The Greatest Year Ever Already planning for life after golf, Ben Hogan kicked off the best season in history a half century ago in Augusta

April 08, 2003
April 08, 2003

Table of Contents
April 8, 2003

Cover Image

The Greatest Year Ever Already planning for life after golf, Ben Hogan kicked off the best season in history a half century ago in Augusta

They built a monument to Ben Hogan a few years ago, a
seven-foot-tall bronze statue of a golfer in full follow-through,
eyes riveted on the horizon. The details of the club, the anatomy
and the folds in the metal clothes are extraordinary, and the
sculptor, Paul Tadlock, even remembered the extra spike Hogan had
drilled into his shoes. The location of the statue is perfect
too-an elevated plaza next to the clubhouse of Hogan's home
course, Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas. Golfers
walking off the 18th green can gaze at the statue and admire the
wonderful things that sunlight does to its surface. But the
statue's not Hogan. Tadlock missed on the face.

This is an article from the April 8, 2003 issue

A Fort Worth newspaperman named Gene Gregston also attempted to
capture the Hawk's elusive nature. He titled his biography,
published in 1978, Hogan: The Man Who Played for Glory. But Hogan
didn't. Glory didn't pay the bills, and Hogan, though he became a
man of means in his 30s, never lost the feeling of impending
financial doom he developed growing up. He played for money and
for something else, but he didn't play for mere glory, and he
didn't cooperate with Gregston on the book.

Although no statue or book could capture him, the perfect
monument to Ben Hogan does exist. It's in a light-industry area
in Fort Worth, a mile or so from the big Miller beer plant on
I-35. It sits in the club-grinding room at the Hogan Company golf
club factory, and it is what Hogan was always accused of being: a
machine. Hogan's living memorial is a Hammond electric lathe
that's painted battleship gray. Roger West uses it every day, to
smooth the edge on Justin Leonard's wedge or to refine the shape
and weight of the irons of any of the other Tour pros who play
Hogan clubs.

"This came from the original factory," says West, a Hogan
employee since 1959. "It's one of the first machines he bought in

Time has tied a loop to 50 years ago, when we had a president who
proved that syntax wasn't everything, when we were in a war that
wasn't a war, and when the coolest athlete in the world was an
American pro golfer. Hogan, 40, limped through six tournaments in
1953, twice as many as he played in '52, then called it quits for
the year on July 10. His body ached. His right knee and left
shoulder in particular were constant reminders of the February
morning in 1949 when a Greyhound bus came out of the fog and
pancaked his black Cadillac. The head-on crash threw Ben and his
wife, Valerie, around like dolls and almost killed him. He
returned to win the U.S. Open in 1950 and again in '51, when he
also won the Masters and, to his great surprise, our hearts. The
crash, the comeback and the release of the sentimental movie of
his life--Follow the Sun, with Glenn Ford as Hogan--made his heroic
image permanent. Then came something that today's hero, Tiger
Woods, has yet to endure: The winning stopped.

After his win in the '51 Open at Oakland Hills, where he famously
declared, "I'm glad I brought this monster to its knees," Hogan
occupied a strange netherworld for two years. He was ubiquitous
because of the movie, yet invisible because he seldom competed.
Most people thought of him as the best player in the game, but he
wasn't. At the '52 Masters, Hogan needed a 72 in the final round
to tie Sam Snead for first. He shot a 79. Two months later
Hogan's 69-69 at the U.S. Open in Dallas tied the 36-hole record,
and he led by two. But Open Saturday was hot, humid and 36 holes
long. Hogan shot 74-74, Julius Boros won, and the first Is Bantam
Ben Washed Up? stories appeared.

During the winter of 1952-53, Hogan prepared like a man who knows
the date of his own death. He prepared for failure, too, by
mapping out a new life, one not dependent on making four-footers.
But he also realized that his new career could be jump-started
if, one last time, he did very, very well on the golf course. In
1953 Ben Hogan would become the Man Who Played for Market Share.

His grand plan came together better than he could have expected.
His '53 season made the short list of the greatest years in golf
history: He won three majors plus two of the three other
tournaments he entered. His accomplishments that year may also
have been the best corporate advertising campaign ever. Within
days of his victorious return to Texas from the British Open-via
New York City, where there was a ticker-tape parade in his
honor-Hogan wrote a check for a two-building complex in which to
manufacture and market golf clubs. Then he found and purchased
that lathe. He bought it used, from an armory.

Hogan often hit 1,200 practice balls a day that winter in Palm
Springs, Calif. Three balls a minute for three-plus hours in the
morning, then lunch, then the same number in the afternoon.
Anything over a couple of hundred is too many reps for the back
and brain of the average enthusiast, but Hogan attended to each
swing as if he needed it to win some tournament in his head.

To defeat boredom, he hit hundreds of specialty shots--punches,
knockdowns, deliberate hooks and slices--and played balls from
divots, slopes and high grass. Could he hit a five-iron 100
yards? He could. Could he hit a rope hook with a four-wood? Of
course. And keep it low? And do it from a downhill lie? Yep.

When he didn't hit balls the entire day, Hogan often teed it up
at Tamarisk--his new club--with old friends Pollard Simon, a
construction tycoon from Dallas, and Marvin Leonard, Hogan's
original sponsor on Tour, who had made his millions in retail in
Fort Worth. By the time Hogan left California, these three were
partners in the golf club company. Ben and his practice balls
arrived in Augusta way early, two weeks before the first round of
the Masters. He told friends he was playing the best golf of his

"I still like Hogan or Snead," wrote Grantland Rice in his New
York Herald-Tribune column, "The Sportlight." "Ben has been
working on the course for 10 days, which means strict attention
to the business at hand." Snead, the defending champion, had won
more tournaments in '52 (five) than Hogan had played (three).
Better bets than Ben also included Byron Nelson, who was
semiretired, and Lloyd Mangrum, who shot a 63 in the final
practice round.

