The winner of the 55th National Open Championship this weekend could very possibly be Ben Hogan. It is almost a simple matter of presence. Over the past eight years, regardless of how muddy other affairs have turned out to be, it has become remarkably clear that if Ben Hogan is entered in a tournament, there is an extremely strong likelihood that the winner will be Ben Hogan.
In the opinion of golf's most thoughtful observers, however, the chances of another Hogan victory loom somewhat less overwhelming than they have in the past on the eve of the Open. On one hand, his opposition should be tougher. There is considerable ground for believing that the players comprising the Young Guard and the Middle Guard—a number of whom are included in the color portrait gallery beginning on page 33—have gained sufficient confidence not to rush headlong away from the responsibility of being crowned champion, should they play themselves into a position where that heavy burden presents itself. In recent months, on the other hand, there have been a few fairly definite indications that Hogan, a human being despite the colossal evidence to the contrary he has exhibited in his mastery of one tournament after another, is at length, and at 42, slowing down just a trifle. He now misses the fairway off the tee occasionally, like other fine golfers. He now pops an occasional approach a few yards short of the green, like other fine golfers. He even occasionally fails to hole a five-foot putt. Ben, as we should know by now, is so consummate a strategist, shotmaker and competitor that when he is 50 he could still "take it all," but in the event he does not carry off the Open this week (when Ed Furgol defends the title he has carried like a true champion), it will be of more than passing significance. It will be the first time since the war that he will have gone two consecutive years without winning at least one major championship—the Open, the British Open, the Masters and the PGA—and this will mark the end of an historic period in golf, the Age of Hogan.
Celebrated as Ben's reign has been both by the golfing and the non-golfing public throughout the world—for after his comeback from his near-fatal accident Ben became a human-interest story and a powerfully popular figure for thousands who "never swung a tee"—we are probably still too close to his separate triumphs, still too bedazzled by his commanding, combative, concentric personality, to appreciate how phenomenal he has been over a period of years purely and simply as a golfer. In years to come, I am sure, the sports public, looking back at his record, will be struck by awe and disbelief that any one man could have played so well so regularly. The boosters of that age will resort to explaining that Hogan could only have cut the swath he did in a period when he had no competition and so on and so forth, just as they do today when trying to comprehend the consistent dominance of earlier super-champions like John L. Sullivan, Ty Cobb, Bobby Jones, Bill Tilden, Jim Thorpe, Howie Morenz, Walter Johnson and Paavo Nurmi. Ben Hogan, the outstanding sports personality of the postwar decade, has, to be sure, secured a place among the very great athletes of all time.
Perhaps as good a way as any, particularly on the eve of a National Open, to begin to understand Hogan's genius as a tournament golfer is to set down without flourish his record over the past 15 years in this most important of all tournaments:
June 19, 1955
1940—tied for 5th
1941—tied for 3rd
1946—tied for 4th
1947—tied for 6th
1954—tied for 6th
Two other men have records in the Open which compare with Hogan's. Willie Anderson, a dour Scottish pro transplanted to Apawamis, took the event in 1901, 1903, 1904 and 1905. The second man, of course, was Bobby Jones, and since his is the only other modern record in the same class with Hogan's, we might do well to set it down year by year again.
1920—tied for 8th
1921—tied for 5th
1922—tied for 2nd
1927—tied for 11th
As documents of sustained brilliance over a period of years Hogan's and Jones's records speak for themselves. But just as the two men are quite different personalities, their careers were shaped differently, as one or two brief elaborations on the tables above incisively demonstrate. When Jones first cracked through in 1923, for example, he was a young man of 21 playing in his fourth Open. Bob had been a helluva golfer back in 1916 when, at 14, he had gone to the quarter-finals of the Amateur. The period between 1916 and 1923 struck him as "the seven lean years," for he was so good so early, a bonafide child prodigy who never lost his stuff. When he retired in 1930 after his Grand Slam, Bob was only 28. Hogan, in contrast, was 35 (almost 36) when he captured his first Open. Twelve years before, in 1936 at Baltusrol, he had qualified for the championship but had failed to "make the cut"—that is, he did not finish among the top 76 scorers for the first two rounds and so was not eligible to play the last 36 holes. In 1939 he finished the Open in a tie for 62nd place. He was almost 27 at this time, an age when a golfer must expect some success or get out of the profession, and it would not have been beyond reason for the name Ben Hogan never to have become better known to the sports public than the names George Slingerland and Frank Gelhot, the only two men who played the final 36 holes in that Open and did not bring in lower totals than Hogan's. The point is not a new one, that Hogan was anything but a born wonder, but it is worth the remaking. No athlete ever worked harder, or waited longer, to become a champion. It explains an awful lot about the man.
