He was much misunderstood, and I certainly do not intend to contribute to more of that. My first few encounters with Mr. Hogan were tough. And if you only consider one dimension of Ben Hogan, you might call him crusty. I assure you, however, that he had many dimensions that would come out in time. He was guarded, but he did later show his passion and softer side. I just needed to earn my stripes.

Stick with me and I promise in a few holes I will give you a few glimpses of a warmer and fuzzier Ben Hogan. If you can’t wait, my buddy Tim Scott has a number of those in his recent book, which is a great read. As for me and my stories, I need to take you down this path as it happened to me.

Anyone who could get just a little bit close to Ben Hogan would soon learn he loved dearly a number of causes. I am only going to report what I saw him do or what I heard him say in my presence. With that backdrop, I can tell you that I experienced several examples of his enormous passion and love on the following subjects: his country, the U.S. military, the game of golf and those who play it at all levels, his family, his company, his products, his employees, Texas, and even stray dogs. Those are the things that for me caused his first impression as a crusty, demanding man to chip and melt away.

There is no doubt, however, that Mr. Hogan was a fiery competitor. He drove himself hard to be his best and demanded no less from those around him. I doubt anyone he led ever worked harder or faced bigger obstacles than he did. If you have ever played for a tough coach or experienced the pressure of a military drill instructor, you know that it is not always pleasant. You also know that from the pressure you became a better player, a better teammate or a better solider because you were challenged and driven hard. That was Mr. Hogan. He didn’t coddle his employees, but he did instill team loyalty and an extreme sense of accomplishment.

Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about something I saw him do in 1988 — or maybe it was 1989 — that offers insight into how his mind worked. You’ve probably heard his quote about golf: “The best part of the game is improving.” He talked of that many times.

Anyways, here’s the story.

Mr. Hogan always made a point to be with his troops at the yearly Ben Hogan Company sales meetings. Company salesmen and management folks from across the country and the world would gather each year to celebrate successes and map out the plans and products for the next year. The year of this story, we had the most successful and hottest product in the industry: our “Edge” irons. On the night of our formal awards dinner, Mr. Hogan was to speak. Guys and gals were pontificating all day as to what would be his subject, and we knew that he was very creative over the years in how he would address the group. 

When the doors to the banquet hall opened for dinner, roughly 40 full-grown golf geeks in suits jockeyed for the seats near the main table to get as close as they could to Mr. Hogan. I was pretty aggressive and wiry quick in those days, so I’m proud to say I got one of the prime seats. I would be near enough to catch it all.

Mr. Hogan came in the room and was seated at the head table with Jerry Austry (our president) and the mucky muck VPs. Mr. Hogan had a reputation of not being much for chit-chat, but he seemed to be having a good time discussing whatever the head table subjects were during dinner. After chow and a number of presentations for sales awards, Jerry got up to introduce our very rare speaker. Doug McGrath (one of the VPs) went over to shut down the drink waiters and bartender; he did not want anything to distract from Mr. Hogan’s address.

After Jerry’s introduction, Ben Hogan rose and stepped to the podium. He was in his late 70s at the time. Mr. Hogan gripped his left and right hands on the podium furniture, and slowly turned his head left and right and scanned the room. He had no notes with him. The silence he invoked was loud. Ben Hogan was a true master of the pause and could use silence like no one I’ve ever encountered since. All eyes that night watched and waited. If Elvis had crawled out of his grave at Graceland and entered the room’s side door, I doubt if anyone would have cared. We were Ben Hogan’s team and our leader was about to speak. 

The silence was finally broken when Mr. Hogan leaned into the microphone, and I’ve transcribed what he said to the best of my memory. 

Men, (pause). A few nights ago I had a dream. It was Masters Sunday. All the greats were there and I was in the last group. I stepped to the first tee and hit the greatest drive of my life. The ball flew like a rocket. I hit my second shot near the pin and tapped in for my birdie. I was happy.

I stepped to the second hole and hit my drive. It set up perfectly for my approach shot. My third was at the flag and trickled near, and I tapped in for another birdie. After two holes I was 2-under. I went to the third tee. Same thing there, birdie. Now I’m 3-under for the day.”   

