Open Championship

The Hogan Mystique, reimagined

In words and pictures, John Barton unpacks the elements that made the Wee Ice Man such a fascinating figureJuly 12, 2018

The Open Championship returns to Carnoustie this month. It was here in 1953 that Ben Hogan, playing with understated grace and efficiency, triumphed in his sole attempt at the title. The Scots took to the "wee ice man"; today the game venerates him. But the love is largely unrequited. Hogan kept the world at a distance. He suffered, but he did not suffer fools.

Ever since I first read about Hogan, at 14, he has taken up residence in some dark recess of my mind. He is frowning slightly, perhaps shaking his head. He is an archetypal strict father figure, teacher, judge, deity.

Hogan is a reminder of just how far short of our potential we have fallen. We should have worked harder. We should have responded better to adversity. We should have said less and done more.

We disappoint him. We are all fools.

I wrote about him in the July issue of Golf Digest. Here I offer some different perspectives in words and paintings.

Carnoustie

The Scots invented the word dour perhaps to describe some of its sleepy seaside towns like Carnoustie, whose granite-gray high street is visited by howling North Sea winds and other brutal meteorological conditions for which, again, only Scottish words will do: dreich, snell, drookit, fret. Carnoustie was the kind of place young men couldn’t wait to leave: for a night out in Dundee, a job down south in London perhaps, or maybe even a new life in America. When the PGA of America was founded, in 1916, nearly half of the 82 pros were Scottish emigrés from these parts.

However, in July 1953, with the nation still on its knees from World War II—meat was still being rationed—an American visitor came to town. He was no ordinary tourist. Ben Hogan was making his first and only appearance in the Open Championship. That spring, he had won the Masters by five strokes and then the U.S. Open by six. His arrival in Carnoustie was a visitation, an apparition akin to Captain Cook landing on the shores of Hawaii two centuries before (but with a happier outcome). He was elegant, stylish, cool. There were tales of expensive cashmere long johns.

"He was a total mystery,” says Peter Alliss, who finished the week tied ninth. “He was from another planet. We were all in awe of him. He had an aura.”

Carnoustie is easily the toughest of the British Open courses: long, unrelenting, unforgiving. Dour. The perfect choice for Hogan. Over four rounds, with little fuss or fanfare, he skillfully took the links apart. When he chipped in for a birdie on the fifth hole in the last round, en route to a 68 and a four-stroke win, he didn’t even smile. The Scots took to Hogan because he was understated, muted, polite. The quiet American.

His victory at Carnoustie was the pinnacle and, at 40, a resounding end note of an extraordinary career.

“Hogan”

During his Scottish sojourn, Hogan was not spotted cavorting with the locals in the pubs around town. He did not visit the Home of Golf, St. Andrews, just down the coast. He and his wife, Valerie, kept to themselves. Hogan sidestepped well-wishers, backslappers and autograph hunters, often using the sole American journalist covering the event, John Derr, as a human shield.

Hogan was something of a misanthrope. He didn’t want children. His house supposedly had no spare room for visitors. He didn’t chat with playing partners. He gave interviews reluctantly, and said little. He never once addressed Arnold Palmer by name.

“Hogan didn’t like anybody, except maybe his wife,” said Sam Snead. These days Hogan might be labeled as depressed, avoidant, schizoid, even mildly autistic. But he appealed to the American stereotype of the lone ranger: self-reliant, silent, hardworking, tough as an overcooked Angus steak.

Hogan the man became “Hogan” the legend more through what wasn’t said than what was.

Secret

Hogan did not quite possess the same natural athletic gifts as compatriots Sam Snead or Byron Nelson. He didn’t win a tournament until he was 28. With his career interrupted by World War II—Hogan served in the Army Air Corps—his first major championship didn’t happen until he was 33. Hogan reached the top of the game through grit, discipline, hard work and perseverance.