By 1940 Hogan was an accomplished enough golfer to have won the Open. He was ripping through everything else but "the big ones" and led the money-winners for three consecutive seasons before entering the Service in 1942. When he returned to civilian life and combat golf, he quickly reaffirmed his position of standing with Snead and Nelson as the country's best. And at length, in 1946, years behind schedule, he won his first prestige championship, the PGA. I doubt if ever in the long line of fierce and fiery spirits who set out to win at "games" anyone matched the smoldering intensity of the Hogan of this period, a volcano always on the brink of eruption, so white-hot in his over-determination that you were charred by propinquity and yet so controlled, so inflexible, and so terribly purposeful that it gave you a chill to watch him at his work.
Hogan's opponent in the final of that PGA was Ed Oliver. At lunch Oliver stood 3 up but in the afternoon Hogan rushed out in 30 strokes and by the 31st tee stood 5 up. The two drives on the 31st finished about equidistant from the green and the referee resorted to tossing a coin. Hogan won the toss and elected to play first. He put his approach three feet from the hole—finis, 6 and 4. He played like a killer that afternoon, and many afternoons afterward, for earlier that year—and you can imagine the depth of the anguish and self-recrimination a person like Ben underwent—he had taken three putts on the 72nd green in both the Open and the Masters when two putts would have enabled him to have tied for the top and opened up the chance of victory via a play-off. After these crucial disappointments he seemed always to be goading himself to relax not for an instant, to make every shot count, to show the other fellow (and himself) no mercy.
The Hogan of this period, just prior to his initial victory in the 1948 National Open at Riviera with his record score of 276, was something to behold. When people talk of a man drilling an iron or rifling an approach shot, nearly always that is "golf language" loosely used. But Hogan did drill those irons and his shots did buzz like bullets. My, how they traveled—low, hard, even viciously. In the third round of one Masters, I think it was, I remember Hogan coming to the 13th in the thick of the battle, not far behind the leader. Attempting to cut the corner as closely as possible and set himself up for getting home in two for his birdie, he hooked the ball slightly and it rolled into Rae's Creek. Well, it cost him a valuable stroke to lift and there he was, standing with his hands on his hips and his cigaret wedged truculently between his lips, collecting himself before he played his third. He pulled out what looked like a one-iron, and no one who watched that shot will ever forget it. He hit it with everything. Scarcely had he finished his follow-through, it seemed, when the ball was already on the green, lying quietly 12 feet from the cup—it had gotten there that fast! Hogan was playing a different kind of golf, both in thought and in execution, when he won his first Open and subsequently his three other Opens, his second PGA, his two Masters and his British Open. He had become a better golfer, as his success in itself made clear. But for the pure excitement of watching a man attack a golf ball, no one in our time has generated the clubhead speed and unleashed a shot like Hogan did just before he learned how to win.
Depending on how you look at it, everybody knows or nobody knows the change Hogan mastered in his method of striking a golf ball the season he won his first Open. If one means the exact key to his method of imparting a controlled fade to his shots—the exact key being what is referred to as Hogan's Secret, since he has no desire to reveal it to the rest of the trade as long as he remains in business—then no one knows. If one means more generally doing everything to retain his power and yet everything to guard against a hook, then everyone knows what Hogan does. The swing he compounded and learned so well that he could execute it flawlessly under fire has varied somewhat in its details from season to season, but it had, and has, as its features (bypassing Hogan's true fundamentals of perfect balance and his wide "forward" arc) such antihook staples as the left thumb down the shaft and the right hand riding high, the slightly opened stance, the club taken back a shade outside, the outward thrust of the right forearm at the beginning of the downswing that produces what the pros call the triangulation action, and the maintenance of an anything-but-shut clubface as he biffs through the ball.
