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The Search For Hogan’s Secret

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I love a good mystery. I love reading them, watching them and even writing them in my spare time. Many of the most wildly popular literary works involve the quest to solve history’s mysteries or the search for lost treasure, and cinematic forays depicting these adventures are often blockbusters. When it comes to history’s biggest mysteries, certain ones have been sought after more fervently, by more men, than almost all others. The Ark of the Covenant comes to mind, and The Holy Grail is an obvious contender. But amongst my ilk, the search for Ben Hogan’s Secret is undoubtedly foremost among the game’s modern mysteries. Enough passion, intrigue and pursuit surround all of these things that I’m not really sure what is most shocking: that none of them has actually been found, or that, unlike The Ark and The Grail, a movie hasn’t (yet) been made about The Search for Hogan’s Secret.

Now before I begin in earnest, I should concede that I’m treading dangerous waters here. A cottage industry has evolved around Hogan’s Secret, with no less than a gazillion swing zealots claiming to have uncovered it everywhere from in an abandoned locker at Riviera to in the last will and testament of a guy who used to pick the range at Fort Worth Country Club back in the 1950’s. Among those teaching, pondering, and pontificating on the mysteries of the golf swing, there are hordes of “Hoganophiles” invested in ways that span from emotionally to professionally to financially in their claims to Hogan’s treasure. And anyone else coming along making claims even slightly at odds with their own conclusions can invite swift and vehement reactions: calls of blasphemy, incompetence or worse. But I forge on, because if I can shed even a little light upon this on-going investigation, I’ll risk the abuse. All in the name of the greater good of the game.

So back to Hogan. For starters, his playing record inspires understandable awe. And when you consider the fact that he won more than half his majors after a near fatal and crippling car accident that prohibited him from playing in more than a half-dozen events a year for the remainder of his career, you begin to understand why he is so revered. In 1953, having won the Masters, U.S. Open and Open Championship, Hogan very possibly could have been the only person to have completed the modern Grand Slam if the Open and PGA championships hadn’t had conflicting schedules that year. And while he only won nine majors (compared to Nicklaus’ 18 and Woods’ 14), he won those nine majors in only sixteen starts between 1946 and 1953. He also only finished out of the top-10 once. Had the PGA not still been match play during his competitive career, requiring winners to play 36 holes in a day (something Hogan couldn’t do after his accident) it’s very likely he would have added a few more majors to his total.

In truth, it’s unsurprising that a stoic man like Hogan, with a nickname like The Hawk and a record such as his would leave behind a legend that went beyond his mere exploits on the links. It was in Life Magazine back in the 1950’s that Hogan first claimed to have discovered his elusive Secret. The change that allowed the struggling journeyman pro to harness his wayward hook, a shot that almost drove him from the tour, and go on an almost unprecedented streak of tournament wins that would ultimately see him hailed as one of the best players in history a decade later. And in the process that success, combined with his explanations for it in the years to come, would inspire decades of debate.

Now, like most golf professionals, I have my opinions about what I like to see in a good golf swing and the elements that are crucial to obtain a modicum of success. But I’m self-aware enough to understand that, as I said, these are to a degree just my opinions. One of the most beautiful things about the golf swing is that it’s short on absolutes. The number of different looking golf swings that have tasted major success in the history of sport is near uncountable. Tiger Woods alone won major championships with three very different swings and PGA Tour events with four, and still an armada of us who claim to know a thing or two about the motion debate incessantly about which one was best. If swings the likes of Jim Furyk, John Daly, Ray Floyd, Jim Thorpe, Lee Trevino, Arnold Palmer and Miller Barber can win at the highest level, it should truly give hope to the most unorthodox among us — while giving pause to the rest of us who say you have to do it a certain way if you want to be any good.

That being said (and understood), I’m as guilty as the next guy who coaches competitive golfers for a living of getting sucked into searching for Hogan’s buried treasure. I suppose it’s understandable seeing as how he cryptically mentioned at one point that it could be found in the dirt somewhere, but I digress. You see, whether it was in that Life article, various interviews, his book Power Golf, or the Immortal Five Lessons, Hogan actually left us some very detailed clues as to what he felt was most important when it came to swinging a golf club. But it’s what Hogan supposedly didn’t say that left the treasure hunters among us still looking under the couch cushions for that missing remote. Like a master chef who holds back one key ingredient when offering up the recipe of a famous dish, one that will keep it from ever being truly replicated by scores of imitators, we believe Hogan withheld something from the golfing masses. Something he would ultimately take with him to his grave.

