He still limps, as he has ever since the accident that nearly killed him, but now his walk is slower and more painful to watch. On those rare occasions when he removes his familiar white golfing cap in public—when, for example, he is introduced to a lady—he reveals gray hair, and not much of it. His face is pudgy, and his waist is perhaps a 36, but better not ask him because he can still throw a look that could start a brush fire. And, in spite of his 57 years, he can still hit a golf ball. Can he ever!
It was a year ago that someone made the mistake of asking Ben Hogan if he would consider returning to tournament golf, if only on a semi-serious basis. The Hogan eyes flashed and he replied tartly: "Whenever I play golf, it's serious." Last week at the Champions Golf Club in Houston Ben Hogan played in his first tournament since the 1967 U.S. Open and proved that he was very serious indeed, shooting a 71-75-71-70—287, to finish tied for ninth, five strokes behind winner Gibby Gilbert. Not vintage Hogan, true, but during the four days of play he gave the galleries and the touring pros, many of whom hurried out to watch him after completing their own rounds, flashes of the brilliance other galleries had seen at Oakmont, Carnoustie and Merion.
Take, for example, the back nine Thursday. Hogan had managed a somewhat shaky 38 going out, and there was a nagging fear he might shoot another 38 or worse coming back. But on the second nine he hit only two slightly imperfect shots. His approach at 11 strayed into a trap on the right, but then the pin was over that way. He recouped by blasting out two feet from the cup. And his drive on 18 was far enough to the right of dead center—still on the fairway, mind you—that the bough of a tree blocked his path to the green. So Hogan sent a low four-wood under the bough that ran right up on the green.
The rest of the back nine was perfect. He had makeable birdie putts on every hole. On 15 he hit his approach four feet from the cup and made the putt. The gallery, which in the absence of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, constituted most of the people on the course, applauded as in a tennis match. On 16, a par-3, Hogan hit his tee shot three feet from the pin, and when he made that putt for another birdie there were Palmer-like whoops from the crowd. He finished with two pars for a 33.
Hogan's front nine on Sunday was even more spectacular. Paired with Lee Trevino—two Texans, two Open champions, two guys with killer instincts—Hogan started par-par-birdie-birdie-birdie-par-birdie. Seven holes, four under par and suddenly Hogan was not only giving Trevino a lesson on how to win four U.S. Opens, he was in position to win this tournament. His tee shot on 8, a par-3, almost hit the pin but rolled to the back of the green and when Hogan three-putted, the magic was gone. But what a performance it had been.
In the almost three years since anyone saw him hit a golf ball, Ben Hogan spent most of his time working at his golf-club factory in Fort Worth, with side trips to the hospital. In March 1968 his doctor, Robert Dunn, removed some calcium deposits from his left shoulder, the result of his automobile crash in 1949. Dunn was also hoping to operate on Hogan's delicate left knee but decided the risk of permanently crippling him was too great. It is the knee that causes the limp and has forced Hogan to adopt a new swing, so that he now hits the ball off his right side before the weight shifts to his left. For support of the knee he wears a white rubber brace under his pants leg, and at Houston he occasionally stopped in the fairway and tugged at it to keep it from slipping. On the 6th hole of the first round, when he was one under par, he suddenly topped his drive about 120 yards off the tee. His next shot hooked low into the woods. He took a double-bogey 6 and later explained that he had teed the ball too low on the drive and that the ball was below his feet on the second. Maybe. Those who saw it lean to the belief that the knee gave way both times.
During his absence from the tour, Hogan played little golf—only about 10 times a year by his own count. But he did keep track of the Beards, Hills and Coodys by watching the game on television—"Oh my, yes, all the time." This spring, however, he thought that perhaps his knee might be strong enough for 72 holes, and this, plus his endless desire, started him toward Champions.
Two weeks before the tournament, Hogan arrived in Houston for some intensive practice. When he was satisfied that the knee would hold up, he moved out to one of the cottages near the club, where his wife Valerie joined him. On the Saturday before the tournament began, he filed his entry blank. This was not a comeback, he said. No U.S. Open, no PGA, nothing like that. Just a tournament at Champions, a flat course and, if that goes well, another at his home club, Colonial, the following week.
Word of Hogan's entry caused the normally blasé pro golfers to react like sightseers on Hollywood and Vine. None of them were immune. Hogan was there waiting for them, and everywhere he went clusters of players stopped talking and gawked. Some did it shamelessly, others just happened to be looking around and, what do you know, there was Ben Hogan. On the practice putting green, Gene Littler and Lionel Hebert kept sneaking quick looks at Hogan as he putted. When Hogan sat in front of his locker, it was astonishing how many players had business in that area. There was a wide difference of opinion as to what to call him. Many of the players, and certainly all of the younger ones, called him "Sir" or "Mr. Hogan." A few called him Ben, and Johnny Pott compromised by calling him "Mr. Ben."
