Ben Hogan, who you will read and hear plenty about this week as the PGA Tour visits one of his old haunts in Colonial Country Club, was famously curt and unrevealing, at least in public settings. But on the rare occasions when he did open up, he was candid and insightful — as was the case in this gripping interview that originally appeared in the September 1987 issue of GOLF. In a wide-ranging conversation with former GOLF editor George Peper, Hogan spoke about what motivated him, what troubled him about the modern game and why when “I’m hitting the ball where I want, hard and crisply, it’s a joy that very few people experience.” Here is the interview in its entirety. Enjoy.
GOLF: Next year we’ll be celebrating the 100th anniversary of golf in America. You’ve been around for 75 of those years. What’s your first golf-related memory?
BEN HOGAN: I guess it goes back to about 1920. I was nine years old and selling newspapers in Fort Worth to make some money when one of my friends told me I could earn more by caddieing. The word was you could make 65 cents just by packing a bag around 18 holes. So one day I walked the seven miles from my home to Glen Garden Country Club to see what it was all about. The established caddies at Glen Garden ran sort of a kangaroo court. For a new caddie to break in, he had to win a fist-fight with one of the older, bigger caddies. So they threw me against one of those fellas and I got the better of him. It was through the caddie experience that I got the golf bug.
GOLF: You were a natural left-hander who took up the game right-handed, weren’t you?
HOGAN: No, that’s one of those things that’s always been written, but it’s an absolute myth. The truth is, the first golf club I owned was an old left-handed, wooden-shafted, rib-faced mashie that a fellow gave me, and that’s the club I was weaned on. During the mornings we caddies would bang the ball up and down the practice field until the members arrived and it was time to go to work. So I did all that formative practice left-handed. But I’m a natural right-hander.
GOLF: So many top golfers say they’ve learned the game by studying your swing. From whom did you learn?
HOGAN: I used to caddie for a fellow named Ed Stewart. He was 21 or 22. He wasn’t the best tipper at Glen Garden, but he was the best player. I’d wait around to caddie for him even though some days he didn’t have the money to pay me. I got more than money from him—I learned the elements of the game and started to mimic him. But he was only the first in a long line of people. Throughout my career, I watched the best players and tried to emulate them.
GOLF: You were on the Tour for a decade before you started to blossom. Do you still think that’s still possible on today’s Tour, with 150 players going at it and more young talent coming out of college every year?
HOGAN: I think so, yes. There’s no set time or schedule for developing one’s skills as a professional golfer, and it certainly doesn’t come overnight. It’s a muscle-memory exercise that comes over time.
GOLF: You’re saying it’s possible for a player to be on the Tour for 10 years before breaking through for, say, two dozen victories in the next decade?
HOGAN: Absolutely, if that player is willing to work hard. Otherwise, he’s likely to be out there frustrating himself for another 25 years.
GOLF: What was it that drove you so hard?
HOGAN: Three things. One, I didn’t want to be a burden to my mother. Two, I needed to put food on the table. Three, I needed a place to sleep.
GOLF: Once you and your family were eating well and sleeping comfortably, then what drove you?
HOGAN: Pride. Determination. I saw an opportunity. And when you see an opportunity, you practice and work, at least from sunup to sundown.
GOLF: In your own words, you “dug it out of the ground.”
HOGAN: That’s right.
GOLF: Did you compete against yourself, against the golf course or against the rest of the field?
HOGAN: All three. First I went after the golf course. Generally, I figured that if I could beat the course I could stay ahead of the competition. Ultimately, however, I guess I played against my own standards. It was a constant struggle of one kind or another—but always a pleasant one.
GOLF: Your fight to play top-quality golf wasn’t as onerous as it’s often made out to be?
HOGAN: You hear stories about me beating my brains out practicing, but the truth is, I was enjoying myself. I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning so I could hit balls. I’d be at the practice tee at the crack of dawn, hit balls for a few hours, then take a break and get right back to it. And I still thoroughly enjoy it. When I’m hitting the ball where I want, hard and crisply—when anyone is—it’s a joy that very few people experience.
