This book seems to be a coffee-table job for golfers, and no doubt there are many who will enjoy it that way. Some may even fancy that they will learn something about golf from it, but I think that something will be limited. No, this openly closed book reveals nothing that was not for years hidden in plain sight; it tells nothing that was not known and is not told and retold. Yet it is immensely valuable for living up to its title with literal truth and graphic clarity, hi image after image, it demonstrates the mystique of a man who happened to play golf and who—though he has not appeared in competition for a quarter of a century—is still spoken of in hushed tones, no longer as “The Hawk,” as he used to be called, but as “Mr. I logan.”
Jules Alexander’s photographs of Ben Hogan in action at the U.S. Open at Winged Foot in 1959, and at Westchester in 1970 and elsewhere, are the heart of this book, and they are the finest of their kind that I have ever seen. Alexander’s old Nikon, in these black and whites, drinks in every texture of grass and leaves, of cotton and wool, and shows something about an America that is already past. The photographs are of museum quality, and some of them even look posed. One particularly resembles either the first stage of an oil painting before the hues are worked up, or else a retro advertisement for Ralph Lauren. Indeed, an analysis of the Hogan wardrobe would say much about the relation of fashion, taste, style, and the value of a dollar. We have, in the backgrounds of trees and people, something of the old America before it lost its integrity completely.
These photographs show a Hogan who was past his peak but still master of the game—and of himself. They don’t show the skinny kid who turned pro at 19 and hooked the ball wildly. They don’t show the young man who couldn’t make it on the tour while his peers, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead, bloomed early and often. What they show are the physical and moral results of Hogan’s struggles to master himself so he could master the game. More or less inventing practice, Hogan went at golf with such passion and precision that people still talk about “Hogan’s secret.” But Hogan declared that “The secret is in the dirt.” He found perfection by beating balls—and people came to watch. After Lee Trevino watched Hogan practice at Shady Oaks in the eadrly 60’s, he changed his game accordingly and went from nowhere to global success.
Like Trevino and Palmer, Hogan had built his game to beat a hook. It is just at this point, I believe, that Hogan leaves civilians behind, for most people who pick up a golf club need to develop a hook, not prevent one. Even if that were not so, there are few if any players who have as strong a right hand as Hogan, or his blacksmith’s arms, which he came by naturally as well as by training—his father was a blacksmith. Henry Picard was the one who “weakened” Hogan’s left-hand position, so that he could lash the ball with his right without hooking, but only someone of Hogan’s strength and speed would have needed that. Hogan’s famous pronation, his “fanning” of the blade, and low but extended position at the top, were all perfect for him, but not models for human beings.
On the other hand, these photographs demonstrate a certain perfection of form that is a model, even a Platonic ideal, and not only for golf. No one ever stayed behind the ball or finished in balance as well as Ben Hogan, but what he did, and what these photographs show, transcends the sport even as he transcended it during his peak years of competition. He was the dominant player on tour from 1940 until 1949, losing some years to World War II and another one to a head-on Greyhound bus in a Texas fog. Broken bones, major surgery, and hobbled legs pulled Hogan off the tour, and strangely transformed him by simplifying his aims even further. Focusing on major championships and competing only with the ideal, he raised even his game another notch as he withdrew still further into himself. The result was his record at the U.S. Open and at the British Open in his only entry, and the establishment of that mystique which these photographs dramatically convey.
Martin Davis’s book, fortified by essays by Dave Anderson, Ben Crenshaw, and Dan Jenkins, as well as by commentary on the photographs by Ken Venturi, fully succeeds in presenting the charisma of Hogan in a stunning way. We must be reminded that the word “legend” means first the life of a saint, and that the word “mystique,” related to “mystic,” is derived from the Greek for “one initiated into the mysteries” and “to shut the eyes.” We should not be surprised, therefore, to behold a photograph of Hogan on the tee, alone amidst the staring crowd, standing with his eyes shut.
Hogan’s mystique lives on whenever golfers congregate, and many of them hope to steal a bit of that mystery whenever they reach in the bag for one of those Hogan Apex irons—the ones that say “Ft. Worth—TX” on the hosel, forged in steel—or for one of those Series 56 drivers or Special Sure-Out II sand wedges. They are not reaching for a brand name so much as for an assurance of complete simplicity and integrity of craftsmanship. Hogan always gave that, and he still does.
But perhaps there has been one celebration of Hogan’s mystique even finer than the cult of his clubs or this collection of authoritative pictures and words, and that was in Michael Murphy’s novel Golf in the Kingdom (1972). In that book, the mystical golf pro Shivas Irons reveals to the narrator the “true zodiac”: “As I looked at the sky I saw an outline of Ben Hogan’s Indian profile appear amidst the other constellations. It was the only one I could recognize besides the Big Dipper.” Knowledge of the true zodiac, possession of Hogan clubs, and acquisition of The Hogan Mystique are necessary not only for the golf-obsessed, but for all seekers after ultimate reality.
[The Hogan Mystique, Edited by Ian Martin Davis (Greenwich: The American Golfer) 132 pp., $50.00]
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