'Who the hell is Hogan?'
75 years ago, Ben Hogan arrived at Pinehurst with a bridesmaid's reputation -- until he finally unlocked the mystery of winning
March 24, 2015
By Bill Fields, Special to PGATOUR.COM,
Among the many myths surrounding Ben Hogan, he did not arrive at Pinehurst, North Carolina, in March of 1940 still seeking his first win as a professional golfer. Two years earlier, he had teamed with New Jersey pro Vic Ghezzi to win the Hershey Four-Ball, claiming the first-place prize of $550. Officially, that’s the first of his 64 victories on the PGA TOUR.
In addition, the oft-told tale of Hogan driving into town with little money in his pocket and even less tread on his tires – while making for a great narrative -- may not have been entirely true. After all, he was second on the money list to Jimmy Demaret in early March, having won more than $3,000 in the first two months of the year thanks to six top-10 finishes in his first nine starts.
No doubt, though, Hogan was at a crossroads in his career 75 years ago as he prepped for his next start, the North and South Open at Donald Ross’ famed No. 2 course.
The fledgling golfer from Texas was fighting a hook, which in itself was bad enough. Even more challenging were the attacks on his confidence, as he looked to solve the equation that turns a competent golfer into something better.
With six runner-up finishes in the preceding 14 months, including three in the early stages of 1940, Hogan had developed such a reputation for close calls that one sportswriter referred to him as “the perennial second-placer.”
Meanwhile, fellow Texans Byron Nelson – his childhood rival from Fort Worth – and Ralph Guldahl – a Dallas native just a year older than Hogan – had already made plenty of noise. Nelson had won 10 times, including two majors. Guldahl had won 14 times, including three majors.
Having yet to win an individual stroke-play event in 70 career starts, Hogan wondered about his future on TOUR. Just five years earlier, struggling with his own game, Guldahl had briefly left the sport to become a car salesman. Should Hogan do the same? He could always go back home and accept an offer as a club pro. At least that way he’d have a steady job and provide for his wife, Valerie.
So Hogan arrived well in advance for the tournament. According to James Dodson’s book, “American Triumvirate,” Hogan not only spent endless hours at the practice tee known as Maniac Hill, he played several practice rounds at No. 2, “leaving a trail of Chesterfield stubs in his wake.” He also had lunch with the tournament host, who also happened to be the course designer – Donald Ross. No doubt Hogan picked the brain of the legendary golf architect.
Donald Ross and Ben Hogan in 1940 at the North and South Open. (Courtesy of Pinehurst)
Nelson was among those in the field at Pinehurst. Guldahl, though, was not playing; he had spent the previous winter writing an instruction book and had only made a handful of starts as he worked on his game. Demaret was not competing, either.
Perhaps the biggest draw – and biggest threat – was Sam Snead, who had won at nearby Greensboro two years earlier, the first of his record eight wins at that event.
“The day it started everyone was watching Sam Snead,” recalled John Derr, 97, then with the Greensboro Daily News reporting at the North and South. “Snead had already established his identity in North Carolina by winning in Greensboro in 1938.”
As the tournament began on March 19, few were focused on Hogan. After all, nobody wants to follow the player who never wins.
Four rounds later, his reputation and the arc of his career would change dramatically.
Rivals though they were, Hogan and Nelson nevertheless treated each other with gentlemanly respect. When Nelson arrived in Pinehurst, he had a 14-ounce MacGregor driver, and he let Hogan take it out for a test spin at Maniac Hill.
“The moment Ben wrapped his oversized hands around the grip, he knew the club was ideal for him,” wrote Dodson. At dinner that night, Hogan wanted to buy the club from Nelson.
Nelson wouldn’t take the money. Hogan could use the club as he wished.
The next day, as the first round played out on No. 2, it was Hogan who forced people to pay attention. His golf that opening day was beautiful: He made eight birdies, hit every fairway, missed only two greens in regulation (Nos. 6 and 10, where he had his only bogeys) and shot a 66, tying Harry Cooper’s competitive course record.
“Main trouble with my game always has been driving,” Hogan told reporters after he took a three-shot lead over Paul Runyan. “I could hit ‘em far enough but they had a tendency to hook. I’d keep finding myself in the rough. But this new driver Nelson gave me -- heck, I never hit tee shots like that before. Clothes-line drives, every one of them, and not a hook in the lot.”
Hogan scored nearly as well the next day thanks to a strong finish. Consecutive 3s on the last four holes, including an eagle on the par-5 16th hole and a 25-foot birdie putt on No. 18, gave him a 67 and a commanding seven-stroke lead over Snead and Johnny Revolta.
Derr remembers being among a handful of reporters talking with Hogan at a table near the 18th green after that second round.
