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What Could Have Been

April 28, 2009

Hogan's wife, Valerie (top left), and his brother, Royal, accompany him after the accident.

AP Photo

No golfer wants to require a comeback. Sure, comebacks are crowd-pleasers, and often the grist of popular movies. But Tiger Woods, for example, would rather not be dealing with knee surgeries. As for the all-time category leader, Ben Hogan -- well, when late in life he advised the members of his then-fledgling Hogan Tour, "Watch out for buses," he was being appropriately droll. It would have been too rueful to say, "Watch out for comebacks," though It probably went through his mind.

It has been 60 years since the Cadillac sedan carrying Hogan and his wife, Valerie, along a foggy two-lane road outside Van Horn, Tex., was smashed by a Greyhound bus that had crossed the center line. With so much scrutiny being paid to Woods' return, it's a fitting time to take a fresh look at Hogan -- the ultimate U.S. Open player -- and how his comeback defines and distorts the way he is remembered.

Though for a remarkable few years his game seemed unaffected, Hogan the golfer was permanently diminished by the events of Feb. 2, 1949. Valerie escaped devastating injuries, but Hogan's collarbone, pelvis, left ankle and a rib were all broken by the impact. He also suffered deep cuts and contusions around his left eye. Each injury would cause Hogan pain and problems for the rest of his life. But when doctors discovered blood clots formed in his legs were threatening to block the veins to his lungs, it forced the most consequential violation to Hogan's system. Cutting through his abdomen, they tied off the inferior vena cava, an inch-thick tube that is the main carrier of blood from the lower body. It meant that for the rest of his life, Hogan's legs would swell and fatigue whenever he walked.

Hogan's post-accident performance, in which he won the 1950 U.S. Open at Merion in an 18-hole playoff and five of the next seven major championships he played, is rightly considered epic. In the history of sport, it is perhaps rivaled as a comeback only by Lance Armstrong overcoming cancer to win the Tour de France seven times.

But the drama of Merion eclipsed the excellence that came before, and the crescendo of Hogan's "Triple Crown" major victories at Augusta, Oakmont and Carnoustie in 1953 made it easier not to dwell on his protracted and often melancholy denouement. It also seemed to make Hogan's place as the most dynamic swinger of a golf club ever -- along with any wistful wonderings about the record-book colossus he might have been -- somewhat beside the point, except among white-cap-wearing pronators and supinators.

Hogan might have held up Merion as his proudest achievement and called Carnoustie his greatest pleasure, but as an artist of the game, he believed that his pre-accident golf was his finest work. In a 1983 interview on CBS with Ken Venturi, Hogan was describing his 11-month recovery from the accident when he said, "Finally, I got to where I could play a little bit. Not as good as I could before. And I don't think I will ever play as good -- or ever have since -- even though I won some tournaments. But I was better in 1948 and '49 than I've ever been."

I remember being surprised by those words at the time because I'd never heard the pre-accident Hogan celebrated. All I knew was that Hogan had overcome a supposed lack of natural talent with extraordinary industry. Turns out, Hogan helped that along, the little he ever said about himself usually being self-deprecating. "I had to practice and play all the time," he told Venturi. "I've told you before, my swing wasn't the best in the world, and I knew it wasn't. And I thought, Well, the only way I can win is just to outwork these fellas."

So it was with Hogan. As late as 1987, he told Nick Seitz in Golf Digest, "This sounds stupid, but I thought I was always in a slump." Sam Snead wrote of Hogan, "You got the feeling that Ben hated -- I mean, hated -- the mistakes he made. The manner in which he talked about his performance when it was poor was so angry and unforgiving that you found yourself feeling sorry for him."

Hogan was after a Platonic ideal of golf, and it seems that by his measure the year before the accident was the closest he ever got. "Ben was cheated out of years of golf by the accident," Valerie said in 1999, 18 months after her husband's death and just a few before her passing. "We always looked at it as how fortunate he was to play again, that God let him live. But, as he got older, there was a sense of loss. There was sadness. He would have loved to have played forever."

