Obituary: Ben Hogan

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If Ben Hogan is not the greatest player golf has ever seen he is as close to it as the game is ever likely to know. However you look at fame, Hogan was famous; not merely for his achievements, nine major championships, third on the all-time list of winners behind Jack Nicklaus and Sam Snead with 63 USPGA Tour victories. People associate Hogan with golf in the way they associate Muhammad Ali with boxing and Sir Donald Bradman with cricket. The connection thrives in their subconscious and is therefore a true measure of fame.

When he was established as one of golf's leading figures, Hogan's profile was raised internationally by the remarkable fortitude that enabled him to capture a second US Open title just 18 months after an automobile accident left him close to death.

On a foggy morning early in 1949 Hogan was travelling with his wife Valerie from a tournament in Phoenix to Fort Worth through the Apache mountains when a bus crashed head-on into his vehicle. It took more than an hour to free Hogan from the wreckage, his injuries so serious that doctors gave him very little chance of ever walking again.

The word "courageous" is loosely used in sport to describe someone who plays with a limp or bats with a sore finger. In Hogan's case it was fully merited. Defying medical opinion, he fought back from injuries that, in the majority of cases, would have been fatal; fractured pelvis, broken collar-bone, deep gash by the left eye, broken ribs, torn ankle, bladder injury, massive contusions in the left leg, blood clot in the right lung, second blood clot in the left leg that led to a critical operation. For weeks a heavy cast encased him from hips to armpits, left leg badly swollen with impaired circulation.

Many years later, Louis T. Stanley wrote:

The future for the bed-ridden Ben Hogan must have seemed bleak.

Mending of bones is automatic, but

mental blocks are different. Under pressure, self-control wears thin and moods of depression become the language of strain. The saving grace for Hogan was the unflinching determination to recover. A lesser man would have settled for a wheelchair existence.

The extent of Hogan's recovery was astonishing. Within a month he was discharged from hospital. Although never completely free from pain, and by then 37 years old, he went on to win six more major championships including, in 1953, the Open at his first and only attempt. That year Hogan's injuries limited him to six tournaments, but he won five of them - three of them majors, the Masters, the US Open and the Open at Carnoustie. He became only one of four golfers to have won all four major championships and also one of only four men to have won the Open and US Open Championships during the same summer.

Thinking that it might help to relieve media pressure Hogan agreed to a film about his life, Follow the Sun, produced by 20th Century Fox in 1951 with Glenn Ford in the lead. In the first full-scale biography of Hogan, published last year, Curt Sampson wrote,

Trying to guess how much was Hogan and how much was Hollywood is the only reason to watch the movie now . . . Ford was horrendously miscast . . . his forte was portraying earnestness, hard work, and bashfulness. Hogan was earnest and hard- working, all right, but there was assertion and self-interest in his shyness, and he was tougher than a truck-stop steak. Ford's Hogan was an irresolute little flower.

The revered American golf writer Herbert Warren Wind wrote that Hogan, known as "The Hawk", played golf with "the burning frigidity of dry ice". Certainly, the Texan revealed very little of himself. Many opponents were intimidated by Hogan's intense concentration and all were in awe of his dedication. Stories of his leaving the practice ground with bloodied fingers and tears of frustration were no myth.

If the ultimate perfectionist, Hogan had no great natural gifts. What he had he worked for, at last finding the key after years of toiling to cure a damaging hook. The golf teacher Bob Torrance once said, "All modern teaching comes from Hogan. In my lifetime of coaching I have seen just one man whose swing I could not have improved no matter what I had said or done. That man was Ben Hogan. He had everything. Everything a golfer could want."

Of all the instructional manuals produced about golf Hogan's Modern Fundamentals, first published in 1957, remains the most quoted, his described swing, with its emphasis on plane, still regarded as the model for aspiring professionals.

Many players, both of Hogan's time and of later generations, came to know his taciturn nature. When granted an audience with the great man Nick Faldo asked what it took to win the US Open. "Shoot the lowest score," Hogan replied.

It has been said of Hogan that few public people understood the public less, that he couldn't understand casual golfers - or casual anything - because he had been purposeful all day, every day, since he was nine. His name is synonymous with concentration and determination.

In Sampson's words,

The Little Man had no yardage book, no golf glove, no self- congratulation, no logo, no bullshit, and no pretence. Everything he accomplished, he dug out of the ground. Ben Hogan was an imperfect but honourable man, a champion and a gentleman.

Ken Jones

Benjamin William Hogan, golfer: born Dublin, Texas 13 August 1912; USPGA champion 1946, 1948; US Ryder Cup captain 1947, 1949, 1951; US Open champion 1948, 1950, 1951, 1953; Masters champion 1951, 1953; Open champion 1953; married 1935 Valerie Fox; died Fort Worth, Texas 25 July 1997.