Ben Hogan was more than an athlete to me.
Hogan was mythic. Hogan was my idol. "Charisma" doesn't begin to describe the hold Hogan had on our imaginations, on the golfing public's.
We held Hogan, who died Friday at the age of 84, to a higher standard than we did the rest of the sports world.
To us, he was like the cowboy hero of a thousand Saturday afternoon serials. He could do no wrong, could never let you down.
The golf game is awash with Hogan stories. My favorite is the time Hogan was playing Riviera. Now, Hogan never asked a caddie anything except maybe what time it was. But after his drive on 15, he looked at the ball, the green in the distance, and turned to his caddie and said, "What's the shot?" And the caddie squinted at the green, threw grass in the air, and said, "Mr. Hogan, it's 146-147 yards." Hogan scowled at him. "Make up your mind!" he ordered.
How good was he? The latest book about him ("Hogan" by Curt Sampson) notes that he teed it up in 292 lifetime tournaments and he finished in the top 10 241 times--and in the top three 139 times! Are you paying attention, Tiger?
Even his losses were epic. Jack Fleck beat him in a playoff for the U.S. Open in 1955, but Fleck was never the man who won the Open that year; he was the man who deprived Ben Hogan of his fifth U.S. Open championship, who committed an offense against nature. He might have come to wish he hadn't.
Hogan was quite simply--with apologies to Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and even Tiger Woods--the best striker of the ball who ever played.
It didn't come naturally to him; he mastered it, subdued it, as he did every challenge in his life. Hogan was grim, stubborn, stable and relentless. He practiced till his hands bled. He didn't worry about being long off the tee, although he was. He hit the ball where he wanted to, not where it wanted to. Where it left the best next shot.
I worshiped him, revered him. My finest hour in the game came once in a practice round Palmer was enduring at Rancho. On one hole, he hit the ball dead left, into a buried lie underneath beer cans, pine cones, fallen branches, even squirrels. Arnold spotted me, hitched up his pants and growled, "OK, wise guy, what would your idol Hogan do here?" I smiled. "Hogan wouldn't be here," I told him. Arnold laughed. Hogan had all the trouble shots. He just didn't need them much.
I never could understand why Ben didn't call the cops when I came into view in his life. I was bad news to him. It began when I did principal work on the cover story we ran on him in Time magazine in 1949. I had followed him for five days. I grew to respect him more than anyone I had ever interviewed. The night the story was closing, we had a chart illustrating Hogan's "average" distance with a driver, a four-wood, seven-iron, etc. Hogan frowned. "There's no average distance!" he exclaimed. "It depends on the time of day, the temperature, whether it's cloudy or foggy, the lie, the composition of the grass!"
"Ben!" I screamed. "They're holding the presses at Donnelly in Chicago at $40,000 a minute!" No matter. We had to get it right or no Hogan OK.
The point is, after the Time cover appeared, Hogan got hit by that bus on his way home in Texas, giving rise to the "Time cover jinx." (Sugar Ray Robinson was later to lose his first fight after appearing on our cover, solidifying the hoodoo.)
Next, I was sitting with Ben in the locker room at the Olympic Club in San Francisco just after he had apparently won the '55 Open when over the transom above our heads began to trickle announcements of birdies by someone named Jack Fleck. A black day. Fleck tied him and was to win the playoff the next day. I was beginning to feel around Ben like that guy in "Li'l Abner" who goes around with a cloud over his head.
I wrote about him extensively over the years, all aspects of the Hogan mystique. His name, for instance.
"Throughout the history of civilization, there have been syllables of terror handed down from generation to generation. 'Geronimo,' for example, could be counted on to empty one fort after another in the old West. 'Attila' would strike as much naked fear as the plague. In the littler world of golf, 'Hogan' elicited much the same effect. Nothing could paralyze a field of golfers as much as this whispered collection of syllables. Strong men bogeyed when they heard this dreaded name. Sam Snead once said the only thing he feared on a golf course was lightning--and Ben Hogan."
When he couldn't putt any more (he was in his 50s), I wrote about that sadly.