A Master Mind Obsessed With Perfection
By Shirley Povich
In his own mind there was yet a need to conquer the game he dominated for so many years. Ben Hogan, golf's leading money-winner in 1942 and 1943, beseeched his friend Jimmy Demaret to "teach me your fade." As Demaret related it to me, he told Hogan, "Dammit, Ben, you're winning everything on the tour and you're never satisfied. Mine is a natural fade. You don't need it." He spent an hour teaching Hogan to master the fade. Hogan did.
That's what the game meant to Ben Hogan, who died yesterday at the age of 84: perfection, a subject for constant study. He once said, "Every year, we learn more about golf. It is like medicine and other fields of science." He dissected the golf swing. He couldn't wait for sun-up to get out on the course to test his theories. In his hotel rooms, he practiced his swing before full-length mirrors. "He had the mind of a golf scientist," Herbert Warren Wind wrote.
It earned him the appellation of golf robot, his reticent demeanor on the links mistaken for aloofness. But Demaret, an old friend from their caddie days, attempted to explode this image of Hogan as a detached "loner," saying, "He talks to me on every green. He always says, `You're away.' "
They grew up together in the caddie yards where the pay was 65 cents for an 18-hole round. Hogan was the son of a Dublin, Tex., blacksmith and on occasion they would steal off in Demaret's jalopy to play in tournaments in other cities, where the winner could take home $100. "Sometimes we would run out of gas," Demaret said, "but that was no problem. I spotted cars that maybe could provide me with some fuel." Somewhat appalled, I said, "You mean you used a siphon?" and Demaret said, "We called it our Oklahoma credit card."
In February of 1949, the entire country was rooting for Ben Hogan, but not because of his golf game. Driving from Phoenix to their home in Fort Worth with his wife, Valerie, a skidding bus suddenly crossed into their lane. Before the crash, Hogan flung himself in front of Valerie, who suffered only minor injuries. Hogan? Double fracture of the pelvis, broken collarbone, left ankle and right rib.
Would Ben Hogan play golf again? Within six months, in an incredible comeback that aroused the admiration of the nation, Hogan came back on his faltering legs, and tied Sam Snead in the Los Angeles Open. It mattered little to his fans that he lost the playoff. But five months later, there he was at Merion, Pa., for the U.S. Open, throwing a 69 at Lloyd Mangrum and George Fazio that got him into a playoff that he won with a stiff-legged round of 69.
From there on, it was noticed that Ben Hogan was back. No matter that his step was slowed and he was never free from pain. And he began carving his niche for all time, by winning the first of his Masters titles in 1953. Still owning that grooved Hogan swing, he mopped up in The Masters, the British Open and U.S. Open, leaving the golfing world to wonder if there was ever a more accomplished practitioner of the game. It was at Carnoustie, in Scotland, that the gallery noticed his absorption into every shot at hand by naming him "The Wee Ice Mon."
There is a question whether anybody contributed more to analyzing the golf swing than Hogan, who in writing "The Fundamentals of the Game," confessed that he adapted his own swing from his constant studies of the newsreels that sometimes showed the likes of Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, Bobby Jones and Harry Vardon. It was eons before the quick-study cassette would be available to today's ambitious golfer.
In one of his published articles on the "absolute fundamentals for a good golf swing," Hogan emphasized three keys: 1. the waggle (don't laugh); 2. the hip turn; 3. the plane of the backswing. The waggle -- a flick of the club just before a golfer begins his backswing -- has been the butt of golf jokes since the first Scotsman grasped the first shepherd's crook. But Hogan found a place in the game for it.
Personally, he wrote, he adopted Johnny Revolta's waggle, Revolta being a major presence in the game when Hogan launched his own career. "Revolta, a short-game genius, had different waggles for different strokes," Hogan wrote. To produce a maximum bite on a green after hitting over a bunker, Revolta would waggle, short, staccato strokes. This type of waggle would give a foretaste of the type of shot needed. "I even adopted Revolta's longer waggle for my full shots," Hogan said.
There was a period when Hogan was still on canes and following the PGA play one day in St. Louis when we were asking him some questions. Ben said, "Guys, save the questions for lunch and I'll answer all of them then."
His answer to our first question was calculated to shock golfers everywhere, those raised on "Drive for show and putt for dough." The query was, "Ben, what's the most important shot in golf?" And Hogan said, "The drive. It governs the nature of the entire hole. It tells you whether you have problems or don't."
Even as he treated every golf course as a study in progress, the late, great Ben Hogan, golf's student-professor, wasn't afraid to explode the myths of the game.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company