Hogan lost some roll as the result of "the slight fade," but what he gained was 10 times as valuable. His approaches became a softer kind of shot. They coasted over the flag and dropped gently onto the green. More important, when he failed to meet his drives just right, the ball did not hook into trouble but merely veered a few yards to the right in a far safer and "slower" parabola than a hook describes. Before effecting this change, when Ben had played an unbroken competitive stretch, he had been prone to tire near the end of a tournament. When he was tired, he hooked. When he hooked, he incurred rough lies and sometimes penalty strokes. When he incurred these extra strokes, it defeated him. His revised swing gave him margin for unpenalized error and proved to be the difference between Ben's becoming a great champion and not remaining just a great golfer.
THE SWING BEN BUILT
Contrasted with a swing like Snead's, which is natural and (because of Sam's exceptional leverage) naturally powerful, the swing Hogan built was not a picture postcard lyric. It was constructed, as its critics pointed out, too much like a stairway of compensations. When these broke down—and they did to some degree in the Masters in 1952 and 1954 and in the last two rounds of the '52 Open—Hogan had his problems. But Hogan's swing, when he had the time to tune it up properly and the physical reserve to maintain it as he wanted it, was so functional and assertive that it had a smooth, efficient beauty of its own.
Hand in hand with Hogan's altered swing went an altered program of participation. In 1948 and in the seasons following his accident, he eschewed his previous habit of playing the tournament circuit almost without a break in favor of picking his spots. He conserved his energy and concentration for the significant events, resting and practicing in between. It helped to make the difference and Ben realized this perfectly. "The most important factor in playing a championship is to be fully prepared," he said in his acceptance speech at Oakmont after his fourth triumph in the Open, picking his words as carefully as he picks his clubs. "I look forward to playing in the Open as long as I am able to prepare my game and myself properly."
Hogan's most unusual effort in preparation was part and parcel of his dramatic invasion of Scotland to play in the 1953 British Open. His subsequent victory has today the aura of a romantic novel about it, it was so utterly triumphant. For a man who had never before played a competitive stroke in Britain (and will probably never return to play another), Ben made a phenomenal adaptation to the foreign conditions. Discovering, for instance, that he hurt his wrists when he played his irons off Carnoustie's hard turf with his usual swing, he modified his hitting action. "He ended," Sir Guy Campbell has said, "taking the ball almost exactly like the great Scottish golfers had done years and years before." To get to know the deceptive course, on the evenings preceding the start of the tournament he walked the holes backward until he had memorized the natural features and the concomitant problems in tactics. He won with 73-71-70-68. "And if he had needed a 64 on his final round," Bernard Darwin has remarked, "you were quite certain he could have played a 64. Hogan gave you the distinct impression that he was capable of getting whatever score was needed to win."
Since his accession in 1948, Ben has provided such a cornucopia of skill and courage that to choose his finest shots, his finest rounds and his finest tournaments would be mighty difficult and would, eventually anyhow, resolve itself into personal choices. We will take Ben's selections, then, in those cases where he has indicated them.
His top tournament: the 1953 Masters which, as he has expressed it, represented the best golf he ever played over a 72-hole stretch. Ben was 70-69-66-69—274, and the game's most erudite camp-followers cannot remember four consecutive rounds of comparable errorless character. On a testing course, Hogan was literally on the pin with just about every shot. (It was after this exhibition that everyone began clamoring what a crime it would be for such a golfer not to take a shot at the British Open; when Hogan was assured of the accommodations he would need at Carnoustie to "prepare himself fully," he went, as we know.)
His best round? He has intimated that it was the final 67 that won him his third Open at Oakland Hills in 1951. Late that afternoon, Clayton Heafner got around in 69, the one other player in a superb field who succeeded in breaking 70 over the four rounds on perhaps the severest layout on which the Open has been played. The chief incubus to the scoring was controlling the tee shot. Robert Trent Jones, who had remodeled the old Oakland Hills specifically for the 1951 Open, had filled in the obsolete traps 220 to 240 yards from the tee and had constructed in their stead new traps which flanked the wasp-waisted fairways 240 to 260 yards from the tee, far enough out so that the long-hitting pros could not carry them. This tight arrangement panicked just about the entire field with the exception of Paul Runyan who would have had a hard time reaching the obsolete traps. Hoping to avoid error, many of the pros switched to brassies, spoons and irons off the tees, leaving themselves a succession of arduous second shots and, all in all, letting the course play them instead of playing the course. Hogan started with an erratic 76. Round by round he improved his figures—a 73, a 71, a 67.
