When I think about what Mr. Hogan left behind, I’m reminded of the Greek myth about Theseus who entered the labyrinth to slay the Minotaur. Theseus faced a second challenge that was just as daunting: How would he find his way out of the maze if he succeeded in slaying the Minotaur? Well, it turns out all he needed was a spool of thread. He tied the thread to the entrance of the maze and unspooled it as he ventured into the darkness. Thus, he was able to accomplish his goal, and eventually find his way out of the labyrinth. Like Theseus in the labyrinth, Ben Hogan left us these books to help us on our way. All we have to do is follow the thread of the hero path.
As I look back over the past few years, I have to laugh because I’ve never been as good at golf as I wanted to be. I’m sure many people could say the same thing. I started playing when I was 8 years old, and today I’m 47. I was willing to work on my game and I spent a lot of money on clubs and lessons, but I did not get better. My average score was in the high 80s. I often shot in the 90s, and I sometimes shot in the 100s. The worst score I can recall was 126.
Then one fine day, I was in the checkout line at a golf store and saw Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons on a rack by the cash register. I bought that book, and it changed my life. Around the same time, I got a Flip video camera and I saw my swing for the first time in decades. Well, suffice to say, I didn’t look like Ben Hogan. I realized I needed to improve my swing, and Mr. Hogan’s books gave me a path to follow. Over the course of the next five years, I would undertake the challenge of trying learn how to swing like Ben Hogan. Along the way I started a YouTube channel, and began rebuilding my swing and sharing my work with the world. Today, I have more than 9 million views on my channel and I can even shoot under par.
Taking on the challenge of trying to rebuild my golf swing in the manner of Ben Hogan probably sounds a little crazy. At first, it seemed like a preposterous goal. I had been a martial arts champion and professional ballet dancer in my past, however, and it was by studying Bruce Lee and Mikhail Baryshnikov that I was able to achieve a respectable level of mastery in each of those fields of study. So, I thought “How hard can it be?” Well, it was the most complicated of all of my pursuits due to the counter-intuitive nature of the golf swing.
It didn’t take long before I could make golf swings that bore some of the hallmarks of the Hogan golf swing. The first year, I flattened my backswing plane and I learned to use my body well enough to create a good amount of lag. My scores quickly improved and I achieved my initial goal of being able to break 80. In fact, I did it 14 times that first year! To be honest, that was all I wanted from my game at the time. I just wanted to be able to shoot in the 70s, and not feel like a buffoon when I stood on the first tee box. But the goal of mastering the Ben Hogan golf swing began to fester in the back of my mind, and being in my mid-40s, it seemed like an age-appropriate pursuit since my days of combat and theater were far behind me.
After some initial successes, the greatest challenge I faced moving forward in regards to learning how to swing like Mr. Hogan was how to use my lower body correctly. Years of playing the game with my weight too far forward had caused me to develop some bad habits that seemed impossible to break. I’m right handed, and as soon as I started my downswing, my right heel would immediately pop off of the ground. This led to early extension of my hips and my spine angle would rise through impact. These are common maladies in the world of golf, and it took me years before I could get “over the hump.” Mr. Hogan said many times that what really separates world-class players from everyone else is the use of the lower body.
I would spend years trying to overcome my early extension, and sometimes I convinced myself that it was just how my body worked. But then I learned about a teacher named Gregg McHatton in my area. I began taking lessons with Gregg, who was known for being an expert on Ben Hogan’s swing. Once I arrived, Gregg pointed out something that many folks on YouTube had also noticed. He told me I resembled Mr. Hogan until just before I released the club head. At that point, I would lose my angles and I looked like an average Joe. The truth is my swing was really just a poor imitation of Mr. Hogan at that point. I had to tackle my impact and release.
Gregg first helped me to understand what a proper impact position actually looked like. The first time he asked me to demonstrate what I thought the impact position should be, I was flummoxed. I didn’t really know. He wanted me to keep more flex in my knees through impact, especially my front leg, with my hips open and forward shaft lean. Gregg has an interesting way of teaching. It seems to me that he prefers not spilling his guts about everything right away, but he rather enjoys leading students down a pathway that causes them to have their own epiphanies. At least that was the case with me.
Gregg and I enjoyed a number of conversations about Ben Hogan and baseball, and I like to practice swinging a bat to feel my hips leading on the downswing. I’ve always had a tendency to overpower the golf club with my hands and arms, but the weight of a bat makes this harder to do. But it was after I took a look at pitching that helped me to really understand how to use my feet and legs better. Once I started to imagine feeling my back foot against the rubber, I realized how inefficient it was to allow my right heel to pop off of the ground. I knew I needed to use my leverage against the ground. This caused my lower body to work in a much more efficient manner, and also helped to deepen my hips and to stop me from early extending. By mimicking a sidearm/underhand throwing motion like Mr. Hogan showed in his book, I really started to feel how the swing builds from the ground up. Today, I have a consistent move that allows me hit the ball farther than I ever have before and my consistency has vastly improved.
We all know there is only one Ben Hogan, and his swing was one of a kind. Mr. Hogan was so modest he didn’t even believe his swing was the perfect swing to copy. But he did say the ultimate judge of the golf swing is the ball itself. I do not believe I will ever perfectly match Mr. Hogan’s swing, but I have received so much enjoyment just from the pursuit, not to mention the benefit from my tremendously improved golf game. I certainly hope to keep improving at this wonderful game, but judging from my ball flight I can say that I made it much farther along than I ever thought possible.
I’ve slain the Minotaur and lived to tell the tale.