Ben Hogan at the 1940 North and South Open at Pinehurst. (Courtesy of Pinehurst)
According to Derr, Hogan reiterated how much he loved the 14-ounce driver and revealed that picturing the swing of a golf legend, Bobby Jones, had also played a role in straightening out his tee shots.
Cooper and Henry Picard had previously given Hogan tips to tame his overcooked right-to-left tendency. Watching Jones, who spectated at the 1940 North and South and was pictured hitting practice balls as a group of contestants looked on, left an impression that also helped him correct his problem.
“With his recap with the press, Hogan explained that he watched Jones and was playing a little differently,” Derr recalled, with Hogan detailing his attempts to swing less steeply on the downswing and extending through the ball with the club closer to the ground.
With the new club, his improved swing and a seven-stroke lead, Hogan appeared headed for a blowout win. But his runner-up reputation gave the rest of the field hope.
“He’s never won before and he won’t win this time,” said Gene Sarazen, who was in solo eighth, 10 shots off the pace. “Hogan’s been out front before. But someone will catch him.”
According to "American Triumvirate," Hogan heard the comments from Sarazen … and vowed to prove him wrong.
Maybe Gene Sarazen was right.
On the 36-hole final day, Hogan went out in the morning 3 over on his opening nine, underclubbing several times, writes Dodson. But Hogan steadied himself coming in, shooting a back-nine 35 for a 74 that still left him six shots ahead of the field.
Snead’s closing 67 put some heat on Hogan, but the “uncrowned world champion for the length of time spent on practice tee and green,” as the Associated Press’ Bill Boni called Hogan, shot a final-round 70 to finish at 11-under 277 and defeat Snead by three strokes.
Finally, his first individual stroke-play victory – and setting a tournament record in the process.
Reporters surrounding Valerie Hogan, who had joined her husband as he walked up the fairway on the 72nd hole.
“Don’t pinch me,” she said as Ben put the finishing touches on his round. “I’m afraid I’ll wake up. Ben always said the only way he would win his first title would be to get so far out in front of the field that nobody could catch him on the final day. That seems to have happened now. But I don’t believe it. Ben has been so close so many times, only to see one fatal shot crumble all his hopes. He’s never given up trying, though, even in his darkest hours.
“That’s why I’m so proud of him now.”
Valerie Hogan wasn’t the only one struggling to comprehend her husband’s breakthrough.
After driving back to Greensboro that evening, Derr finished his story and waited for the early edition of the paper to come off the press. “In those days you stayed around to see how many pages they [messed] up on you,” Derr said. “I checked and the headline said, ‘Hagen wins North and South.’ I went over to the typographer who set the headline, and told him it wasn’t Walter Hagen, it was Ben Hogan.
“He said, ‘Who the hell is Hogan? ’”
In the coming days, it wouldn’t be as easy for anyone to confuse the budding star with the legend of a different spelling.
After a bizarre three-day delay because of a significant spring snowfall, Hogan won the Greater Greensboro Open. “He’s out front this morning running like little War Admiral used to do,” the Daily News’ Laurence Leonard wrote on the final day, referencing the Triple Crown winner of 1937, another champion who performed above his size.
When Hogan traveled to Asheville in western North Carolina for the Land of the Sky Open, it turned out to be a trio of victories. He lifted that trophy on March 31, concluding a remarkable 10 days: 12 rounds, 216 holes, 34-under par.
“Ben and I talked about it later and he said he won the Carolina PGA -- Pinehurst, Greensboro, Asheville. And that’s what it was,” Derr said. “You get the first olive out of the barrel and sometimes you can get two or three.”
Pinehurst was always one of Hogan’s favorite courses and he singled out the 11th hole as one of his favorite par 4s anywhere. He’d win the North and South Open two more times en route to 64 career wins, fourth most in TOUR history. To commemorate the 75th anniversary of Hogan's breakthrough victory, the starters at No. 2 are wearing Hogan-style caps through mid-April.
With the victories came a mystique about the man, of who he was and how he swung the club. His precision and persistence remain the very definition of golf greatness, a legend fueled by his successful return from a near-fatal car accident in 1949.
First, though, Hogan had to solve the mystery of winning.
As he drank a glass of milk in the afterglow of that Pinehurst win – March 21, 1940, as meaningful a date as any in Hogan’s career – you could sense the feeling of relief wash over him.
“I won one just in time,” Hogan was quoted as saying in a pinehurst.com article written by Lee Pace. “I had finished second and third so many times, I was beginning to think I was an also-ran. I needed that win. They’ve kidded me about practicing so much. I’d go out there before a round and practice, and when I was through, I’d practice some more.
“Well, they can kid me all they want because it finally paid off.”
Bill Fields, the author of this story, was a recent guest on PGA TOUR Radio's Talk of the TOUR. Listen to him discuss Hogan below.
Essential Ben Hogan