Now, from my point of view, I think Hogan was actually a bit of a shy man, and one who didn’t mind remaining a bit of a mystery. It only added to his intimidation factor when it came to competition, and ultimately elevated the Hogan mystique. And a bit of intrigue as it related to his historic success wasn’t an all bad thing when it came to marketing the golf clubs and balls that Hogan occupied most of his post tournament golf years doing. I also believe that Old Ben wasn’t immune to possibly having a quiet laugh at all of our expense. Could it be that all that talk of the pronation of the wrists, the short left thumb, or hitting balls left-handed as a youngster was nothing more than a red herring? Something planted in the public consciousness by a man who wanted to throw us all off the scent? Hogan wouldn’t have been the first mystical golf guru to have done so, nor would he be the last, but there is one other thing to consider.

Is it possible that Hogan’s real secret was something he wasn’t himself quite aware he was actually doing? It is quite possible that the changes in grip, wrist position, or any of the other things Hogan claimed were his Secret might possibly have served as a distraction in and of themselves. Something that may have in fact aided, or complemented, what he was doing in this swing, but something that in a technical sense would have been actually quite inconsequential if he wasn’t already doing something else, something pretty much every other legendary striker of the ball has done as well.

In the 1960’s Hogan recorded a video for Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf in which he explained what he did in his golf swing. In it he described how he initiated the first move down with his lower body. This is what Hogan felt that he did, and if you look at slow-motion video of his swing you can certainly see that he does start moving his hips first, almost before he completes his backswing on some clubs. In fact, if you look at Hogan swinging a driver you can actually see the clubhead still moving backward as he initiates his hip turn in the forward swing.

The thing that Hogan didn’t articulate in the video, though, a thing he might possibly have not even been consciously aware of, was the reason he could initiate the forward swing with his lower body as much as he did was how low and connected his right elbow was to his right hip, and how it remained underneath the left arm not just to, but through impact. This is what nearly every great ball-striker does, including Woods, Nicklaus, Byron Nelson, Bobby Jones and even that legendary savant so revered by golf swing geeks, the quirky Canadian Moe Norman.

All those great golfers arrived in that position by various methods, but they ended up there just the same — like London cabbies who might not take the GPS recommended route to get you to Heathrow, but they get you there on time just the same. And whether it was Hogan, Nelson, Nicklaus, or Norman, when you combined that position with a little lateral hip slide just prior to impact, it allowed them to deliver the face of the club to the back of the ball with very little release of the hands into the hitting area. In this way, the club is squared not so much through hand or forearm rotation, but by the turn of the body, a reality illustrated by the fact that every great ball-striker’s hips and shoulders are about half-way turned to the target at impact.

Now I know the technocrats out there will decry this as an over-simplification of what Hogan and others have done, and I get that, but I do so for a few reasons. One, to point out that there are common similarities amongst great players. Two, to give an idea about which area of the swing is possibly most important to focus on if you feel you need to make a change. And three, to highlight the fact that despite those similarities, there is no one way to get there, as long as you ultimately do.

Hogan, whether it was intentional or not, wasn’t the first professional to articulate something about his golf swing that was a bit misleading. And the real problem with most golfers (and instructors) taking Hogan’s advice at whole cloth is that most players who attempt to initiate the forward swing with the lower body have arms so disconnected from their lower bodies that it causes them to come over the top and hit the ball form the outside, exactly the opposite of what Hogan claims it will do. You see, there’s this pesky little thing called your spine that connects your arms and shoulders to your hips. Most golfers, especially those of advancing age, aren’t nearly as flexible as the modern athlete. When they run out of available body turn in the backswing, they lift the club into position the rest of the way. This disconnects the upper and lower body, setting them up to have the upper body stuck behind the lower because the arms hands and shoulders can only resist so much of that hip turn before they cry uncle and follow along.