GOLF: Most golfers have had an experience while practicing when suddenly something clicks. It’s sort of a “Eureka!” feeling, and although it may last only for a day or two, it feels wonderful. Have you ever had that sort of experience?
HOGAN: Yes, years ago. When I first started on Tour, I had a terrible problem with a hook and I struggled constantly to learn to fade the ball. Finally, one day I said to myself, “Henny Bogan, you have got to go home and correct this. Otherwise you’re never gonna make a living.”
So I came home for two weeks and worked and thought about my game. I’ll never forget, one night in bed I got an idea, something I might try. Well, I could barely wait for the sun to come up the next morning. Out I went to the practice tee and started trying out my theory. It worked. It worked all day long. And the next day. And the next day too.
So I said, I’ve got to take this out on Tour and put it under some pressure. The next week was the George May Tournament in Chicago—and in those days he had two events, back to back. A big field of players competed the first week, and then the top 12 from that tournament went on to play for big money the following week. Well, I went up there and won both of them.
GOLF: What was that inspiration?
HOGAN: I’m not telling (smiling).
GOLF: Did it relate to one of the fundamentals in your book, “Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf”?
HOGAN: Yes, it did.
GOLF: It was the part about pronation and supination, wasn’t it?
HOGAN: Well, yes it was, but it all gets back to the grip. You can’t make those moves unless you have the proper hold on the club. It’s like steering an automobile. You don’t steer to the right all the time, you also steer to the left. That ability has to come from the grip, which is the transformer through which the juice flows.
GOLF: Are those “five lessons” still as pat as ever, or would you like to change any part of that book?
HOGAN: I think the book still contains my best thoughts. It’s a mechanics book, and no matter how people may differ anatomically, the mechanics are the same, assuming no physical deformity.
GOLF: But you’re also a believer, are you not, that once basic mechanics are learned, good golf is 90 percent mental?
HOGAN: That’s right, it’s all management. Even as I practiced visualizing shots and making the ball move in different ways on the range. Otherwise, it’s nothing but calisthenics. When the shot I visualized didn’t come off, I might hit 20 more before I got it right.
But once you’ve learned how to hit those shots, golf is all management. Certainly, if you can’t manage your game, you can’t play tournament golf. You continually have to ask yourself what club to play, where to aim it, whether to accept a safe par or to try to go for a birdie. You can’t play every hole the same way. I never could.
GOLF: Today’s Tour players seem to play more mechanically, especially in regard to judging distances. Every pro has a yardage book in his pocket.
HOGAN: I know it, and I think that’s terrible. When I played, we never had those cards that told us the pin was 20 feet from the front edge and 15 feet from the left-hand bunker. Those things have taken away about 80 percent of the feel of playing golf. Heck, they give them the answer to the foot. They’ve taken the creativity out of professional golf.
GOLF: What sorts of things did you routinely compute on every shot?
HOGAN: The lie and the wind, to begin with. But you also have to consider the slope of the terrain you’re hitting to, the presence of hazards and, above all, the pin position.
At the Masters, for instance, there are easy, hard and moderately difficult positions on each green. On a given day, they’ll set up the course with six easy spots, six hard ones and six that are so-so. That’s true at most tournaments.
What was strange, however, was that during practice rounds the pins were always set toward the front-middle of the green to keep traffic off the putting surface. But when I played those rounds, I’d direct my shots at the areas where I thought the tough placements would be. For that reason, I didn’t win too many two-dollar Nassaus. I figured I’d rather win the tournament than the practice round.
GOLF: How often have you ever tried to hit a ball dead straight?
HOGAN: Jesus Christ can’t hit a golf ball straight. It’s virtually impossible—at best it’s an accident. Besides, you give yourself much more margin for error by maneuvering your shots one way or the other. Much more control.
GOLF: The famous Hogan fade. How much did it really move from left to right?
