The Unspeakable Childhood Trauma That Made a Golf Legend
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
For Ben Hogan, succeeding at golf was not just about competition but about survival.
By Sean Braswell
It’s an honor that few golfers receive. Even Tiger Woods has never enjoyed a ticker tape parade in New York City.
But on July 21, 1953, more than 150,000 people took to Broadway’s Great White Way, officially renamed “Hogan’s Alley” for the day, to celebrate one of golf’s greatest at the pinnacle of his career. Fresh off winning the 1953 Masters Tournament, the U.S Open and the Open Championship, 40-year-old Ben Hogan sat in an open Chrysler limo, dressed immaculately, as usual, in a gray business suit.
After receiving an official citation from the mayor on the steps of City Hall, one of the game’s most enigmatic figures cleared his throat and spoke into the microphone. “I have a tough skin,” he admitted, his voice cracking, “but I have a soft spot in my heart and … and … right now I feel like crying. This is the greatest moment of my life.”
The steely-eyed son of a Texas blacksmith, the almost mythical maestro of the game whom The New York Times once called “Golf’s Iron-Willed Legend,” never showed emotion, and it perhaps explains his unusual path to the top.
Hogan didn’t win his first major until he was 34. Then he was almost killed by a head-on collision with a Greyhound bus that left him with both legs shattered. But just when everyone had written Hogan off, he fought back, pulling off perhaps the best year any professional golfer has ever had. Hogan’s remarkable rise itself was unlikely, and it grew out of a childhood trauma, one that even the iron-willed Hogan could never completely block out.
Between 1940 and 1959, despite spending nearly two years serving during World War II, Ben Hogan won 68 professional golf tournaments, including four U.S. Opens, two PGA Championships, two Masters Championships and the only British Open Championship he ever played in (the British Open and PGA championships were once played so close together that it was impossible to play both).
In 16 U.S. Open appearances, Hogan never placed lower than fifth, including the unforgettable 1950 Open, which he limped through and won just 16 months after the debilitating Greyhound accident. It was an astonishing run of dominance by one of the sporting world’s most mysterious, impenetrable figures.
It was not surprising that William Ben Hogan, born in 1912, in Dublin, Texas, became an icon. Quiet yet intense, the 5-foot-9 perfectionist known as Bantam Ben was short on charisma and hated to give interviews. Sometimes, he was outright misanthropic, choosing to live in a home with just one bedroom, reportedly to rule out the possibility of houseguests. But Hogan was also disciplined — always immaculately attired — and was a rugged individualist with a legendary work ethic. He would memorize distances and every relevant aspect of a course before a competition, meticulously playing ball after ball to account for every conceivable position. “The more I practice,” he once curtly explained to reporters, “the luckier I get.”
Hogan’s path into one of the most nation’s most privileged pastimes was also the product of relentless practice and a rough childhood, including an unthinkable tragedy. In 1922, his father, Chester, who was struggling to find work, and likely suffering from depression, pulled a .38-caliber revolver from a carpetbag after an argument with Hogan’s mother and shot himself in the chest — with his 9-year-old son reportedly in the room.
The shot pierced Chester’s heart and killed him.
“Hogan was haunted by the specter of having lost the one thing he loved, a father he just revered,” says James Dodson, author of Ben Hogan: An American Life.
Not only was Hogan’s childhood and emotional well-being shattered, his father’s death placed the family in dire economic straits. His 14-year-old brother dropped out of school to take a delivery job, and Ben, a fourth grader, started selling newspapers after school, eventually taking a job as a caddie at the Glen Garden Country Club. Hogan woke before sunset and walked 6 miles to the club from his house each day to earn 65 cents per 18 holes. Some days, he slept in a bunker to be the first in line to claim a bag. But the eager teenager devoured the game and spent hours on the practice range between jobs, burying his pain in his devotion to the sport he loved. He became a lone wolf of the links.
The bottom line, says Dodson, is that golf was not merely about competing for Hogan, it was about survival.
“His real secret was that nobody had a life like him,” say Dodson, whose body of work includes A Golfer’s Life, a collaboration with Arnold Palmer. “Nobody survived what he had. He was a kid of the streets, a character straight out of Dickens.”