If you were to vote on who would truly be “the most interesting man in golf,” I believe Ben Hogan should win hands down. There may be a few better players in history (not many), but none had the career trajectory of Hogan, and certainly none cultivated the mystery that Hogan did regarding his technique.
Hogan’s ball striking skills were so superior (in 1940 he won three tournaments in two weeks, shooting 34-under par for 216 holes, missing just two greens in regulation) that his fellow competitors would stop their own practice to watch him on the range. When writing or speaking of the role of technique in his rise from struggling touring pro in most of the 1930’s to the game’s greatest practitioner of his time, Hogan regularly referred to the evolution of the way he gripped the club and how that affected his swing as possibly the single most important factor. His accounts, however, are often contradictory and confusing. As some have suggested, this may have been on purpose, as Hogan was loath to offer information for free that he had worked so tirelessly for on his own.
There are quite a number of sources of information regarding Hogan’s life and career, including three full-length biographies (Hogan: The Man Who Played for Glory by Gene Gregston, 1978, Hogan by Curt Sampson, 1997, and Ben Hogan, an American Life by James Dodson, 2004), two full-length books published by Hogan himself (Power Golf and Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf), and various interviews and articles including “This is My Secret” from Life Magazine in 1955, and one-on-one interviews with Nick Seitz of Golf Digest in 1985, with George Peper of Golf Magazine in 1987, and a television interview with Ken Venturi. In each of these sources, the subject of Hogan’s grip arises, and the information given about how he arrived at his beliefs as to the details of assuming a proper grip and how he changed his grip over time are sometimes conflicting, and certainly confusing at best. For the purposes of this review, we will start with Hogan’s own words and writings.
One thing we need to do right away is to dispel the myth that Hogan was actually left-handed. In a 1987 Golf Magazine article, editor George Peper interviewed Hogan and asked this question: “You were a natural left-hander who took up the game right-handed, weren’t you?” To which Hogan responded: “No, that’s one of those things that’s always been written, but it’s an absolute myth. The truth is, the first golf club I owned was an old left-handed, wooden-shafted, rib-faced mashie that a fellow gave me, and that’s the club I was weaned on. During the mornings, we caddies would bang the ball up and down the practice field until the members arrived and it was time to go to work. So, I did all that formative practice left-handed, but I’m a natural right-hander.”
This should quiet all the people who insist Hogan was a lefty who played righty and that was a big advantage (which is not true at all, but that’s another story), and affected the way he held the club. Of course, those who claim Hogan was a natural lefty do so for a good reason. Here is what Hogan wrote in Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf, which was published in 1957: “I was born left-handed — that was the normal way for me to do things. I was switched over to doing things right-handed when I was a boy, but I started golf as a left-hander because the first club I ever came into possession of, an old five-iron, was a left-handed stick”. If you ever wondered why Hogan is considered to be such a mystery, and why there is so much debate about what he did and why he did it, you can start right here.
Hogan first wrote about his grip in his first book, Power Golf, published in 1948. He had won 13 tournaments, including the PGA Championship (his first major), and was the leading money winner on the Tour. He was the dominant figure in the game, but in 1947 he slumped a bit and was outshined by Jimmy Demaret. He came back strong in 1948 with 11 wins and two majors, leading the money list and winning the Player of the Year award. The swings and posed photos in Power Golf are taken at Augusta National, most likely in 1947. The first chapter in Power Golf is titled, “Evolution of the Hogan Grip” (I stole that for this article) and starts by explaining that he started playing left-handed (see above), but he switched to righty because “the only clubs I could get were right-handed clubs.” As you can see, this is already getting confusing, as he never mentions whether he was right-handed or left-handed to begin with, but only that his first club was left-handed. You will see Hogan’s grip change in photos, but Hogan’s explanations as well as the opinions and observations of his biographers as to what the changes were and how they came about are often contradictory. Nevertheless, I will try to follow the information as best I can and make as much sense of this important topic in Hogan’s career as possible. Here is an excerpt from that first chapter:
“…let me say that I have tried all of the grips known to golfers at some time or another in my career. The grip I now use (in 1947) was arrived at by a series of trial-and-error experiments which began when I first took up the game. As recently as the fall of 1945, when I got out of the service, I made a radical change in my grip which I had been experimenting with whenever I got a chance to play golf while in the Army. I had been aware for some time that if I wanted to make a comeback as a successful golfer that I would have to make a change in my grip to correct a tendency I always had to over swing on the backswing. By the time I resumed tournament play, I had made the change and had everything in good working order. Formerly I used a grip in which I had what might be best described as a long thumb when speaking of the position of the thumb of the left hand on the shaft. During the course of the backswing that thumb used to slide down on the shaft, and as a result, I was always guilty of a certain looseness at the top of my swing which prevented me from getting the maximum of control. In correcting this, I pushed the left thumb back up on the shaft. The entire change couldn’t have amounted to more than half an inch in the movement of the thumb, but it was enough to restrict my backswing so that it no longer is loose.”