HOGAN: It depends, but on average just a few yards. It wasn’t a big drift, even off the tee. Control is the main thing, and the tee shot is the most important shot in golf. You’ve got to hit the fairway before you have a good chance of putting the ball close to the pin. You can be the greatest iron player in the world, but if you’re in the boondocks it won’t do you any good.
GOLF: You sought the unattainable in golf—perfection. But surely you had your days of near-perfection. What would you say was a great day of ball striking when you were in your prime?
HOGAN: That’s very hard to say. On a good day—even your best—you’re going to miss some shots. The guy who misses the fewest usually wins. On my best days, I guess I got through 18 holes with only three or four missed shots.
GOLF: Speaking of missed shots, there’s a famous quote of yours in relation to the par-four 11th hole at Augusta National, where Larry Mize won the Masters playoff this year. You said, “If you see my ball on that green in two you’ll know I missed my second shot.”
HOGAN: That’s right. When the pin was cut on the left side of that green, near the water, I wouldn’t go anywhere near it. I’d bail out to the right, unless I wanted to make a double-bogey.
GOLF: You mean Ben Hogan intentionally missed greens?
HOGAN: Several times, even after I had hit my drive into position “A.” Out on the pro Tour, there are simply times when there’s no point in gunning for any part of the green, unless you want an early airline ticket home. That’s part of management.
GOLF: What did you think of that Masters finish? More specifically, what went through your mind when you saw Greg Norman become a victim—twice in a row—of incredible hole-outs in major championships?
HOGAN: Well, it was unfortunate, but at that point it can’t be helped. I always tried to avoid getting to that point where something uncontrollable could happen. I tried to get myself to the final hole with a couple of strokes to spare. What bothers me about that Masters is that it was settled at sudden death. I never thought I’d see it at The Masters. No major championship should be settled that way. It turns into a crap shoot. In my day, every tournament went into an 18-hole playoff the next day. And if that didn’t settle it, they’d go another 18 the day after that—just the way George Von Elm and Billy Burke did in the 1931 Open at Inverness. They went through two 36-hole playoffs before Burke beat Von Elm by one shot.
GOLF: You’ve seen a lot of great players over the last half century. Has any one of them made a particular impression on you?
HOGAN: Yes. Jimmy Demaret. We were always partners in team events. And when he played with me, there was no fooling around. He had tremendous talent as a shotmaker.
GOLF: What about golf courses? There are places like Colonial, Riviera and Augusta that are identified with Ben Hogan. Do you have a particular affinity for any one of them?
HOGAN: If I do, you won’t get me to admit it. They’re all wonderful courses.
GOLF: And then there’s Seminole. Might that not rank above them all?
HOGAN: It might (smiling slyly).
GOLF: What about Carnoustie and the 1953 British Open you won. Is that your sweetest memory?
HOGAN: It’s one of them, but I’d have to say that the tops was the Open at Merion in 1950. That gave me my most satisfaction. [Ed. Note: Hogan won in a playoff, culminating a comeback from a near-fatal car accident 16 months earlier.]
GOLF: What was the toughest championship course you went up against?
HOGAN: The Lake course at Olympic in the 1955 Open stands out in my mind. If the USGA had set it up this year the way they did back then, you would have seen some real struggling back in June.
GOLF: The rough was brutal, wasn’t it?
HOGAN: It was tall and thick and with those dogleg holes, you had to drive the ball superbly.
GOLF: A famous photo comes to mind of you slashing a ball from the 18th rough.
HOGAN: Yes, in the playoff against Jack Fleck. I swung at that ball as hard as I could with a sand wedge and just tried to hit it straight back to the fairway but I couldn’t get it to there.
GOLF: How often do you hit balls these days?
HOGAN: As often as my health and the weather allow me. On a nice day, I’ll go out with a cart to a practice area at Shady Oaks [in Fort Worth], hit 25 balls or so, then go down and pick them up and hit them again.
GOLF: Are you still learning about the swing?
HOGAN: Yes, I think I am, although these days I get very few surprises.