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Hole 4: Ben Hogan had his own math

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I’ve heard that great people do things that are different. I never thought when I went to work for Mr. Ben Hogan, however, that the man would have his own personal set of numbers and math.

I learned this about Ben Hogan when I tried to reconcile the number of degrees on a personal wedge Gene Sheeley was making for him. That same wedge design and specs would later need to be forged and duplicated at a Chicago factory.

Sometime long before I came along, Mr. Hogan, Gene and previous engineers developed a unique fixture to measure the loft and lie angle on irons and wedges, which you can see below. It was a rotation turret table pitched at an angle with some extra engineering measurement features welded on. With this fixture, one could fix or press the face of the club to a plate and turn the turret handle until the butt of the club pointed at a target lie measurement scale (in the shape of a sweep radius). After the club was aimed correctly, one could site out and read the lie of the club on the scale radius. At the same time, the loft could be read on the turret gauge.

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The Ben Hogan Company loft and lie machine, which is on display at the Ben Hogan Museum in Dublin, Texas.

With no engineering or formal physics schooling, Mr. Hogan knew instinctively that the loft and lie of an iron combined to determine the launch vector. He must have learned these specifications were interrelated and synergistic while “digging his game out of the dirt,” and Mr. Hogan and Gene had come up with this ingenious fixture. It was very creative thinking for its time. After they conceived and built the one fixture, it was used to set and gauge all of Mr. Hogan’s clubs — both his personal clubs, and his company’s clubs. It became the only standard for Hogan touring pros, the factory and all things Ben Hogan.

Years later, Gene gave me this historic fixture. I have since donated it to the Ben Hogan Museum in Dublin, Texas, where it is on display. I think Gene and Mr. Hogan would have wanted that. I would implore anyone who loves Hogan lore (or his real clubs) to make a trip there some day. The museum is full of Mr. Hogan’s things and is a wonderful tribute.

Back to 1988 in Fort Worth. The one problem with the ingenious loft and lie machine was that the fixture did not travel. It was massive — about the size and weight of a modern washing machine. And while Mr. Hogan’s loft and lie fixture was very consistent and the products of this machine fit his eye and expectations, it did not read in true engineering degrees. That’s right, what Hogan and his machine called 56 degrees was not really 56 degrees. Hogan degrees were about 1-to-2 degrees different!

As the head of the product development team in Fort Worth, I needed to communicate the actual and accurate degrees and dimensions of irons and wedges to vendors in California and Chicago, so I was in a box. As a side note, Mr. Hogan was a patriot and wanted all clubs and components under his name to be 100 percent made in the USA.  I will give you a detailed story of how I know this on a later hole.

Earlier in my engineering training, I had learned the engineering standard measurement technique for machined parts required a sine plate and a Bridgeport-type mill. Yes, the same sine as you might have learned in high school trigonometry. Early in this club degree dilemma I tried to have a discussion with Gene about it, but he didn’t see a problem. As far as he was concerned, he, Mr. Hogan and their bulky fixture were right and the trigonometry and engineering worlds were wrong. “Case closed,” Gene said, and he would never bring it up with Mr. Hogan. I considered pushing the math matter higher up the company food chain. If I did, however, it might appear to embarrass Gene and Mr. Hogan. I also considered the fact that sometimes the messenger with bad news is killed, or in my case, fired.

Tom Stites with loft and lie

Here I am using Hogan’s loft and lie machine.

Only recently during one of our jaunts up to his office had Mr. Hogan shocked me by asking me a question. Mr. Hogan asked me how much hook I saw in a wood Gene was showing him. Without knowing when, I must have crossed over a trust line and paid the final installment of my dues.

“It does look a bit hooked,” I stammered. That was a safe response, because Gene had told me Mr. Hogan sees everything a couple of degrees more hooked than it measures, and I’ve run across many elite players over the years who see face angles the same way. With Mr. Hogan actually talking to me now, I wasn’t ready to blow up the new trust by telling him and Gene his machine “lied” consistently by a couple of degrees. With that, I quietly developed a chart and formula that would convert all Sheeley/Hogan fixture degrees to true engineering sine-plate calibrated degrees. With this secret formula and chart, I was able to do my job properly and those two incredible and historic men of the club I loved could stay happy.

A bit later, however, I screwed up and got bit in the butt. By this point, I could go in and see Mr. Hogan alone. One morning I went in there to show him one of Gene’s new prototype models. I don’t remember where Gene was. When I got to his office, Hogan dropped the wedge to the floor and eye balled it like he always did. Just a few seconds later, he barked at me and told me it was 0.75 degrees too weak.

