Ben Hogan stories are the stuff of legends in the game of golf.
“Hey did you hear the one about why Hogan couldn’t play 36 holes in one day? Because his afternoon tee shots would land in his morning divots!”
Or the one about the first time he played Seminole, he was told by the caddie to aim at a group of three palm trees at the corner of the dogleg. “Which one” he replied.
On and on as the years go by, I’m sure there is still some truth to all the stories, although they may be stretched a bit by now. Or not, who knows? Anyway, the legend of Ben Hogan has reached epic proportions over the years due in no small part to his uncanny ability to strike a golf ball. He may have hit 18 greens in regulation more than anyone who ever lived; Moe Norman possibly excepted. But this legendary accuracy was not always the case.
Hogan turned pro at the ripe age of 19 years, and for at least the first 5 to 10 years of his career, he was plagued by a nasty hook. Lee Trevino once famously said, “You can talk to a fade, but a hook wont listen.” And such was the case for young Hogan.
Better players miss the ball RIGHT, rarely left and Hogan knew he wouldnt make it on tour if he didn’t get his hook under control. Well, this was in the days well before teachers, video and all the things we have now, and even if those things were available to him, he probably would not have availed himself to them anyway. He set out to cure the hook in typical Hogan style and he soon learned that the secret was “in the dirt.”
“You simply beat balls until your hands bleed and your back aches, and then you beat more balls”, he once famously said, and he totally lived this rigid discipline.
He not only cured the hook he became, well, he became Ben Hogan!
In 1957, Hogan wrote a book about what he found in the dirt, “Five Lessons, The Modern Fundamentals of Golf,” which is equally as well known as any instruction book ever and for many years became to “how to” Bible for an entire generation of players. With the possible exception of “Golf My Way,” Jack Nicklaus’ famous work, more people tried to learn to play from Five Fundamentals than any book or video ever. And with good reason; if this is how the great Hogan did it, it’s good eneough for me. But… all that glitters is not gol(f).
Now that some 50 years have passed since its publication, the book’s legacy may not be as positive as we initially thought.
“Bite your tongue DC, how dare you; who are you to find fault with the “wee ice man” as the Scots affectionately named him?
Well, not fault maybe but there is always a risk in any generic prescription for the all the world’s goling woes and the real danger is in the INTERPRETATION of what the reader THINKS the author said. Even Hogan himself warned us that what worked for him may not work for you. But a lot of golfers never read that part of the book. They set out to do as Hogan did. And they did (sans the talent and dedication of course).
But here’s the problem: remember what he set out to cure — a terrible hook. So he developed a swing and a set of fundamentals to do just that. The only trouble is that about 75 percent of the people who read the book slice! Lets look at a couple points in the book that, interpreted literally, or worse yet, misinterpreted, may not be the best for the average golfer.
- The grip: The grip pictured on page 29 is a great grip — if you hook! He suggests the “V” in the left handed be pointed to the right eye, when many others suggest a much stronger position with the V pointed to the right shoulder. That difference seems small but it isn’t. I can tell you this: most of the people I have taught over many years cannot hold the club in that positon and square it consistently, for a variety of reasons. Unless they too fight a HOOK.
- Pinching the knees to resist hip turn while maximizing the shoulder turn to create coil: This is a great idea for a more advanced player but CAN BE TOO RESTRICTIVE for the average golfer, often creating a reverse pivot.
- The action of the arms is motivated by the movements of the body, and the hands consciously do nothing but maintain a firm grip on the club (page 82): Try this, I’m betting you put the cart an auto pilot to the right.
- The turning of the hips initiates the downswing: This is true, but it must be in conjunction with the arms and club lowering onto the delivery plane. Many over-the-toppers have misinterpreted this and ended up with a horizontal hand path out toward the ball instead of down. We all know how Hogan did this — a slight cup in the left wrist and an early pronation flattened the wrist lowering the club onto downswing plane. But he does not dwell on the lowering of the arms and club. If you turn the “bawdy” first without lowering the club, you can get over the top in a hurry.
And although I don’t believe he mentions it directly, a close look at the illustrations, which incidentally are some of the finest golf renderings ever, clearly show that a cupped wrist and slightly open face at the top of the swing was another of the Hogan secrets that can wreak potential havoc with a high handicapper’s swing. If it is NOT flattened and pronated properly as Hogan suggests, look out right again. Also, the cupped wrist can start the club down on too steep a plane, another cause of potential slice.
A body oriented, passive hands motion with a relatively weak grip is not the best thing if you slice the ball, simple as that. If you grip the club as he suggests, keep it open going back, hold the angle and turn through the ball aggressively, your golf ball certainly will not hook, but you better be prepared to hit it right. That is exactly where too many of you are going already!
Like everything else, trying to learn golf from a book or manual is risky business — even one as great as the Five Fundamentals. And don’t misunderstand me, there is a TON of great golf information in this book. I’m sure all the swing keys Hogan discussed worked perfectly for him, but a literal interpretation of that book may very well have done more harm than good.
It’s intersting to note that most all of the early instruction books were written by playing professionals. The “teacher era” is a relatively new phonomenon starting as late as 1970 when Square to Square, a Dick Aultman and Jim Flick collaboration, was one of the first non-playing professional books ever. The roles have reversed now and very few “players” have time or interest to teach. That part of the game has gone over to the teaching division of the PGA almost exclusively. It’s probably just as well, as teaching has advanced to such a state that it takes all one’s time and attention to devote to it.
You will find, as in the The Five Fundamentals, that the suggestions of the players differ from those of the teachers in that they are more personal; a more “this is how I did it” approach, as we’ll see next time when we investigate another classic, “Bobby Jones on Golf” by the great man himself.
Finally, I am huge Hogan fan and have nothing but the utmost repsect for what he accomplised and what we learned from him. The last sentence in the book pretty much sums it up for me:
“Whether my schedule for the following day called for a tournament round or merely a trip to the practice tee, the prospect that there was going to be golf in it made me feel privileged and extremely happy, and I could not wait for the sun to come up the next moring so I could head to the course again.”
As always, feel free to send a swing video to my Facebook page and I will do my best to give you my feedback.