Hogan's performance proved to architect Jones that the course had been a fair test of championship golf. Hogan did not see it that way, even in victory. "I am glad," he stated grimly at the presentation ceremonies, "I brought this course, this monster, to its knees." It came as somewhat of a shock to hear this, for after his recuperation from his accident there had been some indications of "a new Ben," "a mellower Hogan." It served as a reminder that, as long as he remains a competitive golfer, Ben will probably never be so new or so mellow that the chip on his shoulder will entirely disappear. He seems to like it that way, or maybe it is more accurate to say that he continually translates any opposition, animal, vegetable or mineral, into a personal challenge and derives immense satisfaction from responding to that challenge with all the sense and sinew at his command.
Totally absorbed with producing his best game and a game calculated to win, Hogan necessarily has precious little to say to his opponent or caddy. When he and his old rival, Byron Nelson, played a friendly round the first day of the 1954 Masters, Nelson acting as host for the Augusta National, Ben as defending champion, Byron would drive and Ben would say, "Beauty." Ben would drive and Byron would say, "Beauty," and this was about the extent of their conversation. In this same connection, there is the classic description by the more gregarious Snead on what it is like to play with Hogan: "The only time Ben speaks to you is to tell you, 'You're away, Sam.' " This trenchant silence is one of the elements which make up the memorable picture of "a man at work" that no one who has watched Hogan is ever likely to forget. There he is moving up to his approach shot, walking with that little waggle, his eyes fixed straight ahead down the fairway like a man heading for a spot in the woods where he has marked his ball. He wears the straight-visored, white cap over his tanned countenance. It is a countenance—the mouth set, as ever, in that locked grin which should never be mistaken for Ben's enjoying either the morning air, the devotion of his worshipful gallery, or the shot he has just played, however fine it was. The mind is moving ahead, thinking out the next step in the big picture, filing through this check point and that check point to make certain the next step is the wise step. He stands beside the ball, hands on hips. He examines the lie, studies the type of grass, the wind. He discusses inwardly the best position on the green to place that approach in order to set up the most holeable putt, the type of shot he will play, the club he will play it with. He takes his time, walking ahead sometimes as much as 20 yards as he ponders this decision. Other players go through the same motions, but they seldom give you the impression Hogan does that he is genuinely thinking about what he is doing. Then, the mind made up, there is that light practice swing, the meticulous settling into his stance, the always decisive stroke. If it has been a good shot, there is no expression on Hogan's part to show he acknowledges it as such. However, after he has played a poor shot at a stage of a tournament where it may be costly, there is a change of expression. The grin becomes ironic and his cold gray eyes widen and widen until they seem to be a full inch in height, and when you look at this man, so furious with himself, he is, as his colleagues refer to him, "The Hawk."
No one, I suppose, ever set himself so high a standard of performance. What trying to achieve this standard would take out of the average tournament golfer, no one knows, but one can guess that few others would have the stamina to find it tolerable for long. Ben has talked of championship golf being the result of "20% ability and 80% management," and so it is, but for this formula to function in one major tournament after another, a tremendous giving of one's self is required. It has functioned for Hogan for, without any question of a doubt, no other golfer has ever dedicated himself so unanimously to golf.
THE ANDERSON ERA (1901-1905)
Willie Anderson, a tight-lipped Scotish emigré, was the first player to dominate the Open. Anderson won the title in 1901-'03-'04-'05. along with Jones and Hogan, he stands as the only four-time champion. in the 1904 Open, Willie played a record-breaking round of 72
THE JONES ERA (1923—1930)
Bobby Jones captured his first Open in 1923 and thereafter, with the exception of 1927 when he tied for 11th, never finished lower than second. Bobby twice (1925, 1928) lost after a play-off, twice (1923, 1929) won after a play-off. He scored outright victories in 1926 and again in 1930.