I’m sure Mr. Hogan could see my skeptical reaction and read my thoughts. In my head I was saying to myself:

“That old man can’t sit in that chair on his butt and look down and see 0.75 degrees. No way. There are 360 degrees total and he says it is off by less than 1. I don’t think so!”

I walked out of his office and headed to the backroom shop with the wedge in question. All the way, I was muttering to myself the same disbelief. I grabbed my conversion chart and the sine plate and measured the club several times. I found both showed a discrepancy of 0.5-0.75 degrees.

He was right, I was wrong. I then had to go back up and eat some sour crap.

On the way back to his office, I vowed to never argue or doubt Mr. Hogan again. In the future, I would measure his clubs not once, but multiple times (with both measurement systems) before I went in to see him.

That incredible man who some called “The Hawk” could indeed see minuscule amounts of golf club right and wrong. He did it again and again during my time at his company. Many years later, I would work a “Tiger” — another super talented golf creature — who too had that same kind of alien accurate eyes and feel. He could discern incredibly small differences in clubs that were not able to be noticed by normal humans, and a certain “Golden Bear” could do the same thing.

I don’t know how to explain it, but I’m wondering if maybe some of the greatest players in the history of our game were dropped on earth by spaceships and have been living among us posing as our elite golfers. I’m not kidding! I’ve seen examples of a different perception and wiring system in them, and I’m certain they are different!

Maybe, I will tell you some of those stories on the back nine.

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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.

24 Comments

24 Comments

  1. petie3_2

    Aug 6, 2015 at 12:56 am

    One problem with a perfectionist; they’re never happy.

  2. JTW

    Aug 5, 2015 at 3:46 pm

    Tom thank you so much for these articles
    Looking forward to the next

  3. cody

    Aug 5, 2015 at 12:46 pm

    when the legend becomes fact. Print the legend

    “the man who shot Liberty Valance”.

  4. Colin Gillbanks

    Aug 5, 2015 at 7:32 am

    Really enjoying this series.

    Can we make it a 36 hole match, please?

  5. Martin

    Aug 4, 2015 at 7:17 pm

    Very cool series, I am enjoying it immensely.

    Some people have tremendous eyes and hands, years ago I worked in sales for a high end Dental Lab we started producing a new product that involved a dovetail attachment bridge.

    The idea was you put a crown on the healthy end tooth, then we produced the “middle” part which fit into the dovetail. I may be remembering this slightly off to any dentists here.

    We had one Dr who had a reputation as a perfectionist, who complained about the process not being perfect. We had him into the lab with some of the work he had done, he had misunderstood the product and would do a root canal on the good tooth and was cutting the dovetail freehand in the tooth rather than having us produce it in the lab in a crown and he had 2 reworks out of 20.

    Our Lab Manager was flabbergasted as were the two other Dentists in that day that anyone could cut something freehand and get it perfect 18/20 times, one of them said he didn’t think he would be able to do it once and he was in awe of the guys skills.

  6. slimeone

    Aug 3, 2015 at 1:41 am

    I have a set of Slazenger Hogan Precisions which are stamped “made in England”.

  7. RG

    Aug 2, 2015 at 10:57 am

    It is amazing what some individuals can pick up with there eyes. Ted Williams once stepped into the batters box, and immediately called time out. He looked at the ump and said,”First base isn’t where it’s supposed to be.” They stopped the game, measured and it was 2 inches off. He could see 2 inches off in 90 ft.
    In the middle ages an artist Giooto ( I think that’s correct spelling) commissioned to do artwork in a new chapel for the Vatican. When the pope questioned him as to his worthiness and ability he called for a paper and a quill and famously drew a perfect circle free handed. That takes eyes and a steadiness of hand.
    I brought up those examples to say it is incredible the great artistry of eye that Mr.Hogan had to go along with the fluidness of body. Great article.

    • KN

      Aug 6, 2015 at 3:42 pm

      It’s Giotto (di Bondone), but good for you for remembering the first genius of art in the Italian Renaissance. Can Hogan be put into the category of “genius?” Many would say yes. It’s difficult to have a discussion about the game’s greats without his name being prominent in it.

  8. M.

    Jul 30, 2015 at 9:05 am

    Birdie on the 4th

  9. Todd

    Jul 30, 2015 at 8:23 am

    Love these posts on people of the game. An inside look at the great Mr. Hogan. I started out with Hogan clubs. They were great. Wish I kept them now. It doesn’t surprise about Mr. Hogan’s knowing the wedge loft was off. Think about home many times he has hit one. All that practice setting the club down behind the ball. I also like that he was involved in the company, he cared about the product later in life.
    Great set of posts, please keep these up!

  10. stephenf

    Jul 30, 2015 at 2:04 am

    Good GOD. Can you imagine being given a machine that Ben Hogan himself had a hand in developing? That would just end the you-know-what out of any bar conversation.

