Stories You Should Know: Ben Hogan

[This is a multi-part look at all the players in the conversation for Greatest Golfer of All Time]

Ben Hogan’s rise to golf stardom was nothing like most of today’s young protegees. William Ben Hogan was born in Texas on August 13, 1912, the same year as his two biggest rivals, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson. Ben was the youngest of three children to Chester and Clara Hogan.  He was raised in Dublin, Texas, about 80 miles southwest of Ft. Worth. His childhood was not a pleasant one. When Ben was nine his father committed suicide, leaving his mother a widow at 32 with three children under 14. Attempting to help his mother make ends meet he took up odd jobs around town. At age eleven he became a caddy at the local nine hole golf course. He was so desperate to get caddy jobs that on Saturday Nights he would sleep in a sand trap to be the first boy in line to caddy on Sunday morning. It was here, at the Glen Garden Country Club, that he first met another caddy his age, one Byron Nelson. It was also here, at the Glen Garden Country Club, that young Ben took up the game that would define his life.

Byron Nelson, fellow Texan and contemporary of Ben Hogan.

At first his mother opposed him wasting his time playing golf, but eventually she accepted it, and when Ben was 16 she bought him his first set of clubs. During his senior year in high school he dropped out to give full time to his golf. At first as an amateur, but, needing the money, he entered the Texas Open in 1930 as a pro. He was 17 years old.

The next eight years were brutal on the young man. It was the height of the Depression, purses were small and jobs were few, but most of all he struggled with his game. In 1931 the Glen Garden Pro, Ted Longworth took Ben and fellow Texan Ralph Guldahl on tour with him. Hogan ran out of money and had to wire his mother for the money to get home. He saved $125 dollars to try again in 1932, again he came home broke. 1934 was the same story.

He married Valerie Fox in 1935, a girl he had known since he was 12. She encouraged him to try again, and this time he managed to make a living. They saved enough money to buy a used car and drove to all the Tour stops in 1937. Ben finished top ten in five events, but had to watch as his Glen Garden companions Byron Nelson and Ralph Guldahl won Majors. Nelson the Augusta National Invitation (now called the Masters), and then Guldahl the United States Open.

A young Ralph Guldahl, 1928

In January, 1938 all seemed lost for the Hogans. They were down to their last $86 when somebody stole the tires off their car. “I’m finished. Some son of a bitch stole the tires off my car. I can’t go another inch.” Ben was desperate, “I played harder that day than I ever played before or ever again.” He shot a final round 67 to finish second and earn a check for $285. Valerie and he could remain on Tour.

Valerie Hogan and her husband, Ben.

In 1939, he continued to improve, no wins, but more high finishes. It then all came together in 1940. He won at Pinehurst #2 in March, his first win, then within two weeks he won twice more. He was top money winner of 1940 and was awarded the Vardon Trophy, signifying that he was “PGA Golfer of the Year”. He won five more times in 1941, and again the Vardon Trophy. 1942 saw him on the verge of greatness, winning six times and a third straight Vardon Trophy. The only thing missing was a Major Championship, but he was close to that, losing in an 18 hole playoff to his former caddie-mate Byron Nelson at the Masters, one of only two Majors played that year.

World War II put the brakes to his ascension. He would not win again until 1945. The (British) Open was not held between 1940 and 1945, not that big of a deal for Ben, because he had never competed in it before, but the United States Open was cancelled every year from 1942 to 1945, the Masters between 1943 and 1945 and the PGA in 1943. Hogan joined the U.S. Army Air Corp in March of 1943 and wasn’t discharged until June of 1945. By that time Nelson was in the middle of his incredible run of 11 straight tournament wins, which would culminate in a record 18 victories on Tour in 1945. Ben did win five times after his return.

In 1946 Ben Hogan became Ben Hogan; He won 13 times, including his first Major, the PGA in overwhelming fashion. His big rival, Byron Nelson retired from competitive golf after the 1946 season. Ben was shut out of the Majors in 1947, but added seven more wins. He then won two of the three Majors he participated in, the U.S.Open and PGA, and eight others in 1948. His dominance continued into January of 1949. He won two of the first four tournaments on the West Coast swing, making it 11 wins in his last 17 starts. He was the best golfer on the planet.

