Friday, December 22

Teaching Ben Hogan How to Play Golf

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By John Coyne

Copyright © John Coyne. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

RECENTLY I HAVE BEEN READING The Kingdom of Golf in America by Richard J. Moss published in 2013. The book traces the ups and downs, ins and outs, of the growth of golf in America. While Moss writes about many issues, from race, gender, technology, suburbanization and the transformation of the South that shaped the nation and golf, he pauses from time to time to focus on key players in the long history of the game. One of them, of course, is Ben Hogan.

Moss writes about Hogan's development as a person and a player. He points out two key elements of his game that were improved by taking the advice of his wife Valerie, and of his friend, Henry Picard.

Valerie Hogan early in the 1930s, according to Moss, suggested that Ben overcome his jumpy nerves by practicing to the point where he could hit important shots without thinking, without anxiety. She also suggested that Ben would make more putts if he simply hit the ball closer to the hole. This last bit of advice has become, as Moss points out, "an arcane part of American golf talk."

It was Henry Picard, Moss writes, who in 1939 told Ben to weaken his grip and learn to fade the ball. Moss writes, "Hogan and others have suggested that during this period he learned some 'secret' and that it was this secret that led to his success."

A Cure for Hogan's Duck Hook

In 1990, while researching my instructional book, Playing with the Pros: Golf Lessons from the Senior Tour, I had a chance to talk with Lighthorse Harry Cooper at Westchester Country Club in New York where, at the age of 86, Cooper was still giving lessons. Besides being nicknamed "Lighthorse" by Damon Runyon because of how fast he played, he was also nicknamed "Clothesline" by other pros because of how straight he always hit his shots.

Cooper told me that afternoon at Westchester Country Club how in 1937, the year he won the New Orleans Open, he gave one of his first lessons as a pro to Ben Hogan.

"As I recall," Harry said, "I was playing a round at City Park with Ben and every green had a bunker in front, so you have to play shots with backspin to the green. Well, Ben was duck-hooking everything. He couldn't get the ball off the ground, and he asked me to come over and help him."

So Ben and Harry walked across the railroad tracks—that was where the practice area was located then at City Park—and Cooper watched Hogan hit balls for a while. Harry said, "That's when I saw what he was doing wrong. He was letting go of the club at the top of his swing and then regripping. It's a little thing, but the minute you let go and then regrip, it shuts the face of the club. Can't help but shut the face, and that was what Ben was doing. I finally got him hitting the ball, getting it up in the air and keeping it flying and hitting it straight."

Hogan's Big Four

Cooper's advice to Hogan came two years ahead of Picard's suggestion, but whichever is true, Moss points out in his golf book Hogan did change four aspects of his game between 1935 and 1939.

  • He weakened his grip to cut down on his hooks.
  • He learned to fade the ball.
  • He overcame his anxiety by intense practice.
  • He devoted entire morning to a single type of shot. The afternoons were devoted to a different type of shot.

In 1938 Hogan had his best year on tour. He finished 13th on the money list, earning $4,794. He would go on to say that was the turning point in his career; he was on the tour to stay.

Thanks to Henry Picard and Harry Cooper, and his own determination, Ben Hogan would also go on to become the greatest golfer of his time.

Or maybe it was the love of his life, Valerie Hogan, who made all the difference in her husband's life when she told Ben, "just hit the ball closer to the hole."

John Coyne is a bestselling author of three golf novels and more than 20 other books. Pay him a visit at John Coyne Books.


jeffy said...
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John said...

Thanks, Jeffy---I'll email the author of Kingdom of Golf and see what he thinks. Have you seen the book? My comments from Cooper came about a year before my book was published.

John said...

One other point about Hogan and his hook. Curt Sampson in his book HOGAN, talks about the same issue of who helped Ben. He writes how Hogan came to Picard after he and Lawson Little lost in the first round of the Miami-Biltmore Four-Ball, in, I think, 1941 and Picard having him get a five-iron saying to Hogan, "I can change that in five minutes." Sampson also mentions that Ted Longworth telling the 'caddie Hogan' not to grip the club cross-handed. Sampson writes, "Years later Hogan seemed not to remember this final favor from Picard as if he was embarrassed about the time he could not work out a golf problem on his own."

On the next page of Sampson's book, (page 69) he quotes Harry Cooper as saying "I saw Hogan at the New Orleans Open in 1937 and he was having a hell of a time fighting that duck hook. He asked me for help." Cooper then tells Sampson what he told me, and then adds, "Every time I see him [Hogan] he comes over and gives me a big hug."

jeffy said...
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jeffy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John said...

Well, Harry Cooper was 86 or so when I spoke to him about Hogan. I'll give him a pass on what year he won the New Orleans Open and spoke to Hogan about his duck hooks. Lighthorse did enough in his life as a man and a golfer to be cut some slack.