Sunday, 1 September 2013

Hogan mystique still going strong

I was born a bit too late to be much of a fan of Ben Hogan the player, and he had stopped winning majors long before I ever got interested in golf. Sure, I remember seeing him bang balls around Merion before the 1971 U.S. Open, when I was 15 and watching practice rounds with my father. But Hogan hadn't been a factor in any big event for ages and wasn't much more than a hazy has-been to me. He was like Ted Williams in baseball or Sammy Baugh in football, great players that I knew only vaguely through stories I read and heard. And that made it difficult to truly appreciate him.

But not too many years later, I became a real fan of Ben Hogan the club maker. And that's because the first new set of sticks I ever owned bore his name. I had Ben Hogan Medallion irons and Ben Hogan woods, and I remember how stylish and sleek they looked, how crisply a well-hit ball came off of them and how happy I was to break 90 for the first time just a few weeks after I had put them in my bag.

Actually, it seemed as if most people I played with back then, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, used Hogans. So did many of the club pros I knew. The man after whom those woods and irons were named may not have played competitively any more, but his legend lived on in his clubs. And for a whole generation of golfers, that is how we came to know the Hawk.
Ben Hogan

So I was pretty excited when I had a chance to take a tour of the Ben Hogan manufacturing facility in Fort Worth, Texas, earlier this year and then go tee it up at the Shady Oaks Country Club, which was one of his favorite, off-hours haunts. Yes, I had traded in my Medallions long ago for a set of oversized, perimeter-weighted irons and trashed my Hogan persimmons in favor of something a bit bigger in titanium. But I still held fond memories of those old clubs and was curious about what the company, which is now owned by Spalding, was turning out. Plus, I wanted to see where he had chosen to spend most of his post-playing days - in the office and at the club - before passing away more than two years ago. The Hogan plant is in a nondescript industrial area of Fort Worth, a new facility that opened last fall after Spalding had moved operations there from the original site, which had opened in 1953. The Hawk never saw this building, but Spalding brought his old office over, and it stands like a shrine just off the lobby by the receptionist's desk, manned by Sharon Rea, who worked as his secretary for many years. It has his name on the wall outside the door (office No. 111) as well as his desk, chair, photographs and books. I saw a notepad with Hogan's name on it, and a drawing of his late wife, Valerie, on the wall. Open the drawers, and there are old sleeves of golf balls as well as different brands of eye drops and throat lozenges. Workers say the room is pretty much as the Hawk left it the day he died, and you half expect him to walk in suddenly (and to be none too happy that you are gawking at his digs).

There was nothing particularly unusual about the plant tour, though it was amazing to meet men and women who had first come to work for Hogan in the 1950s and still punched their time cards there. Some had gone to Virginia in the early 1990s when the previous owners moved operations there, while others stayed behind. And then they all got back together in 1998, after Spalding bought the company and decided to relocate to Fort Worth. There was 70-year-old Dalton Grissom, who had started in 1954. And also Roger West.

"I was 19 years old when I came to work for Mr. Hogan in the fall of 1959," West says. "I stayed here for all those years and even went up to Virginia for a while. But I am glad they moved us back, because for Hogan, this is home."

The sense of the man and the history he made is just as evident at Shady Oaks, which opened in 1958 and served more or less as his second home. Though Robert Trent Jones designed the course, it was Hogan who put in the back tees. He was also the one who pounded balls on the driving range there, who played the occasional round and who used to sit in his favorite seat at a big table in the grill room for lunch almost every day, facing the ninth and 18th greens and watching players finish up.

Sometimes, the people coming in could see the Hawk peering at them from behind the glass, and the mere thought of the four-time U.S. Open champion checking them out made even the most collected players feel as if they were riding a runaway elevator after a seven course meal. Because of that, Hogan watched an inordinate number of Shady Oaks members and guests gag on their approach shots.

There is a plaque where the Hawk used to sit at his table, portraits of him on the walls, a display of his shag bag and the first set of Hogan irons in the pro shop. There is even his locker, still filled with his shoes, slacks, balls, hats, sweaters and at least a dozen different salves and ointments. And the name plate on front simply reads: "Ben Hogan".

That day, I was able to play nine holes with a set of the new Hogan Apex Plus irons. It seemed appropriate that I should use them in this spot, and I somehow managed to card two birdies on the back. I was only 1-over when I came to 18 and had visions of bragging to my friends back home about the way I tore up the back nine of the Hawk's old track. I liked the feel of those new sticks and the greater appreciation for Hogan as a player that I had developed over the years. It made playing his clubs - and his club - even better than I could have imagined.

But then I snap-hooked my second shot to the par-4 18th, chipped onto the green and three-putted, playing the hole as badly as so many others did when they knew the man was there, watching, between bites of his lunch.

I have no idea what my excuse was, but it didn't really matter. I was just happy to be there.

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