Mr. Hogan continued shot by shot, describing 14 more dream holes at Augusta National, each of which resulted in a birdie. He had many times during his career said that there should be no reason a golfer could not make a birdie or better on every hole. It seems his dream was a round just like that. It took a good while for Mr. Hogan to describe all these holes, but the room was mesmerized and locked into his story.

“Then in my dream, I found myself looking up the hill standing on the tee at 18. I was 17 strokes under par for my final round. It was the best dream of my life. I hit my drive up the hill on 18 with the same rocket trajectory as the first hole. My second hit the green and tracked towards the pin. After it came to rest, I had a makeable putt for my birdie. I then rolled that putt at the hole. It was tracking perfectly. At the last moment, the ball lipped out around the cup and left 6 inches for par and a final-round score of 55.”

Everyone in the room started to laugh uncontrollably… everyone but Mr. Hogan, that is.  He kept a stern face and squeezed both sides of the podium as if he wanted to break it.   After he let us hoo and haw for a few seconds, Mr. Hogan raised both arms high in the air. The room went silent. He had complete command again and gruffly said:

You guys might think that lip out was funny, but I didn’t!”

There was a long pause.

“My best dream ever had become a nightmare! I was so damn mad it woke me up and I haven’t slept since.”

I didn’t think it possible, but Mr. Hogan found a way to scowl at us even more. We didn’t know how to react. Was he serious? For a moment, I wondered if the nightmare had been real and it and sleep deprivation had melted his mind. But at the apex of this newly imposed silence, Mr. Hogan’s icy stare slowly morphed into a sly grin, and then a real smile. A few seconds later, he topped off the smile with a millisecond “I gotcha” wink.

He stepped away from his pulpit and sat down, and everyone in the room leaped to their feet. We were ape like berserk with cheers, applause and gut-wrenching laughter.

It was a priceless moment of Ben Hogan being Ben Hogan.

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Tom Stites has spent more than 30 years working in the golf industry. In that time, he has been awarded more than 200 golf-related patents, and has designed and engineered more than 300 golf products that have been sold worldwide. As part of his job, he had the opportunity to work with hundreds of touring professionals and developed clubs that have been used to win all four of golf's major championships (several times), as well as 200+ PGA Tour events.

Stites got his golf industry start at the Ben Hogan Company in 1986, where Ben Hogan and his personal master club builder Gene Sheeley trained the young engineer in club design. Tom went on to start his own golf club equipment engineering company in 1993 in Fort Worth, Texas, which he sold to Nike Inc. in 2000. The facility grew and became known as "The Oven," and Stites led the design and engineering teams there for 12 years as the Director of Product Development.

Stites, 59, is a proud veteran of the United States Air Force. He is now semi-retired, but continues his work as an innovation, business, engineering and design consultant. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Ben Hogan Foundation, a 501C foundation that works to preserve the legacy and memory of the late, great Ben Hogan.

15 COMMENTS

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  1. Excellent Data. Is the waiter that served Mr. Hogan still alive I think his name was Charles at Shady Oaks CC. I heard a story that Mr. Hogans wife was sending Mr. Hogan in town to be fitted for a new suit or two which he did not like to do and he told the waiter if I’m going you are going also would you be able to verify. Thank you

  2. Tom,
    I LOVE golf history….in fact, my wife is always telling me to delete all the 60s and 70s “Open Championship” episodes from the DVR.
    Your articles are quickly climbing the ladder in my rankings…
    And though I am not a Hogan fan, his place in history is unarguable and your articles invaluable..
    Please keep em’ coming….
    Thanks
    -Christosterone

  3. Thankfully Ben Hogan did not have a Twitter account. The canyon-esq divide between his pretty golf swing and basic social decency is so sad it could make tennis fans out of all of us. Where are you Sam Sneed?

  4. Some of you are just pitiful. The guy is sharing an inside glimpse of one of the most noted golfers of all time and all you can do is come back with snarky comments about everything.

    If you hate Hogan so much why are you even reading the articles?

    Tom, great stories keep them coming.

  5. Well, if he made a three (drive-“approach”- one putt) on the second hole at Augusta on “Masters Sunday,” that would have been an eagle. Not that I would have been counting, listening to Ben Hogan. Maybe it was a Masters Sunday where Ben, in his seventies, was playing at Shady Oaks and not Augusta.

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