Hogan honored as 38th-best athlete of century

Hogan majored in courage
By Larry Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com

Courage is a word too frequently used by sportswriters in glamorizing an athlete's performance. Courage is not hitting a game-winning homer in the ninth inning or sinking a tournament-winning birdie putt on the 72nd hole. Courage is throwing yourself across the passenger seat to shield your wife as an out-of-control bus comes barreling down on your car.

 Ben Hogan
It took several years on the PGA Tour before Ben Hogan began winning consistently.
That's courage. That's what Ben Hogan did.

Hogan's heroism saved his wife from serious injury and probably saved his life as well. On Feb. 2, 1949, in the countryside outside Van Horn, Texas, about 150 miles east of El Paso, Hogan's car was smashed into a mass of twisted metal when a Greyhound bus, swinging out to pass a truck, met Hogan's car head on. The impact drove the engine into the driver's seat, the steering wheel into the back seat. While Valerie Hogan received only minor injuries, Hogan suffered a broken collarbone, a smashed rib, a double fracture of the pelvis and a broken ankle.

After his bones were set in an El Paso hospital, it looked as if Hogan would be OK. But then he developed a blood clot, and doctors performed an abdominal operation and tied off the principal veins in his legs, preventing the clot from reaching his heart.

Many thought Hogan would never play golf again. But few had his determination and strength of character.

"People have always been telling me what I can't do," he said. "I guess I have wanted to show them. That's been one of my driving forces all my life."

That summer, he was too weak to swing a club or walk far. But somehow, by the following January, he was playing in a tournament, astonishing the sports world. And playing well, too, finishing tied for first with Sam Snead before losing the playoff.

Sixteen months after the near-fatal accident, Hogan won the U.S. Open at Merion in Pennsylvania. His remarkable 1-iron shot on the difficult final hole forced a playoff, which he captured the next day by shooting a brilliant 69 to beat Lloyd Mangrum and George Fazio. The Hawk, who had been the best golfer in the world when the accident occurred, had regained his throne.

Hogan was at his best in the majors. Nobody has come close to his remarkable achievement of winning nine of the 16 majors he competed in from the 1946 PGA through the 1953 British Open. He won a record-tying four U.S. Opens, two Masters, two PGAs and one British Open, with six victories coming after the accident. A four-time PGA Player of the Year, he is one of only four golfers (Jack Nicklaus, Gene Sarazen and Gary Player are the others) to win all four majors.

There also was the Hogan mystique. The visor of his white cap was always pulled low over his face. A man dedicated to the game, Bantam Ben (a nickname he disliked as he didn't think of himself as small at 5-foot-9, 160 pounds) was obsessed with practice, proud of the control he gained over the golf ball. He was a private person who didn't suffer fools, or almost anybody else, and his friendships were few and often short-lived. His concentration was so intense that he blocked out all but the golf course he was attacking. There was something foreboding about his cold stare, the way it seemed to intimidate other golfers.

"Those steel-gray eyes of his," a friend said. "He looks at you like a landlord asking for next month's rent."

Jimmy Demaret, one of his closest golfing companions (but that doesn't mean they were close), said he couldn't understand why people thought Hogan was so taciturn. "When I play with him, he talks to me on every green," Demaret said. "He turns to me and says, 'You're away.' "

When he wasn't joking, Demaret said, "Nobody gets close to Ben Hogan."

William Benjamin Hogan was born Aug. 13, 1912 in Dublin, Texas, the son of the village blacksmith. Ben was 9 when his father, Chester Hogan, committed suicide. With the family in Fort Worth, Ben sold newspapers to help put food on the table. At 12, he turned to caddying, receiving 65 cents a round, and started playing. After awhile he switched from his natural left-handed stance to hitting right-handed.

Despite having an uncontrollable hook, Hogan turned pro when he was 17 and joined the tour at 19. It didn't work out. Neither did another attempt two years later. While he returned to the tour in 1937, it was a few years before he started cashing checks regularly. The checks got bigger and bigger and he was the tour's leading money winner in 1940, 1941 and 1942.

Being in the army limited his play during World War II, but after the war ended, Hogan won his first major, taking the PGA title in 1946. Two years later, Hogan won another PGA and his first U.S. Open.

From the time of his discharge from the Army in August 1945, just after his 33rd birthday, until the car crash, Hogan won an amazing 37 tournaments and twice was leading money-winner for the year. A controlled left-to-right ball flight and sound course management were the main reasons for his success.

After the accident, Hogan didn't play more than seven tournaments a year because his legs couldn't take the stress. Yet he won 13 more tournaments.

In 1951, Hogan retained his U.S. Open title when his 32 on the back nine in the final round enabled him to win by two strokes at demanding Oakland Hills in Michigan. He also won his first Masters, shooting a then-record 274.

Hogan was even better in 1953 at the age of 41 when he won five of six tournaments, including three majors -- the Masters, U.S. Open and the British Open (in his only appearance in this tournament). That's as close as anyone has come to winning pro golf's Grand Slam.

It appeared as if Hogan would become the first five-time U.S. Open winner in 1955 when he was in the clubhouse with a two-stroke lead. But Jack Fleck birdied two of the final four holes, including the last one, to tie and then won the next day in a playoff. The next year, a missed 30-inch putt for par on the 17th hole in the final round dropped Hogan a stroke behind winner Cary Middlecoff.

In 10 years of competing in the U.S. Open (1946-56), Hogan had the extraordinary record of four firsts, two seconds, a third, a fourth and two sixths.

Hogan retired with 63 tournament victories, third all-time to Snead's 81 and Nicklaus' 70. Only Nicklaus with 18 and Walter Hagen with 11 have won more professional majors.

After his professional career declined, he concentrated on managing his successful golf equipment company, the Ben Hogan Company, which he started in the mid-1950s. With Herbert Warren Wind, he co-authored perhaps the most quoted golf book of instruction: Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf.

Hogan, who was diagnosed with colon cancer surgery in 1995 and suffered from Alzheimer's disease, died at age 84 on July 25, 1997 in his home in Fort Worth.