William Benjamin (Ben) Hogan, professional golfer, was born in Stephenville, Texas, on August 13, 1912, the second son and third child of Chester and Clara (Williams) Hogan. The diminutive Hogan, nicknamed "Hawk" for his ferocious concentration on the golf course, was a relatively late bloomer as a pro. He won his first PGA tournament and his first major title at the relatively advanced ages of twenty-six and thirty-four respectively. Once his career took off, however, he went on to compile one of the most impressive records in golf history. His contemporary Jimmy Demaret considered him "the greatest golfer that ever lived," and Jack Nicklaus called him "the best shotmaker the game has ever seen."
Hogan's early life gave few indications of his future success. His father, a blacksmith in Dublin, Texas, may have suffered from bipolar disorder; one source says that his wife moved the family to Fort Worth in the summer of 1921 to put Chester in a sanatorium. Chester committed suicide in front of his family in February 1922, when Ben was only nine. Thereafter, Clara Hogan earned a meager living as a seamstress and Ben's older brother, Royal, then thirteen, quit school and went to work to help support the family. Young Ben sold copies of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram at the Texas and Pacific Railroad station until a friend told Royal that Ben could earn more money caddying at Glen Garden Country Club. Hogan's competitive nature surfaced as soon as he began caddying, in the summer of 1924. Sometimes he slept in a bunker at Glen Garden, so as to be first in line for a bag on the following day. According to family legend, when Clara scolded her teenage son for wasting his time playing golf, he responded, "Momma, someday I'm gonna be the greatest golfer in the world."
One of his fellow caddies at Glen Garden was Byron Nelson, who also became a legendary golfer and Hogan's lifelong friend and rival. In 1927 Nelson beat Hogan by one shot after a nine-hole playoff in the club's annual Christmas tournament for caddies. Hogan registered as a professional in February 1930 to play in the San Antonio Open, but went broke soon after joining the PGA Tour in January 1932. He tried again two years later, with similar results, and briefly worked as a dealer and dice-game croupier in Fort Worth's thriving underground gambling scene. Years later, Hogan said, "My greatest accomplishment was being able to make a living playing golf after going broke twice starting out." In 1935 he married Valerie Fox, whom he had met in Sunday school more than a decade before. They were married for 62 years, until his death, and Hogan credited Valerie's support and faith in him for much of his success.
Initially, however, Hogan's marriage seemed to have little effect on his golfing fortunes. In 1938 he and Valerie were in Oakland, California, and down to their last eighty-six dollars when someone stole the tires off their car. A distraught Hogan was ready to quit golf for good, but Valerie talked him out of it. Hogan went on to finish second in the Oakland Open, winning $285. Later that year, he won his first tournament, the Hershey Four-Ball, and from then on he was almost unbeatable. He was golf's leading money-winner in 1940, 1941, 1942, 1946, and 1948, and was named the PGA player of the year in 1948, 1950, 1951, and 1953. His sixty-three career victories and nine major-tournament wins rank third all-time, an accomplishment made even more remarkable by the time he missed—more than three full years—during the prime of his career.
Hogan was drafted in March 1943 and initially assigned to Fort Worth Army Air Field as a physical-training instructor. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army Air Force after completing Officer Candidate School in Miami that summer, then returned to Fort Worth for training as a flight instructor. Eventually, he was promoted to captain, though he never worked as a flight instructor. When he left the service in August 1945, he was reportedly filled with resentment toward his old friend Nelson, who had been rejected for military service because of his hemophilia and had dominated professional golf during Hogan's absence. Their relationship was reportedly strained for some time, though they eventually became good friends again.
Hogan suffered another, even more serious, setback in February 1949. Following the Phoenix (Ariz.) Open, he and Valerie were driving back to Fort Worth on Highway 80 when a bus crossed the center line east of Van Horn and collided head-on with their car. Just before impact Hogan threw himself into Valerie's lap, an action that probably saved both their lives, but he suffered a broken ankle, pelvis, and ribs and a mangled left leg; he also almost lost his left eye. While he was hospitalized in El Paso, he came near death again when blood clots traveled from his leg to his lungs. He didn't swing a golf club for almost a year, and never again walked without pain. But his biographer wrote that the accident, and Hogan's action in trying to protect Valerie, forever changed the public perception of him from a misanthropic, obsessive loner to a gallant, scrappy underdog.
Only sixteen months after the accident he won a dramatic playoff to capture the U.S. Open. In the next four years, he won six of the nine major tournaments he entered, including the 1953 British Open at Carnoustie, Scotland, where he earned the nickname "the Wee Icemon" from the admiring Scots for his small stature and utter fearlessness on the golf course. Upon his return to the United States following that victory, some 150,000 people watched a ticker-tape parade through New York City in Hogan's honor, an indication of the effect he had in popularizing the game of golf during the 1950s. In that same year, while Adlai Stevenson was in England, he reportedly said that he would have won the 1952 presidential election had Europeans been allowed to vote. A member of the House of Lords responded that Stevenson was only the second most popular American in England. When a Stevenson aide asked if Dwight Eisenhower was number one, the peer replied, "No. Ben Hogan."
Hogan cultivated an image as a driven, inexhaustible student of the game with little sense of humor. As one writer put it, "Sam Snead won more tournaments. Jack Nicklaus won more major championships. But no one struck fear into the heart of an opponent like Hogan." His trademark white pancake cap became a familiar icon to golf fans. In 1951 Glenn Ford starred in a movie about Hogan's life called Follow the Sun, directed by Sidney Lanfield, and in 1953 Hogan parlayed his fame into a business venture in Fort Worth, the Ben Hogan Company, a manufacturer of golfing equipment. The company is now a subsidiary of Spalding Holding Corp. sporting goods. Hogan also wrote two instructional books, Power Golf, published in 1948, and Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf, published in 1957.
He had to withdraw from the 1957 U.S. Open because of a back ailment, and his last tour victory came at the 1959 Colonial Invitational, in Fort Worth, though he didn't officially retire until 1971. But his competitive fire still burned brightly long after his days as the best golfer in the world. Supposedly, when pro Gary Player called Hogan to ask for a lesson, Hogan asked what brand of clubs Player used. "Dunlop," replied Player. "Why don't you ask Mr. Dunlop for a lesson?" growled Hogan, irritated that Player used another company's equipment.
Toward the end of his life Hogan seemed to mellow somewhat. In 1974 he was part of the inaugural class inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, and when he received the Bob Jones Award for distinguished sportsmanship in golf during the United States Golf Association's 1976 annual meeting he called it "the greatest honor I have ever won." His health deteriorated over the last decade of his life. In his seventies he lost most of the vision in one eye, perhaps a lingering effect of his 1949 accident, and he also suffered from colon cancer and Alzheimer's disease. When he died, on July 25, 1997, his peers recalled him with tremendous respect, if not outright affection. In 1999 the USGA Museum in Far Hills, New Jersey, opened the Ben Hogan Room, the first it had dedicated to the life and career of a professional golfer. But perhaps the greatest compliment Hogan ever received was from the eminent English golf writer Bernard Darwin, who was seventy-six when he watched the 1953 British Open at Carnoustie and said, "I am happy to have lived long enough to see Ben Hogan play golf."