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Hole 5: Ben Hogan’s “Prototype” Fly Swatter

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One year after Mr. Hogan’s “I had a dream” speech, we gathered for another annual company sales meeting. It had been another good year for the Ben Hogan Golf Company, with sales of our Edge irons going strong and the GS (Gene Sheeley) model under development for the future.

Mr. Hogan’s speech to the sales force that night at TPC Los Colinas was quite memorable, but it only lasted two minutes. In that two-minute address, however, he tipped over the first in a line of dominos that would give me my greatest golf trophy. One year later, that same line of dominos would create a very long and sleepless night for me.

Here’s how it went down. Mr. Hogan once again addressed his worldwide sales force and the corporate leaders from our headquarters in Fort Worth. Like years past, he was impeccably dressed in a suit (we all were) and he was quite stoic. To the best of my memory, here’s what he said:

[quote_box_center]”Men, we are going to make a new golf club. It will be better than our successful Edge. I believe it will change the game of golf. It will help make those golfers who now shoot 100s shoot 90s.[/quote_box_center]

He paused. 

[quote_box_center]”It will make those who now shoot 90s shoot 80s.”[/quote_box_center]

There was another long pause.

[quote_box_center]”It will make those who now shoot 80s shoot 70s. It will be so damn good I may just take it back out on Tour.”[/quote_box_center]

With that, he stepped away from the microphone and sat down. The crowd was not quite sure how to respond, but soon they were giving Mr. Hogan a rowdy round of applause. His speech did not invoke the same response as the year before, but it didn’t take much to please this crowd. If Mr. Hogan had got up and said his ABCs or just counted to 100 everyone would have cheered and been glad they saw the man do it.

The second Mr. Hogan announced he was going to make a new club, I found many eye balls around the room looking at me. New clubs were my thing at the Ben Hogan Golf Company, so they assumed I knew what he was talking about. As soon as the spiller of the beans sat down and the formal part of the night was over, a number of them (including our president) asked me to fill them in on the specifics of the club Mr. Hogan had heralded. More than one jaw dropped as I told them I had no idea what he was talking about.

Maybe Gene was working on something secret with Mr. Hogan, I told them. Gene was not at the sales meeting, so we would be waiting a few hours before we knew what he knew.

I went and saw Gene the next morning and told him what happened. He was confused as I was. Neither of us knew about Mr. Hogan’s secret, and possibly imaginary club! I found company president Jerry Austry, and told him that Gene didn’t know what Mr. Hogan was describing last night. Jerry told me I’d better get up to Mr. Hogan’s office and figure it out.

With no idea what I was walking into, I went into Mr. Hogan office. “What?” he said, as I knocked on the frame of his office door.

[quote_box_center]”Mr. Hogan, you told the company last night you had a new idea for a great club,” I said. “Do you want us to get to work on a prototype? If you will tell me what you have in mind we will get right on it.”[/quote_box_center]

He looked at me for a bit, and then started to describe a low-profile utility club that had everything. To call it a hybrid would not do it justice. This was a time before these types of clubs were in vogue. I’m going to hold out two features, but what I can tell you is that Mr. Hogan’s dream club had a very long, yet lightweight hosel. It also had a heavy keel, turf-riding sole, and the low-profile body had a very low CG. It would shaft up with an extreme offset and inset, and would even have a bent shaft.

flyswatter3 (1)

An artist’s illustration of Ben Hogan’s famed grip on a fly swatter.

At this point, I made a big mistake and talked. I told him that the club he was dreaming up might be non-conforming. He looked at me with those drilling, bright blue eyes and told me that I had better worry about him right now, not the USGA. Just build it and see if it works. We would worry about the USGA later.

He was right. The man known for classic blades was very creative. He knew real innovation requires risk and taking chances. We should prototype early and often. We could learn from the mistakes and move on. And we should never miss a chance to make something better for everyone. Let’s kiss all the frogs and hope a few will turn into something good!

Mr. Hogan knew all these things, and he made sure I understood them that day. It was a way of living and thinking I then chose for the rest of my career. I don’t know from whom or how he got that creed, but he had it and he knew how to pass it on.

The club Mr. Hogan was describing to me that morning was hard to put into words at the time. He could see my confusion and he got frustrated that I didn’t see it as clearly as he did. He needed something to use as an example, so he spun around to his credenza and came back with a very old fly swatter. It looked like the one my grandfather used. He then told me to “come here.” I had to step around the corner of that huge desk, a place where I had only seen Gene go. I never expected to go back there. When I did, he gave me the fly swatter and told me to “grip it and address the ball.”

[quote_box_center]Huh? I thought. What? What ball? Address it with a fly swatter?[/quote_box_center]

He was dead serious. With Mr. Hogan sitting in a chair two feet in front of me, I gripped the bug weapon and stood there frozen, pretending that his right knee was the ball.

“Is that your grip?” he asked.

By the way he asked the question, I knew I was in trouble. He reached up with an open right hand and swatted my hands on the swatter. It wasn’t hard enough to constitute an assault, but hard enough to get my attention. It was like one of the times my football coach would slap the side of my helmet, grab my face mask and pull me in face to face so I could experience up close his booming voice and a few sprays of screaming spit as he coached me up to be and play better. Mr. Hogan was a great coach, so the shock effect worked for him, too.