Having your arms connected to the lower body through the impact area not only allows you to strike the ball more directly from the inside, but allows you to square the club through body rotation. When the hips are too far in front of the upper body, the lower body often begins to move up and out of the hitting area before the club is in position to strike the ball. And as you get farther and farther from the ball and/or the club gets stuck open due to the arms and hands getting left behind, it forces you to cast or flip the club at the ball through impact in order to square it. This move sacrifices both power and consistency.

So what do we do? First and foremost, acquiring the necessary flexibility to complete a backswing by turning isn’t a bad place to start regardless of your age. Second, if you don’t have that flexibility at the moment, you may want to point your toes outward as Hogan did, allowing a bigger hip turn, and maybe even allow your front heel to come off the ground in the backswing like Nicklaus. The important thing is to try to get the club to the top more by turning than by lifting. And finally, if you’re in a position right now where your flexibility not only isn’t quite where you want it, and these adjustments still won’t allow you to turn the club back fully to the top without lifting it, then you just might need to start that downswing with the upper body.

What you say??? That’s not what Bantam Ben said! I know, I know, but one of the things I’m fond of telling people is, “The higher your right elbow, the higher your handicap,” especially on the way down, so kick-starting your forward swing by making sure your elbow tucks low and in front of the right hip prior to the initiating that hip turn can be the missing link that allows you to get it back underneath the left arm so you can strike the ball from an inside path again. It’s not what the immortal Mr. Hogan might have told you to do, but if you’ve been searching in vain for Golf’s Holy Grail of moves for a while now, and neither Mr. Hogan’s description, nor the multitudes of instructors claims of what his actual Secret was have turned out to be the genuine article, it just might be because Ben didn’t honestly know what his real secret was. And even though it was hiding in plain sight, his own description of what he was doing made it easy to be confused about where to look.

At least that’s my opinion, but just remember, it’s only an opinion. So… what’s yours?

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Mike Dowd is the author of Lessons from the Golf Guru: Wit, Wisdom, Mind-Tricks & Mysticism for Golf and Life. He has been Head PGA Professional at Oakdale Golf & CC in Oakdale, California since 2001, and is serving his third term on the NCPGA Board of Directors and Chairs the Growth of the Game Committee. Mike has introduced thousands of people to the game and has coached players that have played golf collegiately at the University of Hawaii, San Francisco, U.C. Berkeley, U.C. Davis, University of the Pacific, C.S.U. Sacramento, C.S.U. Stanislaus, C.S.U. Chico, and Missouri Valley State, as men and women on the professional tours. Mike currently lives in Turlock, California with his wife and their two aspiring LPGA stars, where he serves on the Turlock Community Theatre Board, is the past Chairman of the Parks & Recreation Commission and is a member of the Kiwanis Club of Greater Turlock. In his spare time (what's that?) he enjoys playing golf with his girls, writing, music, fishing and following the foibles of the Sacramento Kings, the San Francisco 49ers, the San Francisco Giants, and, of course, the PGA Tour. You can find Mike at mikedowdgolf.com.

34 Comments

34 Comments

  1. Bob

    Dec 28, 2017 at 9:59 pm

    I believe in Jim McLean’s 8 step swing, he describes that at impact the right elbow, right hip and right knee will be in alignment with the right elbow right in front of the hip. See the photo sequence above. Whether that was Hogan’s “secret” is another matter.

  2. Caddy

    Dec 27, 2017 at 10:49 am

    I think he certainly knew what he was doing and feeling – likely more than anyone ever. You said,

    “when you combined that position with a little lateral hip slide just prior to impact, it allowed them to deliver the face of the club to the back of the ball with very little release of the hands into the hitting area. In this way, the club is squared not so much through hand or forearm rotation, but by the turn of the body…”

    That certainly kept the face from closing until after impact. The hip rotation being the 1st move from the top and mentioned over 40 times in Five Lessons, was huge in keeping the club from coming TOO much from the inside. His path was better by feeling that he rotated the hips 1st. Even if there was a little lateral slide it was a result of dynamic motion and not intentional. His intent was to rotate and that “fixed” his extreme in to out path. Keeping his right arm under kept his face from closing early. Once the path and the face were coordinated… he was MONEY!

