There’s as much mystery as mystique about Ben Hogan, which is why 41 years after his playing career was over, golfers of all stripes are inexorably drawn to his story and his swing. And that’s despite the fact that probably no one on today’s PGA Tour ever saw Hogan play, other than the odd YouTube video.
Hogan would have been 100 this year and there’s no place more associated with Hogan than Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Tex., where he grew up. Hogan won the Colonial National Invitational five times and the place is called Hogan’s Alley for legitimate reason.
In a few weeks, the U.S. Open returns to The Olympic Club, the stage where the great Hogan was upset in a playoff in 1955 by unknown teaching pro Jack Fleck. After Hogan’s final round, he handed his ball to USGA Executive Director Joe Dey and said, “This is for Golf House,” thinking that he had won a record fifth Open. Fleck would come in later to tie Hogan and win the next day.
We are fascinated with Hogan because he represents as close to perfection as anyone has ever achieved in this game. We all know perfection is the ideal and untouchable and we look at Hogan much the same way.
Mainly it’s because he led us to believe that he had a secret to unlock the mysteries of the golf swing for all of us. It is golf’s search for the Holy Grail. In truth, he must have wanted us to think the secret existed and all it accomplished was to keep him in the conversation, long after he had stopped making headlines.
His ubiquitous instruction book, “Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf,” is in its 64th printing and still ranks very near the top on Amazon’s list of golf books. It remains one of the seminal volumes of golf instruction, some 55 years after its first printing.
In fact, Brandel Chamblee of Golf Channel compared Lee Westwood’s lower body action to Hogan’s after the first round of the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth last Thursday. Nary a week goes by without a Hogan mention from one of Golf Channel’s analysts or at least Dan Jenkins.
Hogan’s swing is thought of to be the best ever, yet, curiously, no one has ever successfully copied it. The closest was George Knudson, who it was said was the only player Hogan ever stopped to watch hit balls on the range.
One story goes that Hogan once played Colonial with a young assistant pro and he hit the green, hole high, from 150 yards out. The assistant innocently asked Hogan what club he used. Hogan glared at the young man and dumped out some practice balls from his shag bag. He hit the green with every iron in his bag from the 2-iron to the pitching wedge and directed the pro to never again ask him what club he hit.
One of golf’s great mysteries remains Hogan’s alleged “secret.” Some people thought his weak grip was the secret. In a famous Life Magazine spread in 1955, several prominent players and teachers weighed in and no two opinions were the same. They came to the conclusion that it was his cupped left wrist that got the clubface so open that he couldn’t completely close it, even if he had three right hands.
He said later that the role his right knee played in the downswing was the real key. He allegedly told a woman teaching pro from Oregon that the left arm makes a circle and that, in fact, was the secret.
Steve Elkington, owner of certainly one of the top-five tour swings of all time, helped found a website called SecretInTheDirt.com, which was originally created to celebrate Hogan’s swing and his notion that the “secret’s in the dirt.” In other words, some believe that Hogan’s real secret was his willingness to hit thousands of balls in the quest to perfect the swing.
Truth is that no one knows what the secret is. If Hogan really had one, he took it to the grave and we’ll never know, all the more reason for some people to continue the search.
Hogan’s action looks a great deal like the modern swing. Some say he was the forerunner to Stack and Tilt, but the truth is that Hogan lost most of the sight in his left eye and had he shifted his weight to the right leg, he would not have been able to see the ball.
He crafted his swing for a specific problem in a singular place in time. Early in his career, he suffered from a vicious hook. So, everything he did to change his swing after his automobile accident in 1949 was to hit a low fade.
And after many thousands of golf balls on the range, he succeeded. And six major championships later, he was and continues to be thought of as the greatest ball-striker of all time and the subject of much reverence.
As a matter of fact, so deep is the fervor among the devotees, a tattoo parlor in Seattle will do for you an image of Hy Peskin’s famous photo of Hogan hitting a 1-iron to the 18th green at Merion in 1950.
Get that tattoo and Hogan won’t be the only one who has a secret.