July 26, 1997 in Sports

Legend Hogan Dies At 84 ‘The Hawk’ Pursued Perfection In Golf Game

Ron Sirak Associated Press
 

The numbers in the record book detail the golfing greatness of Ben Hogan, who died Friday at 84. A photograph captured his heart and soul.

The picture shows Hogan in his follow through, peering from beneath his trademark white cap as the ball flew from his 1-iron toward the final green of the 1950 U.S. Open.

Just 16 months after a near-fatal car crash, there was Hogan hitting one of the hardest shots under the supreme pressure of the U.S. Open. And he hit it perfectly, forcing a playoff he would win the next day.

Perfection is what this quiet man spent a lifetime pursuing.

Hogan, who had colon cancer surgery two years ago and Alzheimer’s disease, died at his home in Fort Worth, Texas, according to his secretary, Pat Martin.

Byron Nelson, a friend for more than 70 years, said Hogan had a major stroke on Thursday.

“No one ever played the game like Mr. Hogan and no human has ever come as close to controlling the golf ball as perfectly as he did,” two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw said.

“Ben Hogan defined the inner will that lives within us,” he said. “The Hawk’s shadow will be felt upon the game forever.”

“The Hawk” was what the players called Hogan for the way he studied a course.

He was also known as “Bantam Ben” because of his size, 5-foot-8 and 140 pounds. The adoring crowds in Scotland called him “The Wee Ice Mon” because of his steely demeanor.

But for anyone who followed golf, Hogan simply meant perfection.

Sam Snead and Jack Nicklaus were the only players to surpass Hogan’s 63 career victories. And Nicklaus and Walter Hagen were the only ones to win more than his nine major professional championships.

But no one surpassed Hogan in his dedication to the game. He was the most feared player of his time, and somehow played his best golf after the 1949 car crash that shattered his legs so he never walked without pain again.

Playing a limited schedule because of his legs, Hogan had perhaps the greatest year ever by a professional golfer in 1953 when he played in six tournaments and won five of them, including the Masters, the U.S. Open and the British Open.

But his legs couldn’t hold up for the more than 200 holes of match play Hogan would have needed to win the PGA Championship and he did not even try for the never-achieved grand slam.

“Ben Hogan personified golf for many of us,” PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said. “In addition to his phenomenal ability, he will be remembered for his tremendous courage and the way in which he went about his business. The sport may never see another like him.”

The enduring image of Hogan for fans will be of the little man in the white cap, puffing on a cigarette, staring straight ahead, lost in concentration on the next shot, then playing that shot perfectly.

The enduring image of Hogan for his fellow professionals will be of the loner who spent endless hours on the practice fairway, hitting ball after ball to achieve a swing that held up under pressure better than anyone else’s.

“I remember playing two rounds with him in the 1960 U.S. Open,” Nicklaus said. “I was amazed at his concentration as well as his shotmaking and total commitment to perfection.”

Even after he stopped competing, Hogan practiced every day. And when his mind faded in his later years from Alzheimer’s, Hogan still thought of practice.

“He talks about hitting balls, then he forgets,” Valerie, his wife of 62 years, told The Associated Press in a 1995 interview.

Hogan’s strong-willed concentration, endless devotion to practice and careful way with words created the image of a cold, hard man.

Those closest to Hogan - and there were few - told of a man with a kind heart and a keen sense of humor.

“You know, I always thought he was a handsome man,” Mrs. Hogan said. “And a warm person. He wasn’t the machine everyone thought. He just worked harder.”

It was her life that Hogan saved in that 1949 crash when he threw himself across her lap as their car slammed head-on into a bus. It also saved Hogan’s life, since he would have been impaled by the steering wheel.

Born to a hard-scrabble life in rural Dublin, Texas, on Aug. 13, 1912, William Ben Hogan was 9 years old and in the room when his blacksmith father, Chester, committed suicide with a .45-caliber pistol.

Shortly after, his mother, Clara, moved the family to Fort Worth and Hogan discovered golf as a caddie at Glen Garden Country Club where, at age 15, he lost the caddie championship in a playoff to another boy his age - Byron Nelson.

Hogan turned pro when he was 17, joined the tour fulltime at 19 in 1931 and neared bankruptcy several times until he won his first tournament at the Hershey Four-Ball in 1938.

Hogan’s 63 victories is third all-time to Snead’s 81 and Nicklaus’ 70. Only Nicklaus, Gene Sarazen and Gary Player also won the Masters, U.S. Open, PGA Championship and British Open in their careers.

Only Nicklaus, Bobby Jones and Willie Anderson matched Hogan’s four U.S. Open victories.

And only Nicklaus, with 18, and Hagen, with 11, won more major professional championships than Hogan.

Hogan’s obsessive drive to master the game took time to bear fruit. After years of fighting a severe right-to-left hook, Hogan changed to a controlled left-to-right game. He started winning regularly at age 28 and at 33 emerged as the greatest player in the world.