There must have been something about my grip he just couldn’t stand, and he was determined to fix it before we could go on. Those super strong hands of his came up and pushed, pulled and repositioned my hands on the swatter’s wire handle. I was getting a hands-on grip lesson from the Wee Ice Mon, Mr. Ben Hogan. Wow oh wow!

After he had my hands to a minimum acceptable grip, he told me again to address the ball. “Yes sir,” I said. I went into my pre-shot routine, shifting my weight from foot to foot as I waggled the pretend club a few times. I then glanced down the imaginary fairway, which was the north wall of his office. I didn’t want to screw up again, and I settled into what must have been an acceptable address position.

Mr. Hogan then went to the neck of the fly swatter I was gripping and started to twist and shape the wires — the imaginary shaft and hosel — the way he wanted the new club to be made. If these bends were put in a real club it would help promote a natural closing rotation at impact, I noticed. I didn’t think it would help someone who had a tendency to hook the ball, as Mr. Hogan did, but for those who hard cut or sliced the ball it would be cool feature. Mr. Hogan had the physics right, but I still doubted the USGA would go for it. I kept my mouth shut, however.

“Do you understand what I want?” Mr. Hogan asked. “Yes, sir,” I said.

“Now, just go do it!” he said.

Mr. Hogan probably didn’t realize what he had just said, but my future Nike brothers and sisters would have been proud.

Without changing my hands or taking them off the high-speed insect whacker, I walked out of his office gripping the world’s most unique prototype golf club. This one was hand crafted by Ben Hogan himself. I did not want to let go of my new grip, so I shoulder bumped all the doors open on the way back to my office. When I got there, I sat down to think about what had just happened.

It wasn’t until I went to lunch that I released my new Hogan grip on the wires. I never gave the swatter back to Mr. Hogan, and he never mentioned it. I used it to describe to the design team what we would build and prototype, and I’ve still got it. It’s old, rusty, and bent out of shape, and it will never kill another fly. I know it wouldn’t mean anything to anyone else but me. Through the last three decades, I’ve kept hundreds of keepsakes and clubs — even some clubs played and hit by major champions — but that old fly swatter is by far my favorite trophy.

Over the next 12 months, we would build several prototypes based on that fly swatter. One of those prototypes would be at the center of a memorable, sleepless and wild night. On the next hole I will tell you what happened.

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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.

14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. FredWomble

    Aug 19, 2015 at 10:34 pm

    Great series. I was afraid reading it.The Hogan mystique came through in this story!

  2. Steve Thomas

    Aug 19, 2015 at 2:50 pm

    Tom:
    Can you make this a 72 hole tournament? I can’t get enough of these stories!

  3. Zach Mayo

    Aug 18, 2015 at 10:28 am

    Keep us dangling for installment # 6. !!!!
    Like Ive said before Mr Stites….. your story telling matches the quality of the clubs you’ve made . SPECTACULAR.
    The first 5 holes were birdies on my scorecard..keep it up and you could have the perfect round of 18 birdies that was the dream of the man whose stories you engage us with.

  4. Wiley

    Aug 16, 2015 at 11:30 am

    Definitely will need an emergency nine!

  5. Philip

    Aug 13, 2015 at 11:48 pm

    Great story telling. Don’t forget that there is always the 19th hole, and that one never ends …

  6. Ken

    Aug 13, 2015 at 4:32 pm

    When it comes to the wisdom of Mr. Hogan, maybe we could play 36? Great article. Thanks.

  7. Tom Wishon

    Aug 13, 2015 at 11:49 am

    TS, keep these up because I’m really enjoying these as well. And when you finish 18, think about creating a second 18 as well !! Hope all is well with you these days.

    • tom stites

      Aug 13, 2015 at 4:22 pm

      Thanks Tom. Hope to see you again soon.

    • rymail00

      Aug 13, 2015 at 9:14 pm

      Yup agree with Mr. Wishon. I really hope to read more stories after this 18. I’m sure your time at Nike could fill a book (which would be very cool too). If there’s one I really hope there’s another 18 to help past the wait. We’re equipment junkys and I believe that’s why reading yours, Mr. Adams, and Mr. Wishon articles are so interesting.

      Keep them coming.
      Ryan

  8. Howard

    Aug 13, 2015 at 10:19 am

    Tom, These stories are great and this one is the best so far. I never grow tired of reading about Mr. Hogan. One of my most treasured mementos is a letter I received from him about a week after I wrote him to tell him how much Five Lessons had improved my golf game. I’ve been hooked ever since.

  9. Ronald Montesano

    Aug 13, 2015 at 7:35 am

    Also, Did Anthony Ravelli draw the image you used of grip and fly swatter?

    RM

    • tom stites

      Aug 13, 2015 at 8:30 am

      The art was done by a good friend of mine who happens to be a very gifted illustrator and artist. I asked him to help me tell the story. There are just no photos on the internet of someone golf gripping a fly swatter. He did a great job. I can say however we were both inspired by the great works of art in the Five Lessons Book.

  10. Ronald Montesano

    Aug 13, 2015 at 7:30 am

    Tom, I simply cannot wait for each successive installment. You are gifting all of us with rare insight, the type that we would never be able to acquire on our own. Thank you.

    RM

  11. gvogel

    Aug 12, 2015 at 8:26 pm

    What?!!! I have to wait until hole number 6?!!!!!

    Aghhhhh.

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