Ben Hogan: Follow the Sun

Benjamin was nine years old when his father committed suicide in front of him.  It was a horrible thing for a father to do to a son and it had a deep impact on that little boy.  Benjamin would turn to golf as a way to escape the horrors of his childhood.

He was a caddie at a local course in Ft. Worth, TX where he would hit balls after work until dark.

Golf was the perfect game for him as it did not require any interaction with anyone.  Benjamin loved the game and he especially loved the way it felt when he perfectly executed a golf shot. Some days, he would hit so many golf balls that his hands would bleed.

At the age of 17 Benjamin set his sights on perfecting the game he loved so much and set out on the professional tour.  He failed to make it on the tour and was forced to take a full-time job.

He continued to practice with the belief that he had what it took to be a great golfer.

A few years later, Benjamin would make another attempt on the tour.  In the process he would meet his wife to be, Valerie. Valerie was an instant inspiration to Benjamin and she traveled with him from tournament to tournament.  In those days, the professional golf tour schedule was coordinated with the places in the country where the sun stayed out the longest.  The players would “follow the sun” as they traveled from one week to the next.  During these early years, Benjamin would struggle to make a living.  On one other occasion he was forced to give up the game for a job with steady income.

However, he continued to practice and with the encouragement of his wife he returned to the tour for a third try.  In 1940, 11 years after turning pro, Ben Hogan would win his first professional tournament.

For the next four years, Ben had modest success on the PGA Tour.  Ben had an intense focus and concentration on and off the course.  This demeanor projected a cold and unfriendly personality.  In fact, it was common for him to walk from shot to shot with his head down starring at his shoe laces.  When he did look up, Ben’s steely grey eyes and a cold stare would instantly intimidate anyone who caught his glance.

Ultimately, this look would earn him the nickname “The Hawk” and the reputation for being an ice-cold and fierce competitor.

In 1944 just as he was beginning to achieve success on the tour, Ben decided that he needed to serve his country and joined the U.S. Air Force.  During his service, Ben was limited to how much golf he could play.  He would read news articles about the great success of his fellow competitor Byron Nelson.  Nelson dominated the PGA Tour during the years that Hogan served in the war.  Nelson’s record of 11 wins in one year still stands today and will likely never be broken.  At the time, the press had anointed Nelson as “Mr. Golf” and “Lord Byron”.  Hogan was both frustrated and motivated by Byron’s success and notoriety.  He returned to golf in 1945 determined to establish himself as the dominate player in the game.  And he did. 

For the next three years Ben would dominate the sport by winning 31 events, 2 PGA championships and the US Open.

In 1948, Ben and Valerie were taking a break from the tour.  Driving back to Texas, they ran into a dense fog that forced Ben to slow down to less than ten miles per hour.  In a split second, Ben saw a bus coming directly at them.  The bus had pulled out to pass a truck and was in the direct path of the Hogan’s car.  In a selfless act, Ben threw himself in front of Valerie to protect her from the impact.  The bus hit them head on; sending the engine into the driver’s seat and the steering column into the back seat.   Ben would have been killed instantly if he had not tried to protect Valerie.  Because of his unselfish courage, Valerie suffered only minor injuries.  However, the crash was devastating for Ben and left him clinging to life.  He chipped a rib and fractured his pelvis, collar bone and left ankle.  Blood clots threatened his life and forced the doctors to limit his blood circulation by tying off principle veins in his legs.

The doctors said it was unlikely that he would ever walk again, let alone play professional golf.  But Ben was a fierce and determined competitor in sport and life.  He was determined to overcome the challenges confronting him.

With great perseverance and the support of his wife, Ben recovered and gained enough strength to return to golf in 1950; just eleven months after the accident.

In his first tournament back he forced a playoff with Sam Snead – an amazing accomplishment alone.  However, Hogan’s physical condition caused him to fade in the play-off and ultimately lose to Snead.  Even so, this small success proved to Hogan that he could compete.  He continued to practice hard.  Today, Hogan is credited with being the first professional golfer to actually “practice”.  When asked about this he replied:

“You hear stories about me beating my brains out practicing, but… I was enjoying myself. I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning, so I could hit balls. When I’m hitting the ball where I want, hard and crisply, it’s a joy that very few people experience.”

Five months later he would win the U.S. Open; reinforcing his belief in himself.   After the accident, Ben’s legs were never the same.  He could hardly walk eighteen holes without collapsing.  Due to this poor condition he could only play seven tournaments each year.  However, for the next three years, Ben Hogan would dominate every tournament he entered.  During this time, he won 13 of the tournaments that he entered including 6 majors.  In 1953, he only entered six tournaments but won 5 of them including 3 majors.  Winning three majors in a single year was a record that would stand for almost fifty years; until 2000 when Tiger Woods accomplished the same feat.

Ben Hogan would ultimately retire with 64 professional victories and 9 major titles – 6 of which came after the car crash.

He is known today as the father of the modern golf swing and Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus consider him to be the best ball striker the game has ever seen.  One of his greatest contributions to the game is the concept of “practice”.  Before Hogan, the idea of practicing the game of golf did not exist.  His work ethic and commitment to improvement is the model for today’s touring professional.

Ben Hogan overcame a dark childhood memory, early failure at the game of golf and a debilitating car crash to become one of the legends of the game.  He continued to be an ambassador of the game and charitable organizations long after his retirement. 

Throughout his life, there were many reasons for Ben Hogan to have simply been finished; instead he chose to persevere, to fight and to ultimately finish strong.

Excerpt from the book, Finish Strong, by Dan Green.

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