When Hogan went on in pretournament interviews about how good the
turf was at Augusta and how wonderfully firm and springy it had
been in Palm Springs, he revealed his fragility as a competitor.
It wasn't simply that as a hobbled man he appreciated good
footing. He had also become an extraordinarily fussy and
scientific athlete, with little patience for the extra variables
golf can present. It was therefore a great piece of racing luck
for Ben when it rained during the second and fourth rounds but
missed him both times.

Chick Harbert, who'd won the driving contest on Wednesday, led
after the first round with 68. Snead shot 70--no, make that 71,
because Byron Nelson had Tommy Aaroned the scorecard, marking
Sam's birdie 3 on 18 as a 4, and Sam signed it. Hogan also shot
70 but finished on a downbeat, missing short putts for par on 17
and 18. Pundits blamed fatigue and 40-year-old nerves, but they
didn't appreciate his deeper problem. When that crash in '49
smashed his face into the dash of his Cadillac, it almost blinded
him in the left eye. Full shots presented no visual challenge,
and he hit them with a virtuoso's assurance. His diminished depth
perception showed up on the greens, where subtle breaks could be
invisible to him. He fidgeted over putts like a nervous flier.

But when you can hit it like Hogan, you don't need to putt like
Bobby Locke. On Friday, Hogan wiggled in putts from six, three,
four and three feet, for birdies on the 3rd, 6th, 8th and 9th
holes, respectively, good for a 69 and a tie for the 36-hole lead
with Bob Hamilton. Mangrum asserted himself with a 68. Snead
faded from view with a 75 but kept things light that night when,
as the defender, he hosted the second Masters Club dinner. Among
the diners in green jackets was Hogan, who founded the
past-champions-only gathering after he finally won his first
Masters in '51. He downplayed his chances for the weekend. "I'm
not putting well enough to win this one," he told the writers
before dinner, pointing out that he had not made a putt longer
than eight feet, "and I get a little tired out."

On Saturday, Hogan missed from two feet on 13 and from three on
16, but the hole got in the way on long ones on 9 and 10. The
windless, 80° day warmed his chronically cold, sore body, and his
ball striking continued at an amazingly high level. He hit all 14
fairways and 16 of 18 greens and shot 66, his lowest score ever
in the Masters. Hoganphiles know the details: on in two on the
8th, with a driver and a brassie, for a two-putt birdie; a lucky
50-footer on 9; driver, four-wood to 35 feet on 10 and a third
straight birdie. His 11-under 205 for three rounds, which led by
four, was a Masters record. "One of the best rounds ever played
by anybody anywhere," wrote Al Laney in the Herald-Tribune.
masters' field eyes 2d place, headlined the Dallas News.

A Masters tradition required that the leader play the final round
with Nelson. Byron and Ben had a history, to put it mildly, which
had one of its many highlights in 1942. That had been the last
time the two rivals, who had both caddied as boys at the same
club in Forth Worth, played in the featured twosome at Augusta--a
Monday playoff, which Nelson won, 69 to 70. Nelson says that the
rematch in '53 didn't remind him of '42, mostly because his
scores of 73-73-78 kept him from figuring in the outcome.

"I thought the key shot for Ben came on the very first hole,"
Nelson says. After an awful first putt from 12 feet, Hogan had a
4 1/2-footer for par. He studied it, stood over it and backed
off. Studied it, stood over it and backed off. He finally pulled
the trigger, "kind of a desperation lunge," according to Nelson.
But the ball fell in. "Now, how can I miss?" Ben said to Byron as
they walked to the 2nd tee.

Hogan played his drive on 2 too close to the trees on the left.
He smoked a cigarette and evaluated his options, a cool customer,
unlike the nervous wreck he'd been on the 1st green. He took out
a four-wood for the downhill shot from a downhill lie and hit a
low rope hook around the trees and onto the green. He two-putted
for birdie.

On the par-3 4th, Hogan hit what he called in the afterglow "the
best shot I've ever made," a three-iron to within a foot.

"I notice players today tell each other 'good shot' when someone
hits a four-iron into the center of a green," Nelson says, "but
Ben did not like you to say anything unless it was an unusually
good shot. He had this thing--a hard look--if you talked too much.
Yes, I told him 'nice shot' after that one on 4."

Hogan shot 69 for a 274, five strokes below the tournament record
and five clear of the field. His next opportunity to solidify his
brand on the national stage would be in two months, at the U.S.
Open at Oakmont. But between April and June the damnedest thing
happened: He became controversial. Despite the movie and all the
acclaim, it soon became apparent that not everyone loved Ben Hogan.

The second installment of THE GREATEST YEAR EVER will appear in
the June 9 SI Golf Plus.

B/W PHOTO: HISTORIC GOLF PHOTOS/RON WATTS COLLECTION HIT AND MISS At 40 Hogan was acknowledged as the best ball striker in the pro game-and one of the worst putters.B/W PHOTO: APB/W PHOTO: BETTMANN/CORBIS BROKEN man Hogan barely survived his collision with a bus in 1949 and would still be feeling the effects four years later.B/W PHOTO: HISTORIC GOLF PHOTOS/RON WATTS COLLECTION BUNKER MENTALITY Hogan rarely found himself in a hazard-he missed only two greens on Saturday-in his record Masters run.B/W PHOTO: AP COAT TALES In his green jacket Hogan was congratulated by (from left) Clifford Roberts, Bobby Jones and runner-up Ed (Porky) Oliver.
Realizing his new career could be jump-started if he did well,
Hogan was the Man Who Played for Market Share.