Ben Hogan dies, aged 84

 

Ben Hogan once told of a fascinating dream he had: in the course of a round, he carded 17 holes in one. "I woke up mad about the one I missed," he said. Hogan, the irrepressible perfectionist, died yesterday at his home in Fort Worth, Texas, after a long illness.

He was 84, suffered from Alzheimer's disease, and had undergone surgery for colon cancer two years ago.

Born in Stephenville, near Dublin, Texas, on August 13th, 1912, William Ben was the third child of Chester and Clara Hogan. And it seems likely that a cold, introverted personality was shaped by the horrendous experience of witnessing his father's suicide with a .38 revolver in February, 1922.

Bennie was only nine at the time. From then on, he developed a marked distrust of men, to the extent that the only close friendship he formed was with his wife, Valerie, who has survived him. They had no children.

His devotion to her was never more evident than in the appalling car-crash they were involved in on February 2nd, 1949. Husband and wife were travelling from Phoenix back to Forth Worth in the early hours of the morning when, in a thick fog, they were hit head on by a greyhound bus with 34 passengers on board, travelling on the wrong side of the road.

Just before impact, Hogan let go of the steering wheel and dived across his wife's lap to try to save her. In the process, he unwittingly saved himself, for in that instant, the Cadillac's steering column shot into the car like a 200 lb arrow, fracturing his left collar bone before imbedding itself in the driver's seat.

When Hogan was removed from the front and laid on the back seat, he had sustained a shattered left leg and ankle, a broken pelvis, a fractured rib and extensive intestinal damage. Observers gave him up for dead. We had no chance."

Yet, astonishingly, Hogan was back playing golf the following January, when he lost a play-off to Sam Snead in the Los Angeles Open. And competing with both legs heavily strapped from ankle to groin, he embarked on the most productive period of his career.

The pinnacle came in 1953 when he entered only five tournaments and won them all. These happened to include the US Masters, US Open and the British Open, and he remains the only player to have won three professional major championships in the same season.

Colleagues had persuaded him that the career of a great golfer wouldn't be complete without proof that he could win on a British links course, probably in cold and wind. So, Hogan travelled by boat to Carnoustie, in ample time to prepare himself for a new challenge with the small, 1.62 in ball.

In fact he was delighted with the ball, particularly the extra length it gave him. And he adjusted his striking with irons so that he grazed the turf rather than taking divots. The outcome was that he shot progressively lower rounds of 73, 71, 70 and 68 to capture the title at his only attempt.

At that stage, a typical Hogan day would be breakfast, practice at Shady Oaks, lunch, then more practice. Though hours of practice is commonplace these days, it was unheard of in Hogan's era, and his ball-striking became so pure that tournament rivals would stop what they were doing simply to watch him.

Hogan retired from regular tournament play in 1955. By the end of his career, he had won nine professional majors - four US Opens, two US Masters, two USPGA Championships and one British Open. He won every Ryder Cup match in which he played, and captured a total of 62 tournaments.

During the US Masters two years ago, I happened to be among a small group of journalists to be granted a rather special audience by Jack Nicklaus. He took questions that had never been put to him publicly. Among them was: "Who is the best golfer you've ever seen?"

His reply was: "Hogan was the best I've seen. I never saw (Bobby) Jones, so I can't comment. As for myself, that's for others to judge." Coming from the greatest competitor in the history of the game, it remains a fitting tribute to the game's greatest ball-striker.