He sits in front of the television and watches it glow but can't
quite make out the images. His eyes don't see much anymore,
shadows mostly, something occasionally caught in his peripheral
vision, which has stubbornly stayed sharp. Mostly he just
listens. Sometimes what he hears stirs a familiar feeling, a
memory of long ago. But the memories don't come as easily
anymore. Sometimes they don't come at all. "We prefer to call it
memory loss," says his wife of 61 years. "It's actually
The phone rings, but rarely is he beckoned. The old man has
precious little energy left, and none to spare for all the
This should have been a golden week for Ben Hogan, the 50th
anniversary of his winning the inaugural Colonial National
Invitation Tournament in his hometown of Fort Worth. This should
have been the first heady week in a month filled with glowing
tributes and warm words, carrying the 83-year-old legend all the
way to the U.S. Open at Oakland Hills, where he pulled off his
most transcendent performance 45 years ago in taming the Monster
and winning his second straight National Open.
But Hogan is no longer the compact, powerful man of golf
mythology. The indomitable will that steeled him against the
hardships of the game cannot slow the assault of advanced age.
He has never really recovered from the cancer that led to
emergency surgery last year, two weeks before the Colonial, when
two thirds of his colon was removed. Perhaps he is still feeling
the repercussions of a difficult bout with pneumonia in 1987
that put him in the hospital for two months and stripped him of
30 pounds. Right now he is battling an oppressive case of
bronchitis, which has kept him trapped in his house for more
than a month, sprung only for three trips to the doctor.
Famously reclusive, he is now out of touch with even his closest
May 26, 1996
So the golfing world watches anxiously while Hogan sits in front
of his television, watching nothing. The Colonial came and went
last weekend, and all Hogan could do was listen to the
play-by-play. This is not the way it should have been. It was
Hogan, after all, who put the Colonial on the map, winning it
five times, including in 1959, when he triumphed in Fort Worth
for the 64th and final victory of his career.
But if we know anything about Hogan, it is this: His spirit
lives on and will continue to do so long after the body fails.
To no one's surprise he still dominated this Colonial, even more
than Corey Pavin did with his two-shot victory. It was Hogan on
the tournament poster, on the tournament program cover, on the
banners that waved from every lamppost in Fort Worth and on the
lips of nearly every fan and competitor. He was a
larger-than-life presence, and not just because of the
seven-foot bronze statue at the entry plaza of the Colonial
Country Club, the one that looks out toward the 18th green.
"He may not be here, but he's still here," said Fuzzy Zoeller,
the 1981 Colonial champion. "Every fairway you walk down, you
can feel him."
"My gosh, yes, we miss having him here," said Ben Crenshaw, a
two-time winner of the Colonial who tied for sixth this year and
is one of a handful of current players close to Hogan. "The man
is synonymous with this tournament. Everyone who is here is
honoring him. He knows how we feel about him, and that is the
How Hogan is feeling is a matter of great conjecture and
considerable concern. In two phone interviews last week his
wife, Valerie, painted a decidedly downbeat picture. "I'm sorry
to say he isn't doing too well," said Valerie, an 84-year-old
steel magnolia who is still Ben's primary caretaker. "The
bronchitis is very discouraging. He's lost the cough, but he
can't seem to get any strength back."
Valerie talked candidly about the effects of her husband's
eroding eyesight, his Alzheimer's and his increasing isolation.
"Naturally there are times when he's a little depressed because
he cannot do what he once did," she said. "When you stop to
think, most everything has been taken from him. It's a marvel to
me that he smiles and still sees the humor in things."
As for his prognosis, Valerie says, "There's nothing that I've
been told or he has been told. It's just a matter of getting
over this, and we hope each day is the end of it." And then she
adds, "There is nothing life-threatening."
We can only hope, because it is not yet time for Hogan to pass
from living legend to heavenly immortal. This yearlong run of
ill health came just when Hogan had agreed to allow his
accomplishments the celebration they deserve. He had generally
shirked public feting. In 1987 Jack Nicklaus asked Hogan to be
the official honoree at Nicklaus's Memorial Tournament. "I don't
want to be memorialized," Hogan grumbled. Suspicious of
outsiders' motives and churlish by nature, Hogan has
compulsively refused the role of elder statesman, ceding it to
Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson and Arnie and Jack.
