Follow the Sun, the Ben Hogan story
by Dan Green
Ben was nine years old when his father committed suicide in front of him. it was a horrible thing for a father to do to a son and it had a deep impact on that little boy. Ben would turn to golf as a way to escape the horrors of his childhood. He was a caddie at a local course in Ft. Worth, TX where he would hit balls after work until dark. golf was the perfect game for him as it did not require any interaction with anyone. Ben loved the game and he especially loved the way it felt when he perfectly executed a golf shot. some days, he would hit so many golf balls that his hands would bleed.
At the age of 17 Ben set his sights on perfecting the game he loved so much and set out on the professional tour. He failed to make it on the tour and was forced to take a full-time job. A few years later, Ben would make another attempt to succeed on tour. In the process he would meet his wife to be, Valerie. Valerie was an instant inspiration to Ben and she traveled with him from tournament to tournament. In those days, the professional golf tour schedule was coordinated with the places in the country where the sun stayed out the longest. The players would “follow the sun” as they drove from event to the next. During these early years, Ben would struggle to make a living. Once again, he was forced to give up the game for a job with steady income.
However, he continued to practice and with the encouragement of his wife he returned to the tour for a third try. in 1940, 11 years after turning pro, Ben hogan would win his first professional tournament. For the next four years, Ben had only modest success on the PGA Tour. But Ben had an advantage, albeit forged from terrible memories of his youth. He had an intense focus and concentration on and off the course. This demeanor projected a cold and unfriendly personality. In fact, it was common for him to walk from shot to shot with his head down staring at his shoe laces. When he did look up, Ben’s steely grey eyes and cold stare would instantly intimidate anyone who caught his glance. Ultimately, this look would earn him the nickname…”The Hawk” and the reputation for being an ice-cold, fiery, competitor. In 1944 just as Ben was beginning to achieve success on the tour, he decided to serve his country and he joined the U.S. Air Force. During his service, Ben was limited to how much golf he could play. He would read news articles about the great success of his fellow competitor Byron Nelson. Nelson dominated the PGA Tour during the years that Hogan served in the war. Nelson’s record of 11 wins in one year still stands today and will likely never be broken. The press had anointed Nelson as “Mr. Golf” and “Lord Byron”. Hogan was both frustrated and motivated by Byron’s success and notoriety. He returned to golf in 1945 determined to establish himself as the dominate player in the game. And he did. For the next three years Ben would dominate the sport by winning 31 tournaments, 2 PGA Championships and the US Open Championship.
After three years of dominance, Ben and Valerie decided to take a break from the tour. One evening while driving back to Texas, they ran into a dense fog that forced Ben to slow the car down to a crawl. Without any warning, on oncoming bus had pulled out to pass a truck; putting the bus on a direct collision course with the hogan’s slow moving car. Reacting instantly, Ben threw himself in front of Valerie to protect her from the impact. The bus hit them head on, sending the engine into the driver’s seat and the steering column into the back seat. Ben would have been killed instantly if he had not tried to protect Valerie. Because of his courage, Valerie suffered only minor injuries. However, the story was much different for Hogan. It was a devastating crash leaving Ben clinging to life. His injuries were crippling. He fractured his pelvis, collar bone and left ankle. Blood clots threatened his life and forced the doctors to limit his blood circulation by tying off principal veins in his legs. The doctors said it was unlikely that he would ever walk again, let alone play professional golf.
But Ben was a fierce and determined competitor in sport and life. he was determined to overcome the challenges confronting him and with great perseverance and the support of his wife, Ben began the long and painful process of rehab. As unimaginable as it seemed, barely eleven months from the accident, Ben would return to golf.
In his first tournament back, he forced a playoff with Sam Snead — an amazing accomplishment alone. Unfortunatley, Hogan’s physical condition caused him to fade in the play-off ; ultimately losing to Snead. Even so, this small success proved to Hogan that he could compete. He continued to practice hard. today, hogan is credited with being the first professional golfer to actually “practice”. When asked about this he replied.
“You hear stories about me beating my brains out practicing, but...I was enjoying myself. I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning so I could hit balls. When I’m hitting the ball where I want, hard and crisply, it’s a joy that very few people experience.”
Five months later he would win the US open; giving him great confidence. After the accident, Ben’s legs remained weak and he found it exhausting to walk eighteen holes. He had to ration his energy and would only commit to play seven tournaments each year. But play he did! For the next three years, Ben hogan would dominate every tournament he entered. During these years, he won 13 of the tournaments including 6 majors. In 1953, he only entered 6 tournaments but won 5 of them including an record breaking 3 majors - a record that would stand for almost fifty years until 2000, when Tiger Woods accomplished the same feat. Ben Hogan retired with with 64 professional victories and 9 major titles – 6 of which came after the car crash. He is known today as the father of the modern golf swing and his modern day peers consider him to be the best ball striker the game has ever seen. One of his greatest contributions to the game of golf was the discipline of “practice.” Prior to Hogan’s arrival, the concept of spending time to work on ones golf game was considered, well, a waste of time. Hogan raised the bar. His work ethic, commitment to improvement and success set the standard for today’s touring professional. Ben hogan overcame a dark childhood memory, early failure at the game of golf and a debilitating car crash to become one of the legends of the game. he continued to be an ambassador of the game and charitable organizations long after his retirement. Throughout his life, there were many reasons for Ben Hogan to have simply been finished; instead he chose to persevere, to fight and to finish strong.