Sunday, May 9, 2010

Henny Bogan and the Secret of Ben Hogan Review

I’ve received quite a number of emails and notes and also some reviews regarding Henny Bogan and the Secret of Ben Hogan. Many of these notes have questions regarding some of the positions I reference in the book. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I wrote and designed the book based on the exquisite Hogan photography taken by Jules Alexander. My plans were to use a number of exemplar photographs that I would purchase from Jules to showcase the descriptions. I corresponded with Jules and met with him in March 2009 and coordinated a plan for the photographs. Unfortunately, on the eve of submitting the manuscript, Jules’ decided not to support the project. This left me with a gaping hole in the book, including the front and back cover and a number of key positional references that are difficult to understand without the corresponding photographs.

I spent the time leading up to this point and the bulk of the 2008 holiday season refining and editing content. I then spent several months researching publishing options and submitting manuscripts for review. With promotion to a new job in April 2009, I was faced with the prospect of delaying the publication while I worked through a major rewrite and redesign of the covers and the positional descriptions. I thought long and hard about it, but in the final analysis it was not a very difficult decision. I considered about six different publishing alternatives up to May 2009. It was clear from the estimates and timelines that if I did not get the publishing process started while everything was poised and ready to go, I would lose at least a year and likely not publish the book until mid-late 2010 or more likely 2011. I pressed ahead with the new cover design ideas and also reworked the narratives to work around the lack of reference photography. Even with an accelerated schedule, the book was not published until November 2009 and most sites list February 2010 as the official publishing date.

So was it a rush to publish? The purpose behind publishing the book was to tell the story of Henny Bogan and the key role that he played in the technique that I describe as constituting Hogan’s secrets. More specifically, to document in the book my analysis that led me to conclude that (1) Hogan did have secrets that he did not disclose (2) Ken Venturi is the only man left alive who knows the truth.

The above is why I wrote the book in the first place. Some will find fault with my analysis and some will look for things that were not intended to be in the book. I could have written a fairly simple, short article to cover the main portion of the book. But in putting together the pieces and parts that set the context for the analysis, I came to believe there was sufficient content to make it a good read. What specifically is that content? I explain (a) why it is that Hogan hooked in the first place (which I have never seen or read about anywhere); (b) why he practiced so much in comparison with all other golfers of his era (to the point where he legitimized the practice); (c) when he discovered his breakthrough technique; (d) how he discovered his breakthrough technique; (e) what that breakthrough technique is (e.g., the secret); (f) why he did not tell it in his lifetime; (g) where all those other secrets fit in the story; (h) how I discovered it; and (i) what it means for others.

Many have apparent difficulty seeing these trees in the forest and it remains somewhat surprising when I receive notes or emails about what is and is not in the book. I’m not an author per se, so I don’t know how authors react in general when they get commentary about things that are not in the books they write. In my own case I find it puzzling to get these notes, particularly from those seeking that one key element or secret that will enable them to play better golf. That (Hogan secret as nirvana) is an issue or matter or belief or perception that some have come to associate with the Hogan story. But a different matter entirely from the purpose of the book, although I did make an attempt to outline some steps to improvement based on my own trials and tribulations over some 18 years improving from a ~19 handicap to a ~2 index. It is no less surprising that those seeking such a secret overlook it, because it is there in the book. I estimated that Hogan hit some three million balls between 1932 and 10 April 1946, when he discovered his breakthrough technique. Any moderately talented golfer who hits that many balls and stays at it that long is going to find a way to improve and play better golf through persistence and tenacity. It is inevitability itself; even an inferior technique will submit to dogmatic repetition, in fact, you will likely improve much more and much quicker than Hogan himself-he did not have too far to go by the end of his quest and he was grinding it out by the millimeter. With 22 PGA wins under his belt and the prestige associated with being the leading money winner three years in a row, his quest was more like those athletes trying to get that last second to break the four minute mile, or the effort to break the sound barrier, or a skater working on that next undoable feat.