  11. Chuck

    Jul 30, 2015 at 1:19 am

    Absolutely terrific series.

    So Tom what do you use now for measuring and bending lofts/lies on irons? How do measure lofts, lies and face angles on woods?

    You must have stories about Lanny Wadkins, who is reputedly fanatical about his lofts and lies.

  12. Matto

    Jul 29, 2015 at 5:58 pm

    This is a fantastic tale. Thumbs up.

  13. talljohn777

    Jul 29, 2015 at 4:53 pm

    A Tom Stites story about Tiger that I remembered and found:

    “We sent him six drivers to try out,” says club designer Stites. “He told us, ‘I like the heavy one.’ I was like, what? There couldn’t have been a difference of more than a gram in any of the drivers we sent him. When we reweighed all the clubs, sure enough, he’d picked the one that was maybe a half-gram heavier than the rest. That’s like if I gave you two stacks of 150 $1 bills, then tore one bill in half and told you to pick the heavier pile.”

    • Side

      Jul 30, 2015 at 1:51 am

      Myth. If he was that good, why can’t he hit it straight, then, eh? May be he should pick the light one so he can!

      • dapadre

        Jul 30, 2015 at 7:26 am

        Good enough to have won 14 majors and countless tournaments. The suspense is killing is, o great God, who art thou?

      • prime21

        Jul 30, 2015 at 7:43 am

        IF? Really? Top 2 all time, no debate. Next time you feel the need to post a comment, take a second, recognize your ignorance, and go to a sight that discusses anything other than golf. It is obvious that u know nothing about the subject.

    • bob

      Jul 31, 2015 at 12:55 am

      heard the same about Curtis strange. was told he could tell you where the seams in a steel shaft were.

  14. blake janderson

    Jul 29, 2015 at 3:59 pm

    sounds like this person, hogan, was not a very good golfer. otherwise he would not have seen clubs aligned more ‘hooked’ than they were.

  15. BR

    Jul 29, 2015 at 3:34 pm

    Great story. I hope you share more stories/experiences from Mr. Hogan, others.

  16. PH

    Jul 29, 2015 at 3:29 pm

    No way on earth that I want this to only be 18 holes. Mr. Stites has entirely too much experience and too many stories to keep these confined. I impatiently wait for the next article every single time I finish one.

  17. Christosterone

    Jul 29, 2015 at 2:45 pm

    Awesome article….best hole so far!!!
    -Christosterone

  18. Greg V

    Jul 29, 2015 at 1:19 pm

    Great story. A perfectionist would stand for nothing less than perfect tools.

  19. ddetts

    Jul 29, 2015 at 1:17 pm

    I am very much enjoying these installments by Mr. Stites. What a great contribution to this golfing community. It’s such a treat to get to hear these personal accounts of interactions with Mr. Hogan.

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Let’s Retire Old Man Par: A Modest Proposal

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In 1729, Jonathan Swift wrote a satirical essay entitled “A modest proposal,” in which he suggested that the Irish eat their own children. As might be expected, the piece drew a great deal of discussion and controversy. He was of course not serious, but simply attempting to make a point. As you will read this piece contains “A Modest Proposal” as well, but it is not intended to be satirical. I am for the record dead serious.

The golf industry is wringing its hands, trying to find a way to bring new players into the game, while at the same time keeping those that are in the game from leaving. They have initiated any number of programs designed for this purpose. How successful have they been? I would venture that they have barely moved the needle.

Barriers to the game

What we do know is that today there are three major barriers that confront the industry. They are first, the time required to play the game; second the costs associated with playing the game; and third the difficulty of the game.

There are among those adults that start the game, three distinct different groups:

  1. Those who would like to start playing golf but for any number of reasons decided not to take up the game.
  2. Those who once played more frequently but have reduced the number of rounds that they play.
  3. Those who started to play the game but then after a short period decided to leave it.

Those who leave the game

Those in the golf industry, the hand-wringers, have developed any number of programs to bring new players to the game. I would ask the question, “What is the point, when almost an equal number of players that start playing the game each year, decide to give it up within a span of a few months.

Does it make any sense to continue to put water into a bucket when there is a hole in the bottom? Of course not, but that is effectively what is being done. The first question to be ask, why do these new players quit the playing after a short time? In my opinion, the number No. 1 reason is the method of scoring being used.

Were an exit poll to be conducted asking these people why they quit playing, I seriously doubt they would answer truthfully. Who would want to admit that they were discouraged by their inability to succeed at any endeavor? The two answers that would be given the most often would be 1) that golf is too expensive to play; or 2) that they simply didn’t have time.  In this case both answers serve to preserve the individual’s dignity. And who could blame them?