Hogan writes of his grip in more detail in Five Lessons: “When I changed over to the right side, possibly as a hangover from my left-handed start, I first used a cross-hand grip. I experimented next with the interlocking grip, and at length — I must have been about 15 at the time (around 1927) — I finally arrived at the overlapping grip. I was working then in the golf shop at the Glen Garden Club, and I copied the grip of Ted Longworth, the pro … Over the years since first adopting the overlapping grip, I have made two minor alterations. Right after I came out of the service, I changed from what is called the “long thumb” to a modified “short thumb.” I made my second alteration in 1946, moving my left hand a good half inch to the left. I was working then to find some way to of retaining my power while curbing my occasional tendency to hook. Moving my left hand over so that that thumb was directly down the middle of the shaft was the first step in licking that problem.” I find it quite interesting that Hogan left that bit of information out of “Power Golf,” and that he only revealed it after his semi-retirement in 1955 in the Life Magazine article “Hogan’s Secret” and the 1956 publication of “Five Lessons.” My guess is that he omitted it on purpose, not wanting to give away any competitive advantage.
Curt Sampson, in his biography of Hogan simply titled “Hogan,” provides some color to the story of Hogan’s beginnings as a caddy and his interaction with Longworth: “Long driving had been a macho thing in the Glen Garden caddie yard. Whatever caddies were still around at the end of the day would hit one ball each from the first tee: the shortest hitter had to run out onto the deserted course and pick up the balls, then they would do it again.” As Longworth recalled it for a story in the PGA Championship program in 1946, a few members always emerged from the 19th hole to watch. “Yah, Bennie, get ready to chase ‘em again,” the other boys would say, according to Longworth. (Byron) Nelson never lost; Hogan never won. Bennie tried hitting it cross-handed.”
“Bennie, if you don’t change that hog-killer’s grip, you might as well take up cattle rustling,” Longworth told Hogan. The tall, stoop shouldered pro bent down and untangled the boy’s hands. Since distance was the name of this game, he gave Bennie a distance grip, turning his left hand to the right and his right hand underneath the club, thus helping him close the clubface during the swing and producing a left-curving shot, a hook. Hooks roll.”
We can imagine what that grip looked like when we see the photo of what Hogan described as a “hook grip” in Power Golf. Looking at the photos of what Hogan thought was the ideal grip, and the one he used at the time, you can readily see how he weakened his grip as he explained.
This is obviously the grip that won Hogan the 1946 PGA Championship and nine tournaments between August of 1945 and April of 1946, but did Hogan make further changes after three-putting the 18th hole to lose the Masters in 1946? The history (no thanks to Hogan himself) is confusing, but let’s see if we can sort it out.