He certainly would have played a lot more often and probably longer if he'd had a fair chance to build on the level he'd attained in the late 1940s. Beginning in 1946, the year after he had been discharged from a three-year hitch in the Army, until the accident in 1949, Hogan won 32 of the 85 official events he played, a pace that only Byron Nelson has exceeded on the PGA Tour. In 1948, Hogan won 10 events, including the U.S. Open (the first of six consecutive victories) and the PGA Championship. On the day of the accident, he had won 11 of his past 16 events, counting his playoff loss to Jimmy Demaret in Phoenix three days before. At 35, Hogan had been at the peak of his powers -- lean and hungry, long and strong, and above all, confident that he had finally gained command of his golf swing.

Bob Rosburg was an amateur in the 1948 U.S. Open at Riviera. "I missed the cut and watched Hogan the last two rounds, and it's still the vision I keep in my head when I think of the ultimate golfer," he says.

Bill Flynn, a friend of Hogan's who played many rounds with him at Shady Oaks in Fort Worth, says Hogan seemed almost bemused when that period was brought up.

"He'd say, 'Bill, it was a hell of a thing: It wouldn't matter what shot I tried, I hardly ever missed one.' "

The changes Hogan made in early 1946 came to be known as The Secret. Hogan told fellow pro Gardner Dickinson that while thinking about how to rid himself of a persistent hook, he was perusing an old golf book with pictures of a player who favored a fade. Hogan noticed that the player's left wrist was wrinkled at the top of his swing. Struck with an idea, Hogan weakened his left-hand grip, shortened the extension of his left thumb on the shaft and allowed his arms to rotate the clubface well open on the backswing. It gave him the "cupped" wrist position.

He'd Say, "Bill, It was a hell of a thing: It wouldn't matter what shot I tried, I hardly ever missed one."' -- BILL FLYNN

The changes also caused Hogan to have a flatter backswing plane and, most important, gave him the feeling that he could release the club as hard as he wanted without fear of the clubface closing down and producing a hook. This satisfied Hogan's desire not to compromise his capacity for sheer power. A pronounced lateral slide of his hips at the beginning of his downswing -- which Claude Harmon called the most dramatic such move by any great player -- allowed Hogan to delay the release of his club until the last possible instant, creating the ultimate "lag." When his grip had been stronger and his backswing longer and more upright, the late hit would deloft the clubface and often produce low hooks, but Hogan's adjustments solved that problem.

"In this final, brilliant product, Hogan had taken his biggest enemy, the huge forward slide, and turned it into his biggest asset," wrote Dickinson in his book, Let 'er Rip.

Still, to attribute Hogan's most majestic golf solely to a swing fix does him a disservice. The truth is, Hogan wouldn't have been able to produce so much power and accuracy with a weak grip if he hadn't possessed exceptional athleticism. Although only 135 pounds in the 1940s, at 5-feet-8 Hogan was built like a boxer, wasp-waisted and broad-shouldered, with the sinewy arms of the blacksmith's son he was. Add fast-twitch fibers, and it was no wonder Hogan's action captured so many awestruck eyes.

"Until Tiger came along, I'd never seen a good player with body speed as fast as Mr. Hogan's," says Butch Harmon. "That's why he ruined so many emulators. As open as he got the club on the downswing, he needed tremendous speed to get it back to square."

"Hogan had to be an ultra-super athlete to hit the ball with Snead and Nelson, who were both super athletes and much bigger men," says Bob Toski, who at 120 pounds during his playing career was one of the greatest of the flyweights. "When you're small, you've got to have great hand-eye coordination and use your body efficiently, and Hogan was the epitome of that. He produced the most lag, had the fastest and most complete clearance of his hips toward the target, and he kept right-arm extension past impact longer than anyone."