  3. Guia

    Dec 26, 2017 at 4:18 pm

    No, secret. He practiced his butt off. I love the way he keeps his arms close to his body.

    • Sid

      Dec 27, 2017 at 12:47 pm

      That’s the “secret”!!!!!! Practice, and more practice!!!!
      Everybody wants that secret tip to avoid practice and physical failure.
      Their solution?: Buy the latest greatest new equipment. Losers all!!!

  4. RBImGuy

    Dec 26, 2017 at 2:55 pm

    “it just might be because Ben didn’t honestly know what his real secret was.”

    If you ask me that was it.
    If hee really knew then his explanation would make someone else able to repeat, he wasnt able to.

    I am however able to do that, repeat and teach the same “the real secret” to the golf swing

  5. Kelvin

    Dec 25, 2017 at 9:20 pm

    I believe Hogan’s secret was that he worked out the Trackman secret that no one knew…that the face controls the start direction and the path to face creates the curve. He used to practice behind a tree at Shady Oaks curving the ball. Armed with that knowledge he built himself a cut swing that he knew he could trust.

  6. Ray Bennett

    Dec 24, 2017 at 8:02 am

    Not sure why people are so obsessed with Ben Hogan’s secret. To me he was a journeyman pro who gave his all to work out a golf swing that would earn him and his a comfortable living. He wasn’t a gifted athlete the likes of Sam Snead and Coy who used their athleticism to swing the club the easy way. Hogan swing the club differently which he described in the introduction to “Five Lessons….”. He pronated the left arm fully in the backswing and supinated it early during the downswing resulting in a hold off release with a stable clubface through the impact zone (referred to as a shut to open release where the clubface has minimal rotation coming into impact and beyond). He needed to practice many hours every day where Snead and Coy did it the easy athletic way. I guess we pay homage to those who give their guts and all to succeed in their endeavours.

    • Mj

      Dec 24, 2017 at 12:07 pm

      Pronating and supinating means rotating the forearms.
      There is no hold off move.
      move.
      .

      Saved Photo
      ?
      ?

    • Benseattle

      Dec 25, 2017 at 7:58 pm

      Sorry… does anyone have a clue as to who this “Coy” is?

      • Ray Bennett

        Dec 26, 2017 at 3:14 pm

        The hard way to swing a golf club is to consciously rotate the clubface open to it’s maximum during the backswing and square it up during the downswing with minimal rotation through impact and finish with the clubface open – which is what Hogan did. His swing was powered by tremendous body rotation.

  7. LarryG

    Dec 23, 2017 at 2:51 am

    If the truth be known, Hogan’s “Secret” is unique to his body anatomy and nobody else. Trying to imitate Hogan’s swing and hoping something magical will happen is foolish, and rather futile too.

    • SK

      Dec 23, 2017 at 3:00 am

      Hogan’s real secret was his flat ‘duffer’ cap that he always wore and the cap centered his swing down through his body into the ground. Soooo obvious.

      • roger

        Dec 23, 2017 at 2:44 pm

        LOL

      • Sid

        Dec 27, 2017 at 12:49 pm

        No… the secret is the belt that holds up his pants!!!
        If your belt isn’t exactly right your pants will mess up yer swing!!!

    • Mj

      Dec 23, 2017 at 5:38 pm

      What part of his anatomy was different than anyone else’s. The only successful instructors have systems. He told his secret in the article and repeated it through the years including on video.

      • LarryG

        Dec 24, 2017 at 1:51 am

        Hogan had exceptionally big and meaty hands and popeye forearms… and he was rather short, like 5’7″…. and he was not obese with a belly hanging over his belt like most men I see on the golf courses.

    • Caddy

      Dec 27, 2017 at 10:53 am

      The principles are the same. The more you stay connected and turn the more efficient your swing and ball-striking will be. If you use a lot of hands and arms, you had better have good hand eye coordination, timing and sheer talent.

  8. Rich Douglas

    Dec 22, 2017 at 11:19 pm

    Hogan was–and is–the greatest perpetrator of advice leading to slicing there ever was. He battled a hook for most of his early career. The methods he later proffered were a result of his overcoming the hook. He hit a slice to negate the hook.

