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New World Order: Covering nine with the ghost of Ben Hogan

by | CBSSports.com Senior Golf Columnist

ORLANDO, Fla. -- There are eight books relating to the life, times and swing of Ben Hogan on the bookshelf outside my man-cave office, and while each provides some insight into the mythic man, none are fully illuminating.

Largely private compared to many of his rambunctious peers, Hogan seemingly preferred life in the shadows, if not under a shady tree, where he honed his swing into the robotic, hypnotic swipe that made him the greatest player of his era.

As the PGA Tour rolls through Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Tex., a venue where he won numerous times and not far from where Hogan made his home, the Hawk remains as shrouded in mist, perhaps the greatest enigma the game has known.

Hogan was a late bloomer who nearly washed out as a tour player, but when the light finally came on, he rattled chrome swords with the likes of Sam Snead and Byron Nelson and eventually outdueled them both in many regards.

Outside of Tiger Woods and Arnold Palmer, it's possible that more publishing ink has been expended on Hogan than any player from the past century, yet he remains uniquely ubiquitous and ambiguous –- a crazy double-whammy for a sports celebrity of any era.

Back in the day, when Hogan was lighting up Colonial and winning four of the first seven PGA Tour events staged there, they nicknamed the place Hogan's Alley, and the club is adorned with a massive sculpture of Bantam Ben outside the clubhouse doors. Fans will pose for thousand of photos next to his hard, metallic likeness, but that's about as close to the legend as they will get, especially figuratively.

The research department at New World Order is no closer to understanding what made the man tick than most other aficionados who have studied his life, but there are a few defining, life-shaping moments worth underscoring to provide some context, which brings us to our weekly list.

My late grandfather, a native Texan who spoke of Hogan like a deity in spikes, used to practice his swing in the backyard, a well-worn copy of Hogan's famously bestselling Five Lessons instructional tome lying in the grass at his feet, the pages decorated with drawings of the most-copied swing in the history of the sport.

If only Hogan's life itself was such an open book.

The following isn't a ranking or any remote semblance of the most obvious episodes or issues Hogan faced in his life. After all, Hollywood covered many of those in the 1951 movie about the guy called Follow the Sun. But in the years that have passed since his death, more details about his life have been divulged, some of them downright fascinating.

What made him tick? Complicated question for an impossibly complicated man. If you think Tiger Woods has some crazy internal wiring, Hogan has had experts theorizing about his life and times for six decades.

To the Internet crowd, that's ancient history, but it shouldn't be forgotten. Here are nine defining Hogan moments –- both personally and professionally, for Hogan and his fans –- which is one for each major championship he won.

A victory in the 1953 British Open at Carnoustie was one of Hogan's nine majors. (Getty Images)  
A victory in the 1953 British Open at Carnoustie was one of Hogan's nine majors. (Getty Images)  
Forged in family fire
Decades passed before the details of Hogan's shocking, pitiable childhood became fully known, and it was easy to understand why Ben almost never spoke of his father's suicide, even to his closest friends. Hogan's wife, Valerie, didn't learn of the incident until well after they were married, from another family member, in fact. Hogan was 9 when his father, a blacksmith, shot himself with a .38 in the family home. Some have theorized Ben found the body, though that remains muddled. At any rate, as the youngest of three kids, and a boy who odolized his dad, the development surely shook Ben to the core. Indeed, some believe it shaped Hogan's life in ways he could never understand, much less control.

Meticulous as a man can be
Reams of information about Hogan and his rituals over the years made it increasingly possible that he not only was fastidious, but possibly a borderline obsessive-compulsive personality. "The OCD manifested itself in his job he took and the tasks he did, with isolation among the routine," sports psychologist Dr. Gio Valiante said in a 2002 interview. "The need for ceremony, the need for routine, rituals." Hogan left home for the course at precise times, wore the same clothes of black, white and gray. He kept five suits in his closet –- all gray flannel. Hogan once complained to Valerie about a house guest who used an ashtray and moved it to a different part of the living room. "Why don't they put it back where it was?" he said.

