The Hawk Was A Great Golfer But Was He The Best
The question of who are the best golfers of all time often draws up some great debate, and it is often a discussion you hear on the various golf channels and programs, especially during play suspensions at live coverages.
I don't think I have ever seen a top five list that did not include Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Bobby Jones. You also often hear Arnold Palmer, Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan. But I have never heard someone make the case for Ben Hogan as the best golfer of all time, so I will try and explain here why I believe he was indeed the best golfer of all time.
Now I do have to admit that he played golf way before my time, so I cannot say what the general opinion was at the time when he was the top of his game. But I have done some reading and research and absolutely loved his authorised biography Ben Hogan: An American Life; this is a fantastic book that I loved from start to finish.
How to measure greatness in golf?
The main question is how you measure how successful a golfer was or is. One of the most common yard sticks is the total number of major victories. By this measurement the Golden Bear, Jack Nicklaus, is unbeaten with 18 Major victories. This is the one record that Tiger Woods is after more than any other.
A second way to measure success in golf is by total PGA tour victories. The honour for this category goes to Sam Snead with 82 PGA tour victories in his career. As of today, Tiger Woods has moved into sole second place with 74 victories, having overtaken Jack Nicklaus this past weekend.
Based on these two yard sticks, there is a good reason to not rank Ben Hogan in first place, as he ranks 4 for both total and major victories. So obviously I cannot make a credible argument by using objectivity based on statistics. In order to demonstrate why I believe The Hawk (one of Hogan's nicknames) was the best golfer of all time I want to give a quick biography of his life and career.
Hogan's Early Life
A native Texan he was born August 13, 1912, and his childhood had to cope with great difficulty when his father committed suicide when youn Ben was only 9 years old. Many, including Hogan's biographer have claimed that the suicide, by a gunshot to the chest, happened while the 9 year old was watching, but I do not believe that he was ever on record about this.
Due to the loss of a breadwinner, Ben and his siblings had to quit school and take up jobs ranging from delivery to selling newspapers. This need to work in order to survive led him to take a job as a caddy as Glen Garden Country Club, where incidentally he met the also famous golfer Byron Nelson. There must be something in the water in that part of Texas!
How He Started As A Pro Golfer
Before finishing his final year of high school, Hogan dropped out in order to play at the Texas Open as a professional golfer in 1930. At this time his main income came from working as a club pro while at the same time taking part in tournaments. It is important to consider that while club pros made a reasonable living playing in tournaments did not pay anything like what golfers earn today. The cost of travelling to tournaments and sacrificing days of work as a club pro left Hogan and his wife Valerie broke numerous times along his early career days.
How Did His Career Progress?
It took Hogan until 1940 to win his first professional tournament, and all through those years his wife stood by her husband encouraging him in all his attempts, many of which had failed. One thing I have heard many commentators and other professional golfers say, is that Hogan was the only golfer in history who had total control over his golf swing, ensuring him that every swing was a carbon copy of every other swing he made. This is an incredible thing that probably only people who have attempted the game of golf can appreciate.
Coupled with this, The Hawk was renowned for an amazing ability at course management. It may seem like golf is only about hitting a ball as far as you can and then getting it in a small hole, but know how to best get around obstacles and hazards is an incredibly important and difficult task.
How Hogan's Career And life Almost Came To An End
On an early foggy morning (February 2, 1949) in Texas Ben and his wife Valerie were involved in a head-on collision with a bus, which resulted in serious injuries. At the time, cars were not equipped with safety belts or airbags or a whole host of other safety features provided by the auto industry today.
Hogan's instinct just before impact was to throw himself in front of his wife to protect her, and this very action not only saved her life, but his as well. Had he remained in his seat, Valerie probably would have gone through the windscreen, and the steering wheel column would have killed Hogan, as it penetrated the driver's seat.
The accident left him with severe injuries including fractured pelvis, ribs, ankle and collar bone. During the 2 months he spent in hospital he suffered a blood clot which almost ended his life. When he was finally able to leave hospital and return home doctors told him that he would continue to struggle walking to the extent that they said he would not be able finish a round of golf, let alone an entire tournament.
Don't Ever Tell A Competitive Athlete That Something Is Impossible
In order to regain strength and try to mend his broken body, Hogan devised an exercise plan of walking which started by walking the length of his home, then by walking as far as the road in front of his house, then to the end of the block, gradually increasing the distance he would walk.
Somehow, between an athlete's competitive nature and his exercise plan he managed to become fit enough to play golf again, and return to the professional tour merely one year after his accident in 1950. Not only did he return to the professional tour, but his best year of golf was yet ahead of him. In 1953 he won three of the four major tournaments, and given the form he was in it would have been likely that he would have one the fourth for a grand slam, only for the PGA Championship was scheduled for the same weekend as The Open Championship.
Given the debilitating effects of the accident and his incredible comeback, I think he would have been a fantastic candidate for the "Impossible Is Nothing" advertising campaign by Adidas.
As already mentioned, by many objective measurements Hogan would not be classed the best golfer to have graced the world, even though he does make it into many top fives. Considering that his career was shortened due to WWII by three years and by his accident for 12 months, a total of four years, I think it entirely possible that he could have achieved more wins. His injuries also meant that he couldn't partake in as many tournaments as he'd like to.
Even the fact that against all medical opinion, he managed to not only walk again, but compete in golf tournaments over four and even five days, has to be taken into account. While there is some great competition for the title, I personally believe that The Hawk was indeed the best golfer to ever have lived. I have already mentioned his authorised biography