    Do not follow that.

    If you want basic instruction on the swing, I recommend “Getting Back to Basics” by Tom Watson, “Five Fundamentals” by Steve Elkington, and/or “Swing Like a Pro” by Ralph Mann. Stay away from Hogan at all costs.

    • LarryG

      Dec 23, 2017 at 2:41 am

      HERESY!!!! Hogan and even Homer are sacred names in the world of golf swing understanding and to desecrate their names will get you a forum fatwah …!!!

  9. Mj

    Dec 22, 2017 at 7:52 pm

    Read the top right of the life magazine cover it says Hogan tells his secrets. Tell the secret means this a secret which is in the article
    Not this might be his secret.

    • LarryG

      Dec 23, 2017 at 2:43 am

      No no… it’s buried in The Amazing World of Insects article…!!!

  10. CB

    Dec 22, 2017 at 6:14 pm

    The only secret is that he had to hit thousands of balls just to maintain his swing.

    • LarryG

      Dec 23, 2017 at 2:46 am

      … and that’s what weird Moe “Pipeline” Norman did while proclaiming he he was the G.O.A.T. swinger of the golf club, at his demos and on his youtube videos too!!!

  11. FG

    Dec 22, 2017 at 4:46 pm

    Jim Furyk’s right elbow isn’t connected to his right hip at all so that must means he’s a terrible ball-striker, right? Shooting 58 and 59 with a bogey, how bad is that?

    • roger

      Dec 23, 2017 at 2:46 pm

      It’s painful watching Furyk’s loopy swing.

      • Wizardofflatstickmountain

        Dec 23, 2017 at 6:21 pm

        Yeah, totally gross and an offense to my eyes.

        That swing has produced over $67MM in earnings.

        I’m sure your swing looks like a poem wrapped in a rainbow.

        • roger

          Dec 24, 2017 at 1:57 am

          You are correct when you say you are sure my swing looks like a poem wrapped in a rainbow… 99.9 mph too ….!

  12. HennyBogan67

    Dec 22, 2017 at 2:24 pm

    Nice article which reveals absolutely nothing! The secret is not in the downswing but how Hogan got to the top with his left wrist cupped. I think I found it and won’t reveal it here but ask yourself how did he go from a flat wrist at the 9 o’clock position to a cupped one at the top. The secret is always in the hands. Ben’s was miles ahead of everyone’s. If you figure it out, it will take you 3 swings to improve your ballstriking exponentially. The secret allows me to play Mizuno MP-4’s at 62 years old and to rip every iron in the bag with a tiny draw. Good luck, it’s worth the effort.

    • Ur_A_Bogan

      Dec 22, 2017 at 5:12 pm

      Wow dude seriously, do you not realize the absolute hypocrisy in your comment. “This Bogan goes on and claims he knows about Hogan’s secret but actually reveals nothing!” As you directly follow that with a sentence about how you’ve found Hogan’s TRUE secret, and yet you just can’t tell us plebs about it here. Get over yourself.

    • roger

      Dec 23, 2017 at 2:51 pm

      A cupped wrist at the top suggests that the ligaments on the palm side of wrist are weak compared to the ligaments on the top of the wrist. These are the finger ligaments that go through the carpal tunnel and then into the elbow.
      The unequal ligament strength causes the wrist to cup when the club lever at the top goes into reversal.
      A flat wrist is anatomically neutral while a cupped wrist is in palmar extension.

  13. Marnix

    Dec 22, 2017 at 1:09 pm

    Thanks for this carefully written insight. Whether your observation of the low right elbow happens to be ‘the secret’ or not is somewhat irrelevant, but your explanation on why it is important will certainly be helpful to many. Coincidentally or not, this is exactly what I have been working on for the past 6 months and my ball striking has improved and my scores are inching lower.