Hogan was an exceptional, talented, dedicated athlete battling himself to achieve his dreams and on the verge of finding a way to perfect his technique. No pro golfer has ever been able to replicate the exceptional results and shot making that Hogan achieved. If pro golfers cannot replicate his technique and produce similar, exceptional results, with the best equipment, training, facilities, advice, etc., what are the chances for the average golfer or anybody else?

The question I get asked is what does the book portend for the average golfer? Hogan’s words said it best; probably not worth a dog gone to the average golfer and it will ruin a bad golfer. The average golfer, represented by the great majority who have 15 or higher handicaps, should get professional instruction. All things being equal, any reasonably healthy person with no physical ailments or impediments who has been golfing for more than a year or two should be playing better than average golf. In fact, that is the premise behind Five Lessons and it is part of the reason I believe that not 1 in 10,000 people who read it get what Hogan was attempting to accomplish for the average golfer (or they wouldn’t be average golfers anymore). More on that in a future article.

Good Golfing!

Mark J. Choiniere

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Ben Hogan's Secret-The Breakthrough (part 2)

Despite having no other obligations or demands on his time until Marvin Leonard’s inaugural Colonial Invitational Tournament scheduled for May 16-19 1946, an event that was of some significance for Hogan since it was sponsored by his mentor, he committed to not hitting another golf ball until he figured out a solution for his problematic hooking problem. Marvin Leonard was like a father figure to Hogan and had truly facilitated and encouraged his early efforts on tour during Hogan’s “salad years;” winning his mentor’s tournament was obviously important to him but his sabbatical had everything to do with his desperate plight to find a cure for his hook.

Lest we think this issue has been inordinately belabored over the years and certainly belabored further herein, such efforts fall far short of helping the average person understand the gravity and seriousness of his quest and just how desperate he was to fix the problem. For those who have studied Hogan’s word and deeds, we are talking about Ben Hogan committing the unbelievable and unprecedented act of taking time off from golf and not hitting golf balls for at least three days by his own account. A famous concert pianist explained that he practiced an average of eight hours a day and if he missed a day, he would notice it in his play. If he missed a day or more, his peers and critics would notice and if he went a week, the audience would notice. The self-discipline evident in this otherwise seemingly innocuous act of not hitting golf balls is staggering to think about and offers further evidence of how serious and desperate was his “cold-turkey” approach. When Jim Mclean describes this time period it is evident from his manner and his delivery of the information that despite his best efforts in this regard and his obvious expertise in the subject matter, words fail to put it in the proper context sufficient to allow the listener to appreciate the magnitude of the desperation. Hogan’s desperation regarding his hooking problem is similar, analogy wise, to the order of magnitude difference in comparisons of a nuclear detonation to a mere explosion; space travel to car travel; the pressure of two objects acting upon one another in proximity such as apples or potatoes in comparison to the pressure resident in the subduction zone between tectonic plates; a tidal wave versus a normal wave at the beach; Tiger Wood’s swing speed compared to the average amateur, etc., etc. I’m not sure these comparisons get at the heart of the matter, either (have I mentioned that he was desperate???)

What made this matter all the more difficult to make sense of at the time, in hindsight or to recreate for historians was that Hogan was likely the original “mis-underestimated” man (to coin a phrase) in this regard and those around him at the time were certainly unaware of his turmoil, motivation and struggles. It remains difficult even in hindsight for us to appreciate and to put in context how desperate Hogan truly was over the series of events that played out in the major championship tournaments of the years leading up to 1946, culminating in his runner-up finish that fateful day. Rumors of his imminent retirement had circulated on the tour and would not go away, fueled anew later that year when Byron Nelson announced his retirement from tournament golf to become a rancher. Hogan was fourteen years into a very good career by the standards of the day, having achieved a good measure of success from 1938-46, averaging about twenty professional golf tournaments a year (excluding the war years), winning twenty-two Professional Golf Association (PGA) tournament events as well as the first two of his Vardon Trophies, the award given to the professional golfer with the lowest scoring average on the professional tour. He was the leading money winner on the tour three years in a row. Those who watched his struggles to compete from 1932-1938 and then witnessed his success during the above years, likely judged him to have broken through and to have achieved very good results indeed, given his earlier struggles and the assessment of the art of the possible given his talent or perceived skills. This characterization of Hogan’s place or standing in the game at the time of these events is an essential element to fully understand and appreciate how it was that Hogan pursued these efforts somewhat under the radar, as it were, but more to the point of understanding how it was that Hogan’s efforts were viewed as puzzling and somewhat of a curiosity but not much else by those who were paying attention (at all).

