When Ben Hogan apprised the author, the words were transforming

When Ben Hogan apprised the author, the words were transforming

During the 1960s, Van Gerbig (in the Seminole locker room) would pick up Hogan in the morning and drive him to the club, then often play with him in the afternoon.
Susan Knowles/SI

Ben Hogan’s tournament was the U.S. Open — what he called the national championship. To him it was the ultimate test of golf. He won four of them the old-fashioned way: fairways and greens. That is, a certain side of the fairway, a certain section of the green. I was his seasonal driver, in a manner of speaking, all through the 1960s. Every February he’d come to Seminole Golf Club, in South Florida, where I was a young member in my 20s, and he’d spend six weeks there preparing for the Masters. He was in his 50s then and didn’t talk much about Augusta National, or the U.S. Open, or other touring professionals. He was consumed with the work at hand. His best playing days were behind him and he knew it, but that didn’t stop him.

He felt safe at Seminole, where people, by and large, didn’t worship him. He’d go to small dinner parties and listen carefully when the men started talking about their businesses. He had an astute mind and was keen to make his equipment company a success.

I’d pick up Hogan every morning at his apartment in Palm Beach and drive him to the golf course. He’d hit balls in the morning by himself on the course, choosing his spots according to the wind. He’d break for lunch and play in the afternoon, when I often joined him. He was a slave to ritual. I drove him because he and his wife, Valerie, had one car in Palm Beach and he didn’t want her to be stranded. It was a different era for golf pros.

Hogan would have appreciated Tiger’s devotion to practice and improvement and how hard he works at his weaknesses. Paradoxically, as Hogan’s yips grew worse, he spent less and less time on putting.

Hogan returned to Seminole one winter and saw that a bunker had been added to the right side of the 2nd fairway, a par-4 with an elevated green. Hogan asked his great friend George Coleman, a Seminole member, “Who put that bunker there?”

“Dick Wilson,” Coleman said, citing the architect.

“Tell Mr. Wilson he knows nothing about golf course design,” Hogan said. “His bunker is in the exact place a correct tee shot should finish.” The bunker is still there today. That would annoy him.

Hogan’s workday ended in Seminole’s wood-paneled men’s locker room, where an attendant named Willie Pultz would bring him a bourbon, take off Hogan’s shoes and massage his feet. Hogan’s 1949 accident had permanently ravaged his body, and at the end of the day he was stiff and sore. I called him Mr. Hogan then, and when I introduced him to my friend George Knudson, the touring pro, George also addressed him that way. Hogan said to George, “You play tournament golf and so do I. Never call anyone you’re trying to beat mister.”

Hogan saw my overprivileged life. He was friends with my father, Howell, a Seminole member and a Wall Street banker. He knew I had gone to St. Paul’s, an elite boarding school, and to Princeton, and that I spent winter vacations in Palm Beach. He knew my then wife, Victoria, was the daughter of the actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr. In 1968 Fairbanks was playing Prof. Henry Higgins in the road show of My Fair Lady that was going to Fort Worth, where the Hogans lived. I called Hogan and asked if he’d like to see it. Hogan said, “I don’t go to theater.” Valerie called back about a minute later and said, “We’d love to go.” Hogan went backstage and met the star of the show. I’m sure it was all too la-de-da for Hogan, but he did it for Valerie.

After I graduated from Princeton in ’61, I lived in Palm Beach and during the decade dabbled in this and that. I owned a piece of the Oakland Seals, the hockey team, and ran it, but I came and went as I pleased. In ’65 my father, a good man but a bad drinker, took his own life. Later that year I married Victoria. Some time later Hogan said to me, “The things you have, this life you have, you haven’t earned it. It’s time for you to become your own man.” When he was finished — and he was brief — he said, “Are we O.K.?” What he said I needed to hear. Soon after, Victoria and I moved to London and I got a master’s degree in medical psychology and became involved in the early hospice movement. I started to call Hogan Ben.

The Hogans never had children. I didn’t know why. When Hogan was alive I hadn’t known that his father had had a drinking problem, or that his death was by suicide. Hogan showed you his life, he didn’t tell you about it. You could see his devotion to doing a difficult thing well. That was enough. It was intoxicating.

Hogan died in 1997. I wish he could have known my current wife, Ginny, a former Seminole manager. She’s my Valerie. Ben would have loved her.

In my 69 years I have not loved many people, but I loved Hogan. He felt my pain and saw my promise. I’ll go to my grave grateful to him. He treated me like the son he never had. I needed that, and I guess he did too.

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