Hank Haney, Woods' swing coach, was the most succinct: "Hogan had the best swing."

Despite his size and weight, Hogan played big.

"Mr. Hogan had huge hands and wrists so thick it was almost like his forearm went straight to his hand," says Lee Trevino. "He probably weighed about 150 when I played with him, but he carried himself like a guy 185 pounds. Some guys are big and weak; some guys are small and strong. Hogan was extremely powerful."

Says Bill Flynn: "Even well into his 60s, you'd see him in the shower from the back, and the size and muscularity of his legs and thighs would surprise you. It just brought home how strong he must have been in his prime."

For good measure, Hogan was double-jointed, able to touch his thumb to his wrist, and extremely supple. "I tried to copy Hogan for a long time, but I finally had to give up," says Gary Player. "It was wrecking my game. The man was a gymnast."

The Hogan of this period was freeze-framed in Power Golf, which though not as well-read as Five Lessons was an instruction book that Hogan wrote without the help of a co-author. It features a stunning series of photos taken at Augusta National in 1947. Ben Doyle, golf instruction's foremost proponent of the benefits of lag in the swing, received the book as a gift as a 10-year-old in British Columbia. "I used to lay it on the ground and just let the wind blow the pages with the pictures like a silent movie," says Doyle, who was entranced by the shots capturing Hogan with a driver halfway into the downswing, the wrists still so fully cocked that the club shaft was almost hitting his right shoulder. "It's still my favorite swing," Doyle says. "Hogan got what I call maximum participation from his body."

I tried to copy Hogan for a long time, but I finally had to give up. It was wrecking my game. the man was a gymnast.' -- GARY PLAYER

Still, despite Hogan's demarcation of his peak, the fact remains that he won six majors -- the three in 1953 alone -- after the accident, compared to three before. And what was particularly stunning was his play in his return to competition in early 1950. At the Los Angeles Open, he would have won but for Snead making a 15-footer to tie him on the 72nd hole.

"It seemed like a miracle -- that's why they made [the movie] 'Follow the Sun' so fast," says Venturi. "Nobody thought he could keep it up."

But he did. At his first major after the accident, Hogan got into contention at the Masters until a final-round 76 dropped him to a tie for fourth. In May at the Greenbrier Open, he shot 259 to win by 10 strokes. Then came Merion, where he trudged his way through a 36-hole Saturday and an 18-hole playoff to emerge in glory. The 1952 season was disappointing because Hogan was in contention at the Masters and the U.S. Open but played poor last rounds. But he regrouped in 1953 to put together his epic year. He won the Masters by five, the U.S. Open by six and the British Open by four but played in only two other official tournaments. It sure seemed like his best golf.

In 1950, Hogan said that winning golf tournaments was "80 percent management and 20 percent physical." Mike Wright, the head professional at Shady Oaks who became close to Hogan, believes recovering from the accident "taught Mr. Hogan something about life that got into his game, like he had something more to play for."

Coming back strong was in Hogan's DNA. It's what he'd done after getting rolled down the hill in a barrel while being hazed as a new caddie at Glen Garden. When in 1946 he three-putted the 72nd hole from inside 20 feet to lose both the Masters and the U.S. Open, he responded by winning the PGA for his first major.

The curtailed schedule that Hogan played after the accident allowed him to psychologically peak in the manner of a boxer or an Olympic athlete, and it seemed to suit his calculating temperament.

There were more tangible reasons for his success. After the accident, Hogan asked Jackie Burke Jr., one of the premier putters of all time, to work with him on his putting.

"I think he knew he wasn't going to be as good tee to green, not as long and not as good with the irons," says Burke. "Before that, Hogan didn't really know a lot about putting, never was really serious about it. But we worked on it, mainly got his left hand under the shaft, which helps close the toe on the forward stroke, and he got better. He putted pretty well for three years."

