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Ben Hogan Became A Champion By Practicing 12 Hours A Day : Master Of The Game

June 19, 1988|BOB OATES | Times Staff Writer

FORT WORTH — Hogan! For years, the very name-- Hogan-- made strong men tremble. The men who pioneered tournament golf.

Before and after World War II; before and after the 1949 auto accident that nearly killed him; before Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus--and after Bobby Jones--Texas' Ben Hogan was the most feared competitor in the game.

They called him the Hawk. And they knew that even on their best days, the Hawk would probably get them anyhow. He once won the Masters, the U.S. Open and the British Open the same year.

That was 3 1/2 decades ago. So has the Hawk flown away?

No chance. At 75, Hogan was found this summer where he started 65 years ago. On a golf course here. Practicing tee shots. Practicing his irons. And loving it all.

In his prime in the 1950s, interrupted during a three-hour practice session that had begun only minutes after he had shot a tournament-leading 66, Hogan said: "When I'm not playing, I like to be practicing. I enjoy every minute of (either). To tell you the truth, I'd just as soon do this."

Lucky Ben.

He said the other day: "I don't play golf anymore, but I still hit a few balls four or five days a week--every nice day. To me, practicing has always been half the fun."

Thus, in a manner of speaking, Ben Hogan's career is only half over--and what other sports champion, at 75, can say that?

Golf in the United States originated just 25 years before Hogan was born. And he's back in the news today because his sport is celebrating a centennial.

Ten player-of-the-decade trophies are to be awarded Monday night in New York by Golf magazine and the Hawk said he'll be there to accept the one he earned.

For most of the '40s and '50s, he was that at the least--the player of a decade or two. In fact, most veteran golfers continue to rank him in the century's top five with Jones, Nicklaus, Palmer and Walter Hagen.

More exactly, comparing achievements and overall impact, Hogan probably belongs in the top three with Jones and Nicklaus--though he could hardly have differed more strikingly from either.

Jones was a gifted amateur who wore many hats as a mechanical engineer from Georgia Tech, an English literature graduate of Harvard, and eventually a lawyer.

By contrast, Hogan, a high school dropout, spent all his time playing and practicing golf before founding the Ben Hogan Co., his Fort Worth golf-equipment manufacturing firm, which now has 500 employees.

Nicklaus is a friendly multimillionaire who made a good thing out of golf in the course of dominating it.

By contrast, Hogan made a living but not much more. His were the difficult early years of the tour. And few ever called him friendly.

As a person and as a golfer, Hogan, in the words of most of the newspaper reporters of his day, was cold, calculating, distant, antisocial, uncooperative, preoccupied, and obsessive in his drive for perfection.

"His forbidding manner ground down the opposition," one writer said. "To look at him was to shiver in the bones."

When tournament golfer Al Geiberger once was asked what it was like to play with Hogan, he said: "It was spooky."

Slender and small-boned, the Hawk weighed no more than 135 pounds as a champion and stood not much more than 5 feet 8 inches. So it wasn't his size that awed them, it was the Hogan manner. The Hogan look.

He unnerved rivals and reporters alike with the steady, unsmiling, icy approach of a professional gambler. The contemporary celebrity he most resembled was the model Hollywood mobster, George Raft.

These days, Hogan has added a few pounds and subtracted some hair, but he's still fit, erect, and direct of manner, still neat and formal in a summer sport coat and slacks. The carefully knotted tie is blue, the spectacles gold-rimmed.

He has finally quit smoking, yielding a year ago after an appendectomy.

In the old days when you could pin him down out of sight of a golf course--which wasn't often--he was usually a cordial enough interview, and so he remains.

In his handsome wood-paneled office, seated behind a leather-topped desk in front of a large portrait of his wife of 53 years, Valerie, he is still a pleasant enough companion.

Though loath to either compliment or criticize other golfers, past or present, he agrees that the tournament field is generally better today.

"Everything (in sports) is better today," he said. "More athletes are working harder.

"There's no such thing as a born golfer--as a born anything. Any (duffer) can shoot in the 70s if he applies himself properly. Practicing is the necessary thing. Playing is just an anticlimax."

Anticlimax? To Hogan, in any case, it was. The other players just got in his way. It was the game that challenged him.

And so, at the start of the second century of U.S. golf, Hogan the perfectionist will be remembered as a somewhat different kind of champion.

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