At least two other factors have long complicated decryption of this puzzle of when exactly did he achieve his breakthrough. A major complication has been his own words that indicate that he tested the breakthrough out at May’s World Championship, winning both tournaments. But that did not happen in 1946. The other complication is that he bookended his breakthrough time period with the same result, namely three-putting on the final green of a major championship to miss out on a playoff, in this case for the 1946 US Open. He would later win the P.G.A. for his first major championship victory. One can’t fully appreciate the motivation and single minded focus that drove Hogan to seek a remedy to his hooking problems without understanding the context of his struggles from his viewpoint. Hogan’s view of his results and successes was markedly different than his peers or those around him who likely thought he should be happy, if not somewhat grateful, that he had achieved such good results given where he started with his golf game in the midst of his early struggles. He was a man with an established and long standing habit of some fourteen years or more who was accustomed to hitting a lot of golf balls, as many as six hundred up to a thousand golf balls a day, come rain or shine, tournament golf obligations notwithstanding. A man who often said that “every day you go without hitting golf balls, it would take you a day longer to get better;” that all a golfer really needed was “more daylight.” There were those whose uncharitable view of Hogan’s continued dogmatic routines and pursuit for better results held his efforts in the worst possible light, as evidence of a stubborn or dogmatic man, vice that of a perfectionist intent on getting the most out of his golf game and on the verge of a breakthrough. This fundamental disconnect between perceptions and truth pervades and distorts the Hogan story line throughout its length. Those paying attention were likely of a mind that Hogan had already “broken-through,” with judgment rendered in consideration of a golfer who initially had difficulty making cuts or a living on tour. In truth Hogan was a man battling himself to achieve his dreams, aspirations and all that had driven and motivated him for the better part of fourteen years. He was convinced that he was on the right track to getting his game perfected and that he was close to achieving his goal of control over the golf ball. But Hogan was nothing if not a realist and his view was dispassionate and frank and relatively speaking, uncharitable. He was not going to cut himself any slack and in his mind, after struggling to be great for the better part of fourteen years, he was simply “not cutting it.” The frank recognition that he was not cutting the mustard in his career hit him hard enough that he went several days without hitting golf balls or even touching a golf club, such was his desperation to find a fix.

We don’t have much in the way of insights to his actions during this time period, in fact, the time period itself has been somewhat in dispute over the years because of Hogan’s own somewhat faulty recollections. These recollections are somewhat suspect for several reasons, not the least of which is the emotional roller coaster Hogan experienced during this period as he struggled with the disappointment of not winning the Masters, the issue of working through the desperation of trying to cure his hook problem and also preparing for the inaugural Colonial Invitation Tournament run by his mentor Marvin Leonard, a tournament that he desperately wanted to win for obvious reasons. As mentioned above, the other reason these efforts have become difficult to reconstruct over the years is the disconnect between what Hogan was trying to do, when and why he was trying to do it, and the public or press interpretation of the events, which are quite disconnected. Some of this is attributable to Hogan himself, some perhaps confused by the events of his accident and also somewhat attributable to his reticence to share what he dug out of the ground on the practice tee with “them,” his competitors on the PGA tour. Hogan was not inclined to freely share information that he had dug out of the dirt over his decade and a half struggle to refine and master his technique. In fact the notion that he should somehow spill the proverbial beans in this regard is a great indicator of the disconnect between reality and perception of his trials, tribulations and relationship with the media. Nothing in his background, reputation or his demonstrated interaction with the public indicated that he was prepared to do some grand revelation that would share the techniques that he discovered that allowed him to do things that few other golfers were capable of, for instance, how a man at his relatively small stature could hit the ball so far.