"What people have a hard time understanding is that he doesn't
want to be celebrated," says Tom Kite, who plays Ben Hogan
equipment and has long had a relationship with the company's
founder. "That's his personality. That's the way he played. He
has always wanted to achieve not for the honors that came with
it but for the achievement itself. I wouldn't wish him to change
But by last year Hogan had softened. Fort Worth declared a Ben
Hogan Week leading up to the Colonial, and Hogan was going to
speak at the unveiling of his statue. "We had finally talked him
into it," says Ken Venturi, a member of Hogan's inner circle
since their first competitive round together, at the 1954
Masters. "Valerie and his good friends had been telling him for
years he had to do this. We said, 'Ben, people need to see you,
they need to remember who you are. And who you were.'"
The cancer took care of all of those plans, and the continuing
decay of his health wiped out the golden anniversary revelry
this year. What Hogan's friends despair about now is that Hogan
may go to the grave misunderstood, his Garbo-like seclusion
having shrouded his public persona. An image of Hogan as
enduring as him hitting a one-iron into the 18th green at Merion
on the way to win-ning the 1950 U.S. Open is him sitting at the
window table of his adopted home, the clubhouse at Fort Worth's
Shady Oaks Country Club, a drink in one hand, a smoke in the
other and nine empty chairs for company. "Very, very few people
have ever gotten to know the man," says one who did, Dave Marr,
who was a young assistant pro at Palm Beach's Seminole Golf
Club, where in the early 1950s Hogan would do a month of spring
Then again, the man never gave people the chance to know him.
The icy stare that Hogan wore on the golf course, the look that
got him the nickname Hawk, was what he often used in lieu of
saying hello, or of saying anything at all. He was "as soft as a
fire hydrant," Grantland Rice once wrote.
There is another Hogan, too, the one who cried over the grave of
Buster, the scruffy clubhouse dog at Shady Oaks who used to
accompany him around the golf course. There is the Hogan who
suggested starting the past-champions dinner at the Masters so
all the old-timers could keep in touch, and then, according to
Venturi, insisted there be round tables, so no man would be
seated at the head. There is the Hogan who occasionally charged
for his autograph but insisted that the checks be made out to
the ASPCA. There is the Hogan who supported the launch of the
Ben Hogan tour, golf's minor league (now sponsored by Nike), so
that young players would have a home. There is also the Hogan
who last year, still flat on his back from the cancer surgery,
floored Marr by calling him in his hospital room to wish him
godspeed on his recovery from a similar operation.
Says Venturi, "What people fail to appreciate about Ben is that
he is a very shy and a very humble man. Those simple qualities
have so often been misinterpreted."
The Colonial has always been the one place where Hogan was in
his element, especially at the past-champions dinner on
Wednesday night, when the golfers would slip on the bad plaid
that constitutes a winner's jacket in Fort Worth and then share
toddies and the same old stories one more time. "Everything I
had ever heard about Mr. Hogan, I found to be untrue," says
Keith Clearwater, the '87 Colonial champ. "He was warm and
friendly and always going out of his way to make you feel
welcome. He is very, very much in love with the Colonial, and
there was almost a fraternity feel between him and all the
That would account for the heavy hearts at this year's dinner.
Hogan has now missed the big night for two years running. Even
away from the past-champions celebration, it has been a long
time since his friends have seen him. At least a year for
Crenshaw, two years for Venturi and Kite, and almost five for
Marr. It has been months since any of them talked to him on the
phone, although Valerie is a source of constant updates.
However, it is instructive to remember that Hogan has surprised
us before. After the car crash in 1949 it was not known if he
would ever get out of his hospital bed. But rise he did, to even
greater heights. It would be unwise to count him out now. As
Valerie herself said, "Hopefully, everyone will get to see him
at the Colonial next year."
There was something wistful in her voice when she said it.