The questions have been asked and debated countless times on the course, in the media and at every 19th hole: “Who are the all-time best? Who is on golf’s Mount Rushmore?” The question will never be truly answered. But you can bet your last buck that Ben Hogan will be part of the conversation.
He won 64 tournaments, including nine majors. He is one of the only five players to win the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA. He may have been the best ball-striker the game has ever known. And he is also the only player in that conversation to have overcome a harrowing, near-death experience on his way to the peak of the game.
It was said Ben Hogan had the secret. Whether he did or not, it was not the nature of the man to say. But if one player deserved to have the secret – by dint of total dedication and immersion in the game – it would be him.
Hogan had a code – work, study, endure – that he never betrayed. The way he unwaveringly applied his code to achieving total control of the golf ball is legendary. When he won, it was completely deserved. When he lost, it was poignant because no man gave so much. “I always outworked everybody,” he said. “Work never bothered me like it bothers some people.”
“The secret’s in the dirt.” (Hogan on the secret of his golf swing.)
Because he was the master of control, the U.S. Open was the canvas upon which Hogan did his best work. The Hawk won it four times: 1948, 1950, 1951 and 1953. From 1940 to 1960, excluding the championships of 1949 and 1957, both of which he missed due to injury, Hogan never finished out of the top 10 at a U.S. Open
Hogan was born Aug. 13, 1912, in Dublin, Texas. His father was a blacksmith who died when Ben was 9. After moving to Fort Worth, Hogan began his life in golf as a caddy, along with Byron Nelson, at the Glen Garden C.C. Hogan joined the professional circuit in 1932, and had very little early success. Small but strong at 5-7, 140 pounds, Hogan was a long hitter who was often undone by a hook. He went broke twice, and when he was on the verge a third time on the eve of 1938 Oakland Open, he thought seriously about giving up.
Instead, he shot a final-round 69 to finish second and win $380 to keep going. “I played harder that day than I ever played before or ever will again,” he said.
Hogan didn’t bloom until he found “a secret” – believed by some to be a weakening of his left hand along with the pronounced clockwise rotation of his left arm on the backswing – that allowed him to play a power fade. After several close calls, he won his first major at the 1946 PGA Championship. When he won the 1948 PGA in May and the U.S. Open at Riviera three weeks later, Hogan ruled the game.
But on Feb. 2, 1949, a Greyhound bus crossed a center divider and crashed into the car carrying Hogan and his wife, Valerie. Hogan nearly died and suffered permanent leg injuries. That kind of experience could have derailed some people. Not Hogan. His work ethic prevailed.
In 10 appearances in the U.S. Open (1946-56), Hogan posted four firsts, two seconds, a third, a fourth and two sixths.
Miraculously, Hogan won the 1950 U.S. Open at Merion in an 18-hole playoff with George Fazio and Lloyd Mangrum. “Merion meant the most,” he would say later.
And though he was forced into a reduced playing schedule, his best golf was ahead. In 1951, he won his first Masters and the U.S. Open at Oakland Hills. In 1953, he had his greatest year, winning his second Masters, his fourth U.S. Open and his only British Open.
Hogan was a quiet, intense man who could be gruff when plying his trade. But he was not selfish about his knowledge of the game. In 1957, he paired with Hall of Fame writer Herbert Warren Wind and wrote “Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf,” considered one of the all-time great instructional guides.
Dan Jenkins, another Hall of Fame writer, was a fellow Texan from Fort Worth and had a close relationship with Hogan. Jenkins spent decades playing with and writing about his friend. During his speech at the 2012 Induction Ceremony, Jenkins thrilled the crowd with Hogan stories, including one where they were playing in a charity event and Jenkins was intimidated by the crowd and playing poorly.
“All I wanted to do was dig a hole and disappear,” Jenkins said. “I could hear giggles in the gallery. … Then I realized Ben was walking beside me and he gave me the greatest golf tip at the time under those conditions I’ve ever had. This proves he had a sense of humor. He said: ‘You can probably swing faster if you try hard enough.’”
The crowd roared. And the legend of one golf’s greatest grew a little further.