The concept of par

Why did these individuals find the game difficult? The short answer is that while golf is a hard game to learn, there  is a more compelling reason.  I would venture, that the underlying reason they quit the game is that it ceased to be fun because of how they viewed their performance. And for one central reason… the concept of par. The idea that an amateur golfer, especially a beginner, should measure their level of success against an imaginary set of numbers that represents what an expert player would score on each hole is on the surface ridiculous.

You might imagine a beginning player scoring an eight on a par-four hole after hitting six good shots and then two putting for an eight. In the context of their ability, they should be ecstatic — but of course they are not (because as their playing partner reminds them) they were four-over par on that hole. The time has come for Old Man Par to retire. And retire permanently. He is killing the game.

Perceived failure

In another scenario, the beginning player scores sixty for nine holes, which is an excellent score given the short amount of time they might have spent playing the game. And yet their nine-hole score was 24-over par. How would that make you feel? Would you be encouraged or discouraged? You might imagine yourself back in school and regardless of the amount of work that you put into a given class you always receive an “F.” At some point, would you give up?

Why should every golfer be judged by the same standard when there is such inequality in their ability? The equivalent would be placing a high school freshman in a graduate-level college course, expecting that they could perform at the same level as the other graduate students. The disparity in knowledge, based on age and experience, is precisely the reason why there are different grades in school. The same disparity exists among golfers. In this case, the difference being the ability to perform on the golf course as opposed to the classroom.

What about the second group of players that now plays less than they did in the past? Could it be that they are no longer having fun playing the game?And then there is the third group, those that consider playing the game but abandon it for another sport. Could it be that they are intimidated by the scoring system, knowing that as a beginner par is an absolute impossibility?

Old man par 

The legendary Bobby Jones was the first to coin, perhaps with the help of his friend O.B. Keillor, the phrase “Old Man Par.” Jones was, of course, the greatest amateur to have ever played the game. He won the Grand Slam in 1930, retiring then at the age of 28.

The time has come to retire “Old Man Par” and devise a new system for measuring a golfer’s progress in the game. I know that those in the USGA. would reject the concept immediately for fear of, and here is a $10 word used primarily by attorneys, “bifurcate” the game. What that word essentially means in this context in having more than one standard. The USGA is responsible for preserving the nature of the game, but at the same time it should be equally concerned with preserving the future of the game.

Personal par

What I would suggest is a system based on the principle of what might be termed “personal par.” This was essentially the system that was used to groom a young Tiger Woods. As a young child, he was not capable of reaching the longer holes in regulation, making par a virtual impossibility. Consequently, his coach wisely devised a system in which par was adjusted upward based on his ability at a given point in time. This served to keep the young child feeling good about his performance and subsequent progress.

This is the type of system that needs to be devised for the health of the game. The system would begin at a nine-hole level using a par of thirty-six as a basis. The actual numbers are not as important as the basic concept. There would be within the nine-hole and the eighteen-hole groups five different levels as follows with assigned par for each hole and eighteen holes roughly equal with the player’s ability.

As players improved, they would graduate from one level to another based on their total score. The handicap system would work in similar fashion as it does now with a single modification. The strokes give from one player to another would depend on the level in which they fall and the par assigned to that level.

The personal par handicap system would not be as exacting as it is presently used, but it would be sufficient to allow players to be reasonable competitive without any significant sacrifice. There would then be two scoring systems then, allowing players to choose which one they wanted to use. Or a recommendation might be given that until they reach a given scoring threshold that they use the personal par scoring system.

There would, of course, be the usual concern with something new being injected into the system, but the proposed change would be no greater than when the system of equitable scoring was introduced or when courses were first assigned a course rating number.

A few years ago, when life-long teacher and educator Dr. Gary Wiren was inducted into the Golf Teacher’s Hall of Fame, he wanted to pass along a single piece of advice to those teachers in the room. “Gentleman,” he started and then paused for emphasis. “We must find a way to make the game more fun for our students.”

I’m in full agreement with Dr. Wiren. The question is, “What is the best way to accomplish that goal?” I believe that that the first step in that direction is to change the scoring system so that golfers experience more satisfaction and accomplishment. That is what makes learning fun.

And so, I would have you consider “The Modest Proposal” that I have put forward. And rather than attempting to find reasons why a revised scoring system couldn’t never work, for the benefit of the game, look for the same number of reason why it could work. The time has come for Old Man Par, as we know him, to retire. He has served us well, but he has become an anarchism. He is as obsolete as the horse and buggy. Let’s hand him his gold watch and let him enjoy his golden years in peace.

And at the same time, let’s welcome the “new kid on the block” who will pave the way for the next generation of golfers pioneering a scoring system that promises to make the game more “fun.”

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