In the 1955 Life Magazine article “This is My Secret” (written after Hogan had essentially retired from competition and for which Hogan was paid $10,000), Hogan explains: “…in 1946, I was having trouble getting the ball in the air. I had a low, ducking, agonizing hook, the kind you can hang your coat on. I was finishing in the money and occasionally winning a tournament, even with a terrible game. But the handwriting was on the wall. If I was going to stay and make a living, something had to be done. I left the Tour and went home to Fort Worth about as desperate as a man can be. I sat and thought for three or four days. One night while laying awake in bed, I began thinking about a technique for hitting a golf ball that was so old it was almost new.” Hogan goes on to talk about the idea of “pronation,” whereby the clubface is rolled open by the hands right from the start of the backswing, and continues to open all the way to the top of the swing. “…before the night was over I had added two adjustments, which on paper made pronation hook-proof without any loss of distance.” Hogan then recounts how well the ideas worked in practice, and then in tournament play when he went to Chicago for the Tam O’ Shanter and won two events in a row. (An interesting side note: as it turns out, Hogan did not recollect this correctly. He finished 4th in the Tam O’ Shanter and it wasn’t until the Colonial later in the summer that he began to dominate the Tour). “The two adjustments had transformed pronation into a bonanza for me. They were so delicate that no one would ever think of looking for them, and I certainly was not going to tell anybody where to look. The first was in the grip. I moved my left hand one-eighth to one-quarter inch to the left so that the thumb was almost directly on top of the shaft. The second adjustment, which is the real meat of the “secret,” was nothing more than a twist or cocking of the left wrist. I cupped the wrist gradually backward and inward so that the wrist formed a slight V at the top of the swing…which had the effect of opening the face of the club to the widest practical extreme at the top of the swing.” Here is a picture from the article of Hogan demonstrating this change in the grip:
Compare this to his depiction of a “slice grip” in Power Golf, just 8 years earlier:
And here is Hogan demonstrating the grip in detail in his instructional masterpiece, “The Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf.”
Note that in the drawing the “V” formed by the left thumb and forefinger definitely points to the left of the chin, which would indicate a two-knuckle grip (Hogan says it should point to the right eye), while in the photo from the Life Magazine article above shows more of a one-knuckle grip where the “V” points more straight up. This makes a huge difference, and studying the pictures in the book it is unclear whether Hogan consistently used either. We can find a major difference between the Power Golf grip and the Five Lessons grip when we look at these two pictures of Hogan placing his left hand on the club:
At first glance, it would appear that Hogan is placing the club in his hand in a similar fashion, but take note of the angle of the shaft to the left forearm and the angle the fingers form in relation to the ground. The Power Golf version promotes more dorsiflexion (inward bending) of the wrist, while the Five Lessons grip is more palm oriented and would be what we would describe now as “weaker.” It is my opinion that Hogan played his best golf from 1946-1953 with his left hand closer to the Power Golf grip than the grip he demonstrates in Five Lessons and in the Life Magazine article. However, it is also evident to me that he steadily weakened his right hand, and that the obvious difference between the right-hand placement demonstrated in Power Golf and that of Five Lessons is more apparent in the videos of his swing after the accident. Let’s look at how he changed his ideas on right hand placement:
The key here in the eventual difference in the right-hand grip can be found in the phrasing. In Power Golf, Hogan says: “The club lies diagonally across the fingers of my right hand.” In Five Lessons, Hogan says: “The club lies across the top joint of the fingers of the right hand.” Here are examples of the finished right-hand grip:
With the club placed more horizontally across the fingers of the right hand at the bottom of the first joint with the palm facing the target, there is already much more of the hand to fold over the club, thus positioning the “V” more straight up at the chin in a weaker position. By positioning the club more diagonally across the fingers Hogan sets the right hand more under the club in a stronger position.
Hogan speaks of his game prior to his epiphany of 1946 as though he was a terrible golfer with a pronounced hook that threatened to end his career at any time. The record shows, however, that he won four events and was the Tour’s leading money winner in 1940. He won five events in 1941, and won both the Vardon Trophy (lowest average scoring average) and led the money list, and in 1942 he won six events and was leading money winner before being called up for service in World War II. Upon his return from the war, he won 5 times after August in 1945, then four more times in 1946 before his first win utilizing his “secret.’ It is apparent, however, that what Hogan found that night lying in bed propelled him to even greater heights from his win at Colonial in 1946 to his accident in early 1949. During that span, he won 29 times, a number that includes three major championships. It is interesting that Cary Middlecoff “remembered a pre-accident Hogan who occasionally missed fairways and greens just like everybody else”, but that “it was in 1950 that he began showing the kind of precision golf that set him apart,” Middlecoff wrote in his book, The Golf Swing.
“In 1950, (Hogan) began to take on the miracle-man aura. Small crowds would gather around him and try to watch his every move anytime he started hitting practice balls.” Hogan himself would disagree with Middlecoff, but said in his interview with Ken Venturi that while he never hit the ball as well after the accident as he had before, he “played” better, noting that it was his belief that course management played a greater role in his success than anyone could imagine. That’s certainly truer when you can hit almost every shot right where you are aiming.