Quiet to the core
With a father who experienced huge mood swings and was possibly a depressive personality, Hogan as an adult was often characterized as aloof, if not steely, especially with strangers. His wife insisted that was not the case. Hogan used the answer the phone in his office with, "Henny Bogan speaking." He even had a plaque on his desk with the same name etched in it. But there wasn't much doubt that Hogan had few close friends, even after he stopped playing. One of them was Claude Harmon, a Masters winner and father to swing coach Butch Harmon. Hogan used to come to cookouts at the Harmon abode –- and always insisted on grilling his own steak, just so.

Battered, bruised and broke
Along the way, Hogan met a rich man named Marvin Leonard, whose family owned a store chain. Leonard would eventually build Colonial Country Club, but it was his fondness for Hogan that kept the man's career afloat. Living from week to week on his meager earnings, Hogan was loaned money by Leonard to stay on the road. There's a copy of a Hogan IOU with Leonard from 1931 in the book, Ben Hogan: The Man Behind the Mystique, which details the loans to the penny. Hogan went broke twice in his early years. In 1932 and '33, he made $250 before running out of money. Small wonder Hogan began to work harder than any other player on his game –- he needed to, by sheer necessity or psychological compunction.

Almost over before it started
In 1938, Hogan and Valerie were down to their last $100 and on tour far from Texas, on the West Coast. They discussed whether they would use the money to get home, but decided to roll the dice and play as long as the cash lasted. In Oakland, thieves swiped the rear wheels off their car and Hogan got a ride to the course with childhood pal Byron Nelson. Ben shot 67, finished T6, and won $285. The next week, he was third in Sacramento and won $350. "We thought we were rich," Valerie wrote a half-century later.

Regimented in all things
Given his preoccupation with order and routine, when Hogan signed up for World War II, the military regimen struck a chord. Stationed in the States, Hogan was an officer in the Air Corps, and was determined to win the camp award for marching on parade. He worked his boys to the axels of their ankles. "Golf or marching, he had to win something," Valerie recalled.

Life takes a wrong turn
The 1949 traffic accident that nearly took his life was a career milestone, mostly because doctors predicted he would never walk, much less play golf, again. Hogan beat the odds by again relying on repetition and routine. After the crash, his 3½-hour pre-round regimen became inviolate. First, he took an hour-long bath to soak his chronically sore legs, which he then wrapped in bandages. He usually had bacon and eggs, then drove slowly to the course. Hogan drove, walked and comported himself at a deliberately slow pace, setting a certain rhythm that he would carry onto the course. Whether you buy the OCD theory, the man certainly was a slave to his rituals.

Saving two lives at once
In the era before seatbelts, the 140-pound Hogan sustained a broken ankle, a double fracture of his pelvis, a chipped rib and a broken collarbone. Had he not dived across the car to protect Valerie, he would have been killed instantly –- the steering wheel was shoved straight through the front seat. Hogan had appeared on the cover of Time Magazine three weeks before the accident that nearly killed him. Given his attempt to save his wife and stage a comeback, he became an even bigger sports icon when the recovery started and even his toughest opponents pulled for him.

Miracle at Merion
It isn't often that an entire book is dedicated to a single win at a single event, but when Hogan won the 1950 U.S. Open at Merion outside Philadelphia just 16 months after the near-fatal collision with the bus, it was almost too epic to believe. In fact, the Miracle at Merion was released on the 60-year anniversary of Hogan's comeback, adding even more to the lore. As the gods would have it, Hogan had to beat Lloyd Mangrum and George Fazio in an 18-hole playoff, on legs that throbbed with the pain of a million bee stings. His wife wrote in 2002, "As much as Ben did accomplish over the rest of his career winning that U.S. Open at Merion made me wonder how much more he might have accomplished had it not been for his injuries in the accident." Just like the reclusive Hogan himself, we'll never really know.


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