Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Ben Hogan's Secret-The Breakthrough (Part 1)

This is a bit of a long post that chronicles details of his breakthrough in 1946. Its broken into parts so its not too windy (OK, its still windy, but its multiple winds:))

“Nothing from nothing is nothing.”

On 8 April 1946, one day removed from yet another excruciatingly painful missed opportunity to win his first major championship, William Ben Hogan did something extraordinary and without precedent in his adult life; he went the entire day without hitting a golf ball. Hogan took a day off from his usual routine of pounding golf balls from sunup to sundown in order to contemplate his golf game and his future. In fact his self reflection lasted for a reported three days during which time he did not touch a club, such was the seriousness of the undertaking. The resulting self-assessment represented a gut check of his performance and his career.
In keeping with a tradition that spanned and prevailed throughout his career, his views were a stark contrast to the opinions and perceptions of others who had witnessed his improved results and performance from 1940 to this point in his career.

From a surface level or macro viewpoint, he had established a standard that saw him averaging over five wins a year between 1940-45 (not counting his World War II service years). He was also the leading money winner for three years in a row. With such a pattern of success established, it is understandable how most people were largely unaware of his struggles and his desperation to improve himself to achieve better results. Even for those who knew him well, it was somewhat of a puzzlement as to what it was he was trying to achieve and most not only missed the boat entirely, but would have been shocked to hear Hogan’s viewpoint of his own efforts; his frank assessment found him wanting and judged that he was simply not “cutting the mustard.” He had yet to win a major championship and he still suffered from fundamental swing problems that had plagued him since he was a rookie in 1932. He was unable to hit the ball in the manner he sought, which was to control the ball as if it was on a string. Of late, he was increasingly unable to get the ball up in the air and had great difficulty moving it from left to right. These fundamental problems were beyond the point of being a mere aggravation or concern; his inability to hit the ball in the air at will and also to control his hook were impediments to his vision of how he wanted to play the game. This sober assessment of his performance and of his golf game likely hit him like a blow to the stomach, but it was also, in his mind, an assessment long overdue.

In the fraternity that is the golf world, in which you are judged by your performance and results in the big events, Hogan found that he still remained somewhat of an outsider, despite his relative seniority, unable to break into the ranks of the elite golfers of the day. He would certainly be on the list of golfers invited to tee it up when the top golfers of the day were pulsed for an outing or in support of a worthy cause. But he would not have been included in the top tier of golfers, the first “rung” consisting of major championship winners. Hogan knew this and whether somewhat self-imposed by his continued self-reflection intended to improve his golf, while yet for others more imagined than real, it ate at him something fierce, representing a powerful motivation that normally kept him on the grindstone day after day.

Lest we think of this as some bygone concept or old school convention, anyone following golf today is likely well aware of the names of the leading players with the dubious distinction of being on the list of the “best players never to have won a major.” The text is present tense for that very reason, in fact, a replay of the tape capturing the exchange of congratulations between Greg Norman and Corey Pavin upon the latter’s U. S. Open Championship victory in 1995 at Shinnecock Hills corroborates how modern a sentiment this remains, as Greg’s greeting to Corey was “Welcome to the club.” Because of the difference in the way golfers and writers view golf, it is likely that the latter knew exactly what Greg meant, whereas Corey would likely admit to being somewhat puzzled by the remark, as he spent the better part of the last several years debunking the meaning or importance of such artificial labels; but more to the point, the cerebral Pavin knew instinctively that he had just joined an elite club that did not count Norman as a member.

Hogan was similarly on somewhat of a different wavelength than others when it came to an assessment of his results. His three putts from an estimated fourteen feet on the 72d hole of the 1946 Masters Tournament had blown an opportunity to force a playoff that could well have led to his first major championship victory. Coupled with his playoff loss to Byron Nelson in his previous Master’s Tournament in 1942, factoring in his World War II service obligations of the previous years during which the Masters was not held, his desire to win represented a festering ache of some four long years with no relief in sight. His win at the Hale America Open in 1942 was a U.S. Open win by every standard but the one that counted, namely, official sanction by the USGA, which had suspended the championship for the duration of the war. Unlike others who witnessed the Masters action that day, Hogan’s assessment had little to nothing to do with the three putts or improving his capability on the greens and everything to do with what came before the last hole. Relatively speaking, a savings of a mere three shots over the course of 144 holes and 563 strokes would have won him back-to-back major championships. When you account for the additional play represented by his disappointing playoff loss by one stroke to Byron Nelson in 1942, the margin is smaller still. A mere four strokes out of 633 over the course of 162 holes was the difference that separated him from two major championships. While many viewed the results in a different light, Hogan’s harshest critic knew exactly how close he was to breaking through and yet how far away he truly was from closing the margin. He also knew the root cause of the problem and it had nothing to do with putting or play on the greens.

The truth be known, Hogan knew better than anybody that he was quite fortunate to have been in a position to win in the first place. His problematic hook, which he described as akin to having a “rattlesnake” in his golf bag, had increasingly made an unwelcome appearance during his recent tournament play. The deleterious effect on his play, as well as his nerves and his confidence, had become a significant enough problem that he was forced to address the issue, albeit somewhat indirectly, by adapting or modifying his course management techniques. He would later describe this as a time period in which he was having difficulty getting the ball in the air, even with his trusty four wood, to the point where he had to factor the limitation into his shot making and course management decisions throughout the tournament. Hogan’s reaction to this state of affairs and his frank and sober assessment is telling, indicative of his strength of character, convictions and commitment to his goals and standards. But more so indicative of how desperate he was to fix the problem once and for all. The issue had dogged him every step of the way since turning pro in 1932, all the while attempting fixes and temporary cures but ultimately failing to permanently resolve the problem. Hogan was so desperate to resolve his hooking problem that he took time off from the tour and he canceled his obligations for the remainder of the month. Hogan was convinced that he would not compete in the major championships unless he resolved the issue once and for all.

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