And “the secret”? This was a revelation that supposedly came to Hogan while he was in bed one summer night in 1946. There was much speculation; there were clues. But the Hogan mystique grew as long as “the secret” remained mostly secret. However, in 1955, Life magazine paid Hogan $10,000 to tell all. It was a three-part revelation (please, don’t try this at home): Hogan claimed he weakened his left-hand grip, fanned the club open on the takeaway, and cupped his left wrist inward at the top of the backswing.

Later, an expanded version of this anti-hook manifesto was published as the best-selling instructional book, The Modern Fundamentals of Golf, which has surely ruined more golfers than any other.

Whether any of this really was Hogan’s secret, or if indeed there ever was a secret, remains a secret.

Crash

Four years before Carnoustie, one foggy February morning in west Texas, a Greyhound Bus on the wrong side of the road plowed head-on into Ben Hogan’s Cadillac. The bus, running late, was trying to overtake a truck on a little bridge. It was the kind of near head-on crash that almost always results in fatalities. Just before impact, Hogan’s instinct was to protect Valerie, sitting in the passenger seat. He flung himself across her lap as the steering column ripped through the driver’s seat, fracturing his collarbone on the way. The dashboard crushed into his face, nearly blinding his left eye. The engine smashed into his stomach and legs, breaking an ankle, a rib and his pelvis.

The newspapers prepared his obituary. But he survived. He spent two months in the hospital. His doctors had wondered if his shattered body would ever walk again.

Sheer determination got him back on his feet. In December of that year he played his first 18 holes, riding between shots, and he made his return to competition at the 1950 Los Angeles Open. That summer he won the U.S. Open; the next year he won the Masters. The quality of Hogan’s play was undiminished, maybe even improved. The quantity, however, dramatically declined. Wracked with pain for the rest of his life, he played a limited schedule. On tournament days, Hogan would soak his legs each morning, bandage them to reduce swelling, then limp around the golf course, suffering cramps and shooting pains in silence.

The 1953 British Open was one of just six tournaments he entered that year. He won five of them. He returned from Carnoustie to a ticker-tape parade on Broadway. He was a hero. He was “Hogan.”

Father

Perhaps the character of “Hogan” was forged years before Carnoustie, or the crash, or the nighttime revelation of the secret of golf. It can be traced back to one tragic, searing moment in 1922, when little Ben was 9.

Hogan’s parents had been arguing. His father, Chester Hogan, a blacksmith, went into another room, pulled a .38 revolver, and a terrible retort thundered through the house. According to some accounts, young Ben was in the room with Chester and witnessed his suicide.

It was the night before Valentine’s Day. The father shot himself in the heart. The son’s was irreparably broken.

The impact of such a trauma is unimaginable. Studies show that child survivors of a parent’s suicide might as adults be susceptible to depression, social maladjustment and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Hogan never talked about it. Maybe this was his real secret.

Ghost

In Hogan’s British Open masterclass, nowhere were his precision and power more evident than at Carnoustie’s 567-yard sixth hole. Unlike most competitors, Hogan would hit the driver off the tee, aiming for a thin stretch of fairway between the out-of-bounds fence on the left and the bunkers in the middle of the fairway. The gamble paid off in all four rounds.

In the early 1990s, the esteemed sportswriter Tom Callahan reminded Hogan of Carnoustie’s longest hole, now known as “Hogan’s Alley.”

“I can’t remember every hole,” interrupted Hogan. “It was so long ago, you know.”

“That’s all right, Mr. Hogan,” Tom said. “They all remember you.”

Hogan is hard to forget. It might be fanciful to imagine his ghost striding Carnoustie’s fairways once more. But the man haunts the game. Hogan is golf’s conscience, its moral arbiter, its eternal referee.

If you’re in the rough, and you think no one sees you nudge your ball into a better lie, Hogan is watching. Throw your club after a terrible shot, leave a bunker unraked, or brag about your round—Hogan sees it all. And Hogan is not amused. Punishment might be swift or slow, but it will come.

When a witty, chatty, urbane Frenchman led the 1999 Open at Carnoustie with a hole to go, Hogan turned him into Jacques Tati and installed a more suitable Scotsman as the winner instead.

The pantheon of golf gods contains plenty of hard, uncompromising éminences grises. But they all look up to “Hogan.”