"You have to realize that to us this man is a god," said Bert Yancey. Hale Irwin saw Hogan's back nine on Thursday and kept muttering, "A legend, a legend." Dale Douglass and Dick Lotz were watching when Hogan came out of the trap two feet from the flag. Douglass looked at Lotz and merely rolled his eyes. Al Balding, no youngster, finished his round, grabbed a golf cart and streaked out to join Hogan. Before play began, R. H. Sikes said, quite seriously, that he'd appreciate a shot-by-shot account of Hogan's first round. When he got it, he pored over it for 10 minutes.
Bob Dickson, another galleryite, was seeing Hogan for the first time ever. "I never even met him until we signed in together for the tournament," Dickson said. "I absolutely choked, like over a six-foot putt. I said, 'Mr. Hogan, I'm Bob Dickson and I'd love to play a practice round with you.' Of course, so had 150 other guys. He said he was booked, but maybe some other time."
Tom Weiskopf has managed to play seven rounds with him, three in practice, four in competition. "I was so terrified the first practice round I couldn't tee up the ball," says Weiskopf. "But I played O.K. and won $20 from him. I have it framed at home."
Rod Funseth remembers playing a practice round with Hogan in 1956. "I'd taken a week off from the tour and gone fishing," says Funseth. "My right wrist was so stiff from casting I could hardly move it. I was about to tee off with Curtis Person when up comes Hogan and says, 'Hi, Curtis, how about a game?' It was terrifying."
Funseth also recalls playing a couple of groups ahead of Hogan several years ago at Champions, where a jam of players invariably develops at the tee of the 4th hole, which is a par 3. "We had to sit and wait," recalls Funseth, "and pretty soon here comes Hogan onto the tee. He never sits during a round, you know, so he walked around behind the tee markers and just stood there watching all of us hit. Don't think that didn't shake a few guys up!"
Hogan would change into his golf spikes in the men's locker room last week, but that was as close as he came to mingling with the other players. "He's not a friendly man, that's all there is to it," said Dave Hill, who remembers caddying for a man who was playing an exhibition with Hogan in 1953. "But if that's what makes him happy, he's entitled to it." Whereas the other players would warm up on the practice tee before playing, the standard procedure, Hogan and his caddie would drive a golf cart over to Jackrabbit, Champions' second 18-hole course. There Hogan would practice in solitude on one of the fairways. It is said that during the tournament at Colonial in Fort Worth, Hogan used to practice out on the back nine while the early players were on the front. That's illegal, but perhaps not for those who have won the U.S. Open, Masters and British Open in the same year.
Champions' officials were not overly anxious to have it known that Hogan was practicing at Jackrabbit. One morning the cart was late arriving, so Hogan stood by himself outside the locker room, while players went in and out, stealing cautious glances. Finally a man in a Champions' blue jacket drove up in a cart. He jumped out, Hogan and his caddie got in and off they went.
"Check that," said Dave Hill.
"Hogan going over to Jackrabbit?" a man asked bluejacket.
"I don't know where he is," was the reply.
"Well, I know you know where he is 'cause he just this second drove away," said the man.
"I just don't know about those things," said bluejacket.
It didn't take Hogan long to lash out at two things that have changed since he last played the tour—hair and dress. The minute he saw George Knudson, Hogan took him aside in the locker room and told him he should get a haircut. "Now you can tell me to go to hell, George," Hogan was heard to say, but Knudson, as is his style, just stood there smiling coolly, as if remembering a funny story he'd heard somewhere. Asked later to comment on the youngsters, Hogan hammered away again: "Some of them seem off balance when they swing," he said. "Too much hair."
If hair upset him, the modish dress of the young players made him truly angry. After Friday's round he was sipping a beer when Tom Shaw strolled by wearing red, white and blue bell-bottoms. "Now look at that," said Hogan, his jaw tense. "These boys don't realize that the men who put up the money for these tournaments are distinguished and influential gentlemen. Sooner or later they're going to get sick of seeing players dressed that way. It's preposterous."
So wouldn't you know it? Luck of the draw, Ron Cerrudo's name comes up as one of Hogan's playing partners for the first two days. Long-haired (by golf's tight standards), bell-bottomed Ronnie Cerrudo, a swinger. "I'm going to dig out all my blacks and grays," said Cerrudo when he heard the news.
But Cerrudo found out that perhaps Hogan growls more than he bites. "He was great to me," said Ron. "He came over on the putting green and introduced himself, and that put me at ease."
Cerrudo also got something every young player on the tour would love to have—a two-day golf lesson. Not that Hogan ever commented on the young man's shots. All Cerrudo had to do was watch. Hogan, bad knee and all, still swings at a golf ball in a wonderfully fluid motion. It's a curious contrast—an old man, puffing away on his cigarette, limping up to the ball, then tossing the cigarette down and swinging like someone 30 years younger. And then having trouble bending down to pick up the cigarette.
Alas, the putting stroke is old and tired and nervous, although Hogan no longer freezes over the ball as he once did. His putting at Houston was surprisingly effective, but it still is very much the weakest part of his repertoire. It is a jerky, ugly stroke, out of harmony with the rest of his game. As someone at Champions pointed out, if Hogan could putt, the other pros might as well go home. But then no one is perfect, not even Ben Hogan. It is enough just to have seen him play.