A Hogan biographer, Curt Sampson, posits that the damage to Hogan's left-eye vision in the accident was the source of his increasing struggles on the greens during the '50s and '60s -- most notably a tendency to freeze over putts before managing a jerky stroke.

As far as Hogan's swing, only the closest eye could detect any difference in his action in the early years of his comeback. Venturi, however, was aware of a foreboding truth. "Ben never again felt really good physically on the golf course," he says. "Something was different. He overcame it with his mind and his guts and his talent, but he knew he had lost something."

According to Hogan biographer James Dodson, Hogan told Claude Harmon and close friend Marvin Leonard that the damage to his knees and pelvis had reduced his hip turn through the ball and shortened the average length of his drive by about a dozen yards. To compensate, Hogan narrowed his stance slightly, but the marginally less dynamic swing produced more control and consistency. It was what Tiger Woods discovered when he softened his hitting action to compensate for a torn ACL in the summer of 2007 and went on to win 10 of 13 tournaments. Cary Middlecoff believed Hogan hit fewer poor shots after 1950, if perhaps not as many great ones.

Hogan also put on 20 or so pounds after the accident, some as a result of having to be less active and some because of a new regimen of strength training that Snead thought helped. In any case, the extra bulk might have allowed Hogan to maintain his length with less effort. Also, for what it's worth, at the beginning of 1953 Hogan stopped playing the MacGregor golf ball, widely considered by players of the time to be inferior, and won his Triple Crown playing Titleist.

As impressive as Hogan was to watch, after his victory at Carnoustie in the only British Open he ever played, he won only one more tournament, the 1959 Colonial. It supports the argument that Hogan's achievements from 1950 through 1953 were more than anything a triumph of will, one that couldn't overcome the gathering physical and mental toll of the accident.

That preparation was a physical ordeal. It just all wore on him, and it kind of wore him out. ' -- JOHN DERR

After playing in eight tournaments in 1950, Hogan never again played more than six in one year. Late rounds in tournaments became an increasing challenge, especially Open Saturdays, when the final 36 holes of regulation were completed. It's revealing that Hogan lost four of the five playoffs he was in after the accident (at L.A. in 1950, the Masters in 1954, the U.S. Open in 1955 and the 1960 Memphis Open Invitational), and that his reaction at learning he had been tied at the Olympic Club was, "I was wishing it was over." Jack Fleck, who outdrove Hogan consistently in their 18-hole playoff at Olympic, says, "Ben seemed tired in the playoff. He wasn't in top shape anymore."

Deeper-seated issues also burdened Hogan as he aged. "Psychologically, the accident did a lot to him," says John Derr, a television and radio commentator who got to know Hogan well at Carnoustie. "He already had a lot of handicaps in his mind. His father's suicide [when Ben was 9] made him a complicated man, and he felt that he was unpopular with the fans, which bothered him. The accident just added to all that. He felt like he wasn't quite the same player, and he had so much pride, he was reluctant about putting his game on display unless he was totally prepared. But that preparation was a physical ordeal. It just all wore on him, and it kind of wore him out."

So much so that when Hogan lost at Olympic, he announced he was through with competitive golf. "I came here with the idea of trying to win," he said, his disappointment evident. "I worked harder, I think, than ever before." But he continued to play in tournaments for another 15 years and hit practice balls almost every day for another 25.

Golf's leading Hoganist, Dan Jenkins, has calculated that not counting the British Open, Hogan missed 20 majors because of World War II or injury. "If he plays in those, and throw in a few British Opens after Carnoustie, Tiger would be chasing both Nicklaus and Hogan," says Jenkins. "I think that in 1949, Ben believed he was going to sweep the plate. Even as it was, he should have won more. He just came so close to a lot of stuff."

Hogan always maintained that his real joy came not from winning, but from improving. "Most of the enjoyment in life is in improving," he told Seitz in 1970. "If I didn't think I could improve right now, why . . . " and his voice trailed off. It was a noble idea, but Hogan knew his most fulfilling improvement had ended with his comeback.