Say that Ben Hogan was the greatest golfer ever and you might get an argument. But say he was the greatest student of the game and no one will disagree.
Watching Hogan’s swing, seeing him analyze the weaknesses of a course and then exploit them, virtually feeling the intensity of his concentration, left hackers and pros alike weak with admiration.
Sam Snead won more tournaments. Jack Nicklaus won more major championships. But no one struck fear into the heart of an opponent like Hogan.
Hogan’s single-minded determination, his success in major championships, the recovery from the near-fatal car crash and his reluctance with words all helped create an aura around him unlike that of anyone else who played the game.
He was known as “Bantam Ben” for his diminutive size, “The Hawk” for his intense scrutiny of a course, and “The Wee Icemon” for his steely nerve. It all was part of “The Hogan Mystique,” an appropriate title for a fascinating new book.
The 132-page collection of photos by Jules Alexander and essays by Dave Anderson, Dan Jenkins and Ben Crenshaw captures all we already knew about him - and more.
The beautifully reproduced black-and-white shots taken mostly at the 1959 U.S. Open at Winged Foot show the impeccable form, but also capture a rarely seen human side of Hogan.
Hogan, 82, says as little about himself these days as he ever did, but through his wife of 60 years, Valerie, he gave glowing praise for the work edited by Martin Davis and published by The American Golfer.
“We both really feel it to be the best ever done,” Valerie Hogan told The Associated Press. “Mr. Alexander must be a genius. I’ve never seen more marvelous photos. I really felt he captured Ben.”
Indeed, not only did Alexander capture Hogan, but the essays by Anderson, Jenkins and Crenshaw provide compelling insight.
The photo captions by Ken Venturi help make “The Hogan Mystique” not only a photo essay but also a textbook on how to swing a golf club.
“We’ve gotten so many letters from friends of Ben to say this is the first book to show him like he really is,” Valerie Hogan said. “And we’ve had people tell us every junior golfer should read it to learn how to play the game.”
Looking at these photos you can almost hear the ball exploding off the clubhead, feel the force of the swing, smell the wisp of smoke curling from his cigarette and grab the grass flung into the air as Hogan’s club clips the ball and cuts a perfectly square divot.
There is also the famous Hogan stare and the rare, warm smile.
The essays sketch Hogan’s life from fatherless at age 9, caddie at 12, failed professional twice, and through the auto wreck to the dominant player in the game.
Hogan turned pro in 1931 but had only one career victory starting the 1940 season and didn’t win his first major until 1946, at age 34.
“My greatest accomplishment was being able to make a living playing golf after going broke twice starting out,” Hogan once said.
He accomplished much more than that.
In the three seasons from 1946-48, Hogan won 30 tournaments, including two PGAs and the U.S. Open. He won twice in the first month of 1949, then on Feb. 2 his car hit a bus on a fog-covered highway near El Paso, Texas. Hogan threw himself across Valerie’s lap and in doing so likely saved both their lives.
He nearly died in the crash and again two weeks later when blood clots formed in his right leg. A vein in the leg was tied off to prevent clots and he never walked without pain again. Never again would he play more than seven tournaments in a season.
But no one ever did so much with such limited opportunity.
Just 16 months after the crash, Hogan won the 1950 U.S. Open. The next year he won the Open again and the Masters. Then in 1953 he became the only man to sweep the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open in the same year. In fact, Hogan entered six tournaments in 1953 - and won five of them. The match-play format of the PGA requiring 180 holes in five days to win the championship was physically impossible for Hogan, ending any chance of a Grand Slam sweep.
In the four years after the car crash, Hogan won six of the nine major championships he entered.
Perhaps most remarkably, in the 16 U.S. Opens he played between 1940 and 1960, Hogan never finished out of the top 10 and won it four times in five tries from 1948-53.
Beginning with the 1946 PGA Championship, Hogan won nine of the next 16 majors he entered.
Anderson, a Pulitzer Prize-winner for The New York Times, wrote in his essay that Hogan created “a mystique that will endure as long as duffers toil to take strokes off their handicap.”
Alexander was able to both portray that mystique and puncture it. Part of what makes his photos remarkable is that they capture Hogan at every stage of his swing. Alexander was apparently able to be non-intrusive because of a long lens and a quiet camera.
It was all something Alexander stumbled into while following Hogan in a practice round.
“There was something fascinating about him,” Alexander said. “So I followed his group and at first took just a few random shots of him. For some reason, I found myself taking more and more photos that day and also later, during the championship. In the end, I exposed many rolls of film.”
Crenshaw, the leading historian among golf professionals, called the photos “the finest shots ever of Hogan in action. They reflect the passion and pride of a man who truly loved his work.”
The stories about Hogan also make the book well worth the $50 purchase price.
Jenkins tells about coming across Hogan practicing one day in 1951.
“He began to punch choked-down 3-irons about, oh, 155 yards or thereabouts,” Jenkins said. “‘What the hell is that,’ I couldn’t help asking.”
“Without looking up he said, ‘I need it at Oakland Hills,”’ the site of the U.S. Open that year.
Hogan won that Open, shooting a final-round 67 while the rest of the field averaged 75.
Venturi’s lengthy photo captions make this an instruction book that should sit right next to Hogan’s own “Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf.”
On facing pages, there are two shots of Hogan’s follow through with a slight but astounding difference. Venturi points this out.
Perhaps more than anything, this book will dispel one myth about Hogan - that he was an automaton, a robot with a golf club.
As these two photos showed, every shot was a challenge for Hogan, each was thought about. The genius of Hogan’s creativity was his ability to hide it from all but the most observant eye.