  14. Frank

    Dec 22, 2017 at 11:53 am

    When I stated in golf 50 years ago I struggled until
    I read the first Hogan book. I was hooked on Hogan and fought a slice forever. I even practiced the Hogan grip for hours in my spare time. I took lessons, lots of lessons, and read every other theory (and tried them out) always coming back to Hogan. Finally after retirement and all of my flexibility and strength gone with my youth I looked at the Hogan swing sequence then Nicklaus then Trevino then all of my past heroes swings and picked up a pen flashlight put my Hogan grip on it with the light on mimicking the butt of the grip and traced my swing slowly on the rug. I transitioned to a strong grip, a 10 finger grip , a weak grip and found that if I traced the in to out swing I would come to impact in a square position. What was really surprising was my right arm position looked like Hogan’s Eureka. I’m now breaking 40 constantly and with less effort. At age 78 I think I got it.

    • roger

      Dec 23, 2017 at 2:43 pm

      So you only play 9 holes?
      Do you walk and push a trolley or carry a bag… or do you ride a cart?

  15. toyzrx

    Dec 22, 2017 at 11:52 am

    Probably wasn’t anything ground breaking but was a personal swing key he held which he did not want to share with anyone. Maybe he wanted to covey to us in silence that there was not such things as secrets in golf swing or golf period.

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How often should you actually get “Up-and-Down” based on your handicap?

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‘Up and Downs’ have long been the accepted measure of skill in the short game. The chart below shows average performance in this area for the PGA Tour and an array of handicap levels. How do you fit in?

A few points of definition: The above refers to short game shots around the green, other than from the sand. [Stay tuned: sand shots will be my next article.] I consider the short game to be all shots from within 50 yards of the hole. This distance was a topic of debate 30 years ago when I was developing my golf analysis program. I was fortunate to be working with Golf Digest Golf Schools and some of the top instructors were good enough to embrace the better form of game analysis that I was creating. In particular, I owe a great deal to Chuck Cook, Jack Lumpkin and Hank Johnson. Their help and encouragement in my early stages gave me a much needed boost of momentum. Little did we know that what I then called “Strokes Lost and Saved” would ultimately become the accepted standard of analysis on the PGA Tour — now know as “Strokes Gained.” Anyway, we agreed that 50 yards was the right distance range for the short game for two reasons:

  1. It represented the short game for virtually every handicap level, men and women.
  2. It was a short enough distance that it didn’t need to be sliced even further.

That said, I do NOT believe that “Up and Downs” are an appropriate or accurate measure of short game skill for two reasons:

  1. It represents the combination of two skills: Short Game and Putting.
  2. It ignores the ERRORS or shots that actually miss the green.

In my 30+ years of studying performance at all skill levels, I have found that it is the FREQUENCY and SEVERITY of bad shots (errors) that do more to influence a player’s scoring level than do all the good shots. Accordingly, I built the ability to capture data on the common errors in the game into ShotByShot.com.

The true measure of a player’s short game skill is their Strokes Gained in that facet. BUT, that is simply a number — a positive number is good and a negative number, not so much. But how then to best display the skill that is associated with the Strokes Gained number? I believe the combination of three stats to be the correct way to display short game skill:

  • Average putting distance, when the green is successfully hit.
  • Percent shots hit to within 5 feet of the hole
  • Percent errors, or shots that miss the putting surface.

Where does your game fall in these two important categories?

Note, that the two lines cross at about a 16 handicap. That is actually a better than average golfer yet for every Chip/Pitch shot that they successfully get to within 5 feet of the hole, they are also chunking or sculling one and missing the green altogether. Work to dramatically reduce the errors and that 16 will drop to 12 or 13?

You might ask: How can the PGA Tour make more errors than the scratch golfer? Good question! I have two explanations:

  1. They really are that good! Regardless of the relative difficulty of the shot, Tour players will go for it. They have the confidence that when they miss they will get the next up and down. At the same time, the amateur that has reached the lofty level of Scratch has generally done so thru rigorous consistency and the avoidance of errors. At the low handicap levels, a bogey can be acceptable but a mistake that results in a double is NOT.
  2. The tour Shotlink data considers the fringe of the green to be a miss whereas I recommend that players count the fringe as a green hit and a putting opportunity. Your long game has been efficient enough to get there and should be rewarded with the GIR. At the same time, to count the shot from the fringe as a short game shot will unfairly reward your short game skill for what was actually a putt.

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