In a rare interview in 1987 with Golf Digest, Hogan said he never tried to hit a straight shot.

“I can’t,” he said. “I don’t believe anybody else can hit a straight ball. You only hit a straight ball by accident. The ball is going to move right or left every time you hit it, so you had better make it go one way or the other.”

From the time of his discharge from the Army in August 1945 until the head-on car crash on Feb. 2, 1949, Hogan won an astounding 37 tournaments, including two PGA Championships and a U.S. Open.

That burst alone would have made him ninth on the all-time list.

Beginning with his breakthrough major at the 1946 PGA Championship and ending with his British Open triumph at Carnoustie in 1953, Hogan played in 16 major championships and won nine. He won six of the first nine majors he played after the accident.

After the crash, a typical Hogan day would be breakfast, practice, lunch and then more practice.

In his rare post-accident tournament appearances, other players would stop what they were doing to watch Hogan hit balls. It was said that his ball striking was so pure, a pro could turn his back and tell Hogan’s hits by the sharp, cracking sound they made.

Asked if Nicklaus might have been the greatest player ever, Tommy Bolt, who played against Hogan, said: “I’ve seen Nicklaus watch Hogan practice. I’ve never seen Hogan watch Nicklaus practice.”

More than anything, it was Hogan’s recovery from the crash that helped build the Hogan Mystique.

He almost died a few weeks after the accident when blood clots formed in his left leg, but he returned to competitive golf less than a year later, losing the 1950 Los Angeles Open in a playoff to Snead.

“His heart was simply not big enough to carry his legs any longer,” famed sportswriter Grantland Rice said.

Then 16 months after the accident, Hogan won the U.S. Open at Merion. He finished the grueling 36-hole final day at Merion with his legs, bandaged from ankle to thigh, throbbing in pain, then won a playoff with Lloyd Mangrum and George Fazio the next day.

“Merion meant the most to me,” Hogan once said, “because it proved I could still win.”

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: REMEMBERING BEN HOGAN Born: Aug. 13, 1912. Turned pro: 1929. Joined pro tour: 1931. First pro victory: Hershey Four-Ball ‘38. First major championship: 1946 PGA Championship. Career victories: 63. Most victories in a season: 13 (1946). Most consecutive victories: 6 (1948); 5 (1953); 3 (five times). Only player with two double-digit victory seasons: 13 (1946); 10 (1948). Most under par for a tournament: 27 (1945 Portland Invitational). Tied by Mike Souchak in 1995 Texas Open. Major championships: PGA Championship 1946, ‘48; U.S. Open 1948, ‘50, ‘51, ‘53; Masters ‘51, ‘53; British Open ‘53. Last career victory: 1959 Colonial Invitational. Last pro tournament: 1971 Houston.

They said it

“For as long as the game is played, the name Ben Hogan will always have a unique fascination for all true golfers, as well as commanding the deepest respect.” - Ben Crenshaw

“Ben was a self-made golfer. He had trouble learning, but when he did and got rid of his hook, he played great. … When he did bloom late, he really bloomed.” -Byron Nelson

“Golf has lost, in my opinion, the best shotmaker the game has ever seen. We will all miss him very much. He was a great man.” -Jack Nicklaus

“You didn’t have a casual conversation with Ben. He looked you in the pupil of your eye right to the back of your brain.” -Former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman

This sidebar appeared with the story: REMEMBERING BEN HOGAN Born: Aug. 13, 1912. Turned pro: 1929. Joined pro tour: 1931. First pro victory: Hershey Four-Ball ‘38. First major championship: 1946 PGA Championship. Career victories: 63. Most victories in a season: 13 (1946). Most consecutive victories: 6 (1948); 5 (1953); 3 (five times). Only player with two double-digit victory seasons: 13 (1946); 10 (1948). Most under par for a tournament: 27 (1945 Portland Invitational). Tied by Mike Souchak in 1995 Texas Open. Major championships: PGA Championship 1946, ‘48; U.S. Open 1948, ‘50, ‘51, ‘53; Masters ‘51, ‘53; British Open ‘53. Last career victory: 1959 Colonial Invitational. Last pro tournament: 1971 Houston.

They said it

“For as long as the game is played, the name Ben Hogan will always have a unique fascination for all true golfers, as well as commanding the deepest respect.” - Ben Crenshaw

“Ben was a self-made golfer. He had trouble learning, but when he did and got rid of his hook, he played great. … When he did bloom late, he really bloomed.” -Byron Nelson

“Golf has lost, in my opinion, the best shotmaker the game has ever seen. We will all miss him very much. He was a great man.” -Jack Nicklaus

“You didn’t have a casual conversation with Ben. He looked you in the pupil of your eye right to the back of your brain.” -Former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email