual, he sat alone, smoking cigarettes.
Soon Hogan refused to play golf in public. Instead he continued to do what had made him great: He hit practice balls, every day, rain or shine. In August 1980 I wrote a column about how Hogan took Max and his shag bag to a remote portion of a practice fairway and hit balls for hours. Max—a black-and-white shepherd mix—was, I explained, the "club dog." Max did not require another of Hogan's dislikes: conversation.
I doubted that Hogan would like—or even read—an article about his reclusion, but I soon received a letter from him, saying in part, "Thanks very much for the nice article.... There is a problem, however.... Max is suing me for contributory negligence. You recall that you called Max 'the club dog.' Everyone, including Max, knows he is not a dog but that he is President, Chairman of the Board and protector of the club's membership. I have explained to Max that the article was written unbeknown to me, but he will not accept that.... When I speak to him now, he wags his tail very slightly, whereas in the past he would give me a vigorous waggle. Also, he has stopped watching me practice. This, of course, really puts me down since he was my last galleryite. I will try to settle this suit out of court for a few Quarter-Pounders, but...."
The letter, obviously did not sound as if it had been written by a bitter man. A subsequent phone conversation I had with Hogan confirmed that he was spending his later years doing what made him happiest—hitting balls and perfecting his swing. No press. No putting. Just he and Max.
When I heard last Friday that Mr. Hogan had died, I reread the framed letter and felt good.