Early in the morning on February 2, 1949, in the fog, Ben and Valerie were involved in a head on collision with a Greyhound bus when the bus was trying to pass a truck while driving on US Highway 80 just outside Van Horn, Texas. Just prior to impact Ben threw himself in front of Valerie. That move probably saved his life, but doctors said he might never walk again. After major surgery and 10 months of rehab he played his first round of golf in December.

Ben Hogan with wife Valerie on train returning to Fort Worth from El Paso; looking over mail from well wishers, 04/01/1949

His return to tournament golf didn’t come until January, 1950. It came at the site of his U.S. Open win, Riviera Country Club, at the L.A. Open. Hogan was ahead in the clubhouse when his great rival, Sam Snead, birdied the 71st and 72nd holes to tie him, and then beat Ben in an 18 hole playoff. Despite the loss, the sporting public was thrilled that Ben “the Hawk” Hogan was back. In June he won his second U.S. Open, this time at fabled Merion. 1951 was even better, capturing both the Masters, for the first time, and again the U.S. Open, the first time since Bobby Jones in 1929 & 1930 that somebody went back to back at the National Open.

Due to his injuries suffered in the accident Ben was not able to play a full schedule. He had trouble walking, so he would never again play the PGA Championship while it was a match play event. 1953 would be a year for the ages for Ben Hogan. At age 40, with damaged legs, he played only six events, but incredibly won five of them. Included in his triumphs were the Masters by five strokes, his record-tying fourth U.S. Open by six strokes, and in his first, and only entry in the (British) Open Championship, by a comfortable four shots at “Nasty” Carnoustie. Hogan in 1953, along with Bobby Jones’ year in 1930 and Tiger Woods’ in 2000, are the greatest years in competitive golf history.

The Open Championship would complete the career Grand Slam for “The Hawk”, but would also be his last victory in a Major. He would win only one more PGA Tour event, but would have four more second place finishes in the Majors, and continue to contend until 1960. His big regret was that he couldn’t win his fifth U.S. Open. He lost in a playoff to unknown Jack Fleck in 1955, and then in his last good chance, hit it in the water on the 71st hole to lose to Arnold Palmer in 1960.

So, what do we make of Hogan’s career against his great two rivals, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead. Nelson was the first to reach stardom. Three of his five Majors were won prior to World War II, the other two during the conflict. “Lord” Byron had a blood disorder which prevented him from serving in the military. This broke both ways for Nelson. 26 of his 52 tour wins were won in 1944 and 1945, years when most of his top rivals were not playing. On the other side, 14 of the Majors were cancelled, due to the war, during his prime years. If they had been held, he undoubtedly would have won several more. You can say the same for both Snead and Hogan. “Lord” Byron retired from the tour in 1947 at age 34. We give him no credit for the tournaments he might have won had he not retired. His 52 wins and five Majors is just not enough to lift him above his two rivals.

Hogan and Nelson

We dealt with Hogan vs Snead in the Sam Snead article, but we’ll add a little more information. Since both were born in 1912 (as was Byron Nelson) the timeline is easy. Snead’s record is clearly better in the 1930s, but Hogan gained the edge during the war years, when both lost two years to the war. Snead’s back injury acquired during his service time was another factor.

Hogan was dominant after the war until his car accident in 1949. Without Hogan or Nelson in the field Sam won two Majors in 1949, and then three more after Ben’s return in 1951, 1952, and 1954. The 1951 victory was in the PGA Championship, an event Hogan was prevented from playing due to his injuries incurred in his car accident.

The big advantage Snead has is his 82 tour wins compared to the 64 for Hogan. Ben was winning tournaments at an astonishing clip, 13 in 1946, 7 in 1947, 10 in 1948, until the accident prevented him from playing a full schedule. He won only 11 tournaments after his comeback in 1950, but four of those were Majors. It’s likely the car accident is the reason Snead has such a hefty lead in PGA Tour wins. “Slammin’ Sammy” won 39 events after Hogan’s accident to Ben’s 11. Does that matter in rating them? That’s a tough call.

Snead and Hogan

One final note on Ben Hogan. One might wonder why anyone who won three Majors in a year would not at least try for the fourth. The answer is simple, it was physically impossible to contend for both the (British) Open Championship and the PGA Championship in 1953. The dates of the PGA were July 1-7, The (British) Open Championship, July 6-10. No wonder the players of that generation didn’t play them both.

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