One of the best players to ever play the game was the late Ben Hogan (1912 – 1997). Many of the players from that era have faded to the back of our memories, but Hogan’s greatness was so towering, that will never happen in his case.
One of the reasons that will never happen is that each year the PGA Tour returns to Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas. Once known as just, “Colonial,” title sponsors do their best to lay claim to the attention their tournaments garner while keeping their traditions alive: it’s now formally become, “The Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial,” and it begins Thursday.
And because Hogan won the tournament five times (’46, ’47, ’52, 53, ’59), it’s also known as Hogan’s Alley (as is Riviera in Los Angeles where he won three times). So each year Ben Hogan comes alive for us again, not only because of his record, but because of all of the people who knew him and have stories about him.
Hogan was a reclusive man. Some say it was because of the trauma of discovering his father’s body when he was just a boy. He had committed suicide. Others say it was because he was a product of the wrong side of the tracks and never really felt worthy of being on the limelight side. Others said it was his merciless hook that instilled self-consciousness and insecurities even after he found a way to fix it (documented in his iconic book, Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf). Whatever it was, he is known for his curt social interactions.
When I was Monday qualifying, I was paired with a San Francisco Bay club pro named Bob Boldt up in Park City, Utah. He was good enough that he played on the PGA Tour, once finishing second in the Phoenix Open. He told me that this was a watershed event for him. It confirmed that he was a player and it inspired him to do whatever it took to get better. The biggest step he thought he could make was to seek out Ben Hogan to help him with his swing.
“No, you don’t want to see Hogan,” his friends said.
“Yeah, I do. I just had a good finish and I want to get better,” he said.
“No, not Hogan,” they warned.
“No, it’s got to be Hogan,” he persisted.
“Okay, if you say so.”
So he called Colonial and arranged to meet with the great man a short time later. “Mr. Hogan will meet with you on Wednesday,” the shop said.
So Bob arrived at the appointed hour and the shop told him to head out to the range. Which he did. He warmed up and hit balls for hours, but Hogan never showed. “Come back tomorrow,” the shop said.
The same thing happened on Thursday. “Come back tomorrow,” he was told again.
Friday morning, he’s on the range hitting balls and suddenly the great man is there. “Oh, Mr. Hogan, I’m so honored to get a chance to work with you. I just finished second in Phoenix and it would mean a great deal to me for you to take a look at my swing.”
“Let me see you hit some shots,” Hogan said.
So Bob started hitting balls while Hogan stood silently by.
After he’d hit some shots, he looked expectantly over at Hogan. “I can’t help you,” was all he said and he turned and walked away.
To the day Bob told me that story, he never knew exactly what Hogan meant. Was he so good there was nothing Hogan could add or so bad there was nothing he could add.
Writing at pgatour.com, Fred Albers tells a similar story in “Hogan’s memory produces plenty of thrills and chills.”
I got to meet Hogan one time. He attended the 1991 U.S. Women’s Open at Colonial Country Club. He was watching a friend of his, Kris Tschetter, compete, and I was caddying for my wife Kristi.
As we walked off the 72nd hole, there he was … right in front of me. I could not help but walk up and say hello.
I have committed the conversation to memory.
“Mr. Hogan, I’m Fred Albers from El Paso. I just caddied for my wife Kristi and wanted to say hello,” I told Hogan.
I must have looked like a school boy or a puppy dog craving some kind of acknowledgement.
He stopped, looked at me, and paused for a moment as if he was deciding to speak or walk away. Then he said, “I admire your wife’s game.”
It was a full five words and 10 seconds of interaction before he turned away.
It’s worth taking a minute to read Albers entire post because he has some other interesting historical insights to include tracking down the abandoned El Paso, Texas, hospital where Hogan was taken after his famous automobile accident in Van Horne, Texas. He actually roamed the halls looking for Hogan’s room.
And there is another nice historical piece written by Steve Elling at CBSSports.com, “New World Order: Covering nine with the ghost of Ben Hogan.” Elling begins
There are eight books relating to the life, times and swing of Ben Hogan on the bookshelf outside my man-cave office, and while each provides some insight into the mythic man, none are fully illuminating.
And then he sets out to add more layers to the Hogan story. This is a good post because it also includes quotes from his wife, Valerie, the person closest to him. And Elling is an entertaining writer.
So these last two weeks have acted as a kind of historical golf twofer. Last week it was “Lord” Byron Nelson in Dallas and this week it’s “The Hawk,” Ben Hogan in Fort Worth.
It’s important to keep these two greats alive in our memories. As I once explained to a young teenager who was an avid golfer and hated history, “If we didn’t have history, no one would have ever heard of Jack Nicklaus.”
That stopped him in his tracks.