The closest Ben Hogan came to disclosing the secret of his golf swing was to say, “The secret is in the dirt,” meaning the dirt of the practice range. Even so, he emerged as golf’s Dalai Lama, visited in his Fort Worth office by touring pros hoping to learn the secret of his swing. Or any secret.
“I’m having trouble,” a touring pro once told him, “with my long putts.”
To that, Hogan, who once hit the flagstick on consecutive holes at the Masters, suggested, “Why don’t you try hitting your irons closer to the pin.”
And when William Benjamin Hogan died Friday at 84, his “secret” died with him.
That’s probably the way he wanted it because it fits his real secret: his dual mystique. His gunmetal eyes peering from below a flat white linen cap as a golfer, his protective aura around the golf clubs he put his name on as a businessman.
To golf pros, old and young, he was “Mr. Hogan,” for how he played and for the quality of the clubs he designed.
“About all Ben ever said on a golf course,” Sam Snead said, “was ‘good luck’ on the tee and ‘you’re away.”’
In what Hogan called “tournament golf,” as opposed to any other golf, he was wrapped in concentration. At 5 feet 8 inches and 140 pounds, he was known as Bantam Ben, but in the 1940s and early ‘50s he was the giant of the game. He created the “power fade” and analyzed how to hit a golf ball as if he were a nuclear scientist.
Asked by Ben Crenshaw how he kept a 5-iron under the wind, he appeared not to hear the question.
“I try,” he finally said, “to hit it on the second groove.”
Over at Carnoustie, where the Scots named him “the Wee Icemon” for winning the 1953 British Open, they still talk about how he played the 490-yard sixth hole like nobody else ever did: hitting his tee shot in all four rounds down the left side into the narrow gap between the fairway bunkers and an out-of-bounds fence.
“It’s the best place to open up the green,” he explained.
Nobody else dared to play it that way, but he did. And when Gary Player once asked him about the proper position of the hands at the top of the backswing, nobody else would have growled at the South African pro, but Hogan did, asking, “What clubs are you using now?”
“Dunlop,” Player said.
“Then call Mr. Dunlop.”
As truly dominating as Jack Nicklaus and Bobby Jones were in their eras, many of Hogan’s contemporaries stand by him as the best ever.
“I’ve seen Nicklaus watch Hogan practice,” Tommy Bolt once said, “but I’ve never seen Hogan watch Nicklaus practice.”
Hogan is the only golfer to have won the Masters, the U.S. Open and the British Open in the same year, 1953. Over all, he won 63 PGA Tour events, including nine majors: two Masters, a record-sharing four U.S. Opens, one British Open in his only try, and two Professional Golfers Association titles.
And at the top of his game in the ‘40s, Hogan never had the opportunity to play in another 20 majors because of his Army Air Force duty during World War II and his life-threatening injuries in the head-on crash of his car with a bus that had pulled out to pass a truck on a foggy Texas highway early in 1949.
Sixteen months later he won the second of his four U.S. Open titles at Merion in 1950.
“Merion meant the most,” he said years later, “because I proved I could still win.”
He demanded perfection in everything. Upon receiving a shipment of several dozen golf balls before a U.S. Open, he inspected each one through a magnifying glass.
“Some of these balls,” he explained, “have a little too much paint in the dimples.”
When the Senior PGA Tour began, he was still playing occasionally and hitting balls daily at Shady Oaks in Fort Worth, Texas, but he never entered a senior tournament. If he couldn’t compete at his best, he wouldn’t compete.
“I’m the sole judge,” he declared, “of my standards.”
The standards that created the mystique that defined him.