Hogan’s effort to resolve his hooking worked and the proof is that he won the next three tournaments he entered after his sabbatical. Ironically enough, his three putt on the final green of the 1946 U. S. Open at Canterbury Golf Club, Cleveland, Ohio resulted in his finishing second and missing a three man playoff to decide the championship, which was a similar fate and a perfect book end to his quest to cure his hook. However his major championship drought would end later that summer with his dominating victory at the PGA Championships, where he beat his friend, four-ball teammate and fellow Texan Jimmy Demerat in such a drumming that writers took issue with his lack of charity. Perhaps they were unaware that Hogan was desperately pursuing his first major and would cotton no thought of giving any quarter to those in his way. His performance in the majors during 1946 was astounding, as he three putted the final green at the Masters and the US Open to miss playoffs, while winning the PGA in a landslide (he did not play in the Open Championship). He won a total of 13 tournaments that year and the bookend performance at the Masters and U.S. Open signaled the end of the period where he would struggle with a hook forever more. Hogan would average ten tournament victories a year from this point up to his untimely accident of 2 February 1949.

“I have a Secret”

He would insinuate for several years that he had discovered a secret to cure his hook problem. This admission likely caught peers, writers and friends alike somewhat off-guard when looked at from the standpoint of their viewpoint of Hogan’s record. From 1940 up to his untimely accident (2 Feb 1949), factoring out the war years of 1943-44 when he only entered 3 tournaments, Hogan averaged 24 tournaments a year, winning an average of 7. In terms of top ten, top five and top three places, he averaged 21, 18 and 15, respectively; I think it is clear why it was somewhat of a surprise and also met with a bit of skepticism when people heard an admission of some sort of secret from Hogan; he had established a standard of excellence that appeared to have started in 1938 and continued pretty much unabated (save the war years) until the accident. Winning on average of almost thirty percent of the tournaments he entered, he was in the top ten in over 80% of these tournaments and in the top three over fifty percent of the time. This is a staggering record of accomplishment that is admittedly somewhat selectively or “force derived,” since the results drop precipitously if one starts in 1932, for instance, or extends the calculations beyond 1955.

This is the primary reason it is instructive (and constructive) to view Hogan’s career in terms of epochs or periods that factor in where he was at in the movie at a point in time. My labels for these periods include:

1932-Jan 1938: The “optimism and construction” or first stage of his career in which he joined the professional tour, practiced every waking hour to integrate the proper techniques into his swing and to solidify his fundamentals. He could not make a living on tour, went broke several times and was not competitive during this period.

Feb 1938-through the War up to 9 April 1946: The “defensive stage” or second stage of his career where he leveraged a tip from Henry Picard to weaken his grip which mitigated, while not quite eliminating, his hook. Markedly better results, but no major championships (22 wins).

10 April 1946-1 Feb 1949: The “breakthrough” or third stage of his career began after the Masters with his win at the inaugural Colonial Invitational, 16-19 May 1946. This is when he discovered the technique that allowed him to solve his hooking problem once and for all while
retaining his distance and also resolving his low ball flight issues. He would win three tournaments in a row (in one month), average 10 wins a year and finally win major championships.

2 Feb 1949- Jan 1950: After the accident, he entered the “optimism and
Reclamation” or stage four of his career where he had to practice to regain his
strength, technique, skill, and game. Hogan suffered a fractured collarbone, a broken
pelvis, a snapped left ankle, a somewhat mangled left leg, a broken rib, as well
as damaged and bruised organs. He almost lost his left eye and eventually had to
have his femoral artery tied off to prevent blood clots from reaching his heart. Doctors weren’t sure he would walk again and for a time, amputation of his left leg was under serious consideration.

Jan 1950-56 (~1970): Represents the “vindication or fulfillment” or stage five of his career when he sustained his regained ability through consistent practice, but somewhat sporadic play. Hogan’s career from 1950 forward established him, in the words of many of his peers, as the standard against which other golfers were measured. He was hands-down the best ball striker in any tournament he played from 1950 through 1970. Fellow pros watched him practice and often returned to the course to walk in his gallery after completion of their rounds. His 1953 season was one of the top three golf seasons of all time.

Good Golfing!