Are Hogan’s “Five Lessons” for you?

by   (Senior Writer I)   |   December 3, 2012
Ben Hogan

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.”

Click here for more discussion in the “Instruction & Academy” forum. 

About

Dennis Clark is a PGA Master Professional, a distinction held by less than 1 percent of all PGA Professionals. He is recognized as one of the top instructors in the country, and holds no less than seven PGA awards including "Teacher of the Year" and "Golf Professional of the Year."

Dennis holds two degrees in education and has worked with golfers of all levels for over 30 years. A native of Philadelphia, Dennis currently directs the Dennis Clark Golf Academy at the Marco Island Marriott in Naples, Fla.

GolfWRX Writer of the Month: April 2014, May 2014


14 Comments

  1. dg7936

    March 20, 2013 at 1:15 pm

    Hogan admitted his book had the potential to make a slicer’s game worse. You need to read the book and adapt what works for your particular body type and tendencies. Anyone buying this book to swing LIKE HOGAN is misguided. It really is a hook-prevention manual. He did a lot of things in his swing that are not described in the book. Right foot open, not square as he described jumped out at me. But one thing I noticed, Hogan’s upper arms are tight to his body throughout the entire swing, in all positions, letting his lower arms crack the whip.He never got high hands at all, kept the entire motion shoulder level. Shorter swing with strong leg drive let him time his movements and accumulate all that power. He was a low-hands rotational swinger. Doesn’t fit most body types; you need longer arms and really strong legs.

  2. Joe Golfer

    December 20, 2012 at 3:01 am

    A great article by Dennis Clark.
    The book I used to learn the game many years ago was this book. I used that weak grip, and I wound up having to play the ball quite far forward in order to hit it square. Dennis mentioned four aspects of the book with which most average golfers would have trouble. He’s absolutely correct on several counts. I like Dennis’ assessment of the Hogan quote of “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.” Dennis is right. With Hogan’s weak grip, many average golfers will end up with a push or push fade, as the hands simply do not release well for most golfers with such a weak grip. Hogan was short in stature and swung in a flat plane. For most golfers, that weak grip will not work well.
    Besides “pinching the knees”, Hogan also promoted having the back foot 90* to the target to resist hip turn, yet if you look at any photo of Hogan hitting the ball, his back foot is open, not perpendicular to the target line. Thus, Hogan wasn’t even following his own printed advice on that one. Those two things might work if a golfer is young and very supple, but not for most.
    I do think that Hogan did a decent job of explaining the theory of the hips initiating the swing. I don’t think his teachings should lead to the “over the top” swing that Dennis mentioned, as Hogan does cover swing plane quite extensively, complete with fantastic diagrams, such that a golfer should automatically make the “magic move” that brings the right elbow towards the right hip, dropping the club into the slot (for righthanded golfers).
    This book is a fantastic primer on the basics of the golf swing, and maybe the best ever on the swing mechanics and proper plane, but it surely does have a few aspects that will do more harm than help to the average golfer. It’s great for teaching the sequence of the swing, but the book really does need some tweaks, just as Dennis Clark has pointed out. David Leadbetter also pointed them out, having written an entire book on this very topic, entitled The Fundamentals of Hogan. He too addressed some of the things that Dennis has mentioned in this article. Leadbetter’s book on Hogan is very good, and I’d recommend it to anyone who has read the Hogan book. Both books belong in your library.

  3. naflack

    December 12, 2012 at 6:44 pm

    i own and have read the 5 fundamentals and must say as a 3 digit handicap…i spent more time trying to erase the things that book did to my swing than i did trying to implement them.
    i did think that because my miss is generally to the left that it would help me, it did nothing of the sort. i went back to my right side dominant thrower swing with a slightly weaker grip which straightened me out and brought back my distance.
    from that point on i read golf books not to do what they say but to understand the thinking behind their teaching.
    i think at the end of the day if people more understood their body types and natural strengths more people would stick with the game of golf instead of giving it up…

  4. Joe

    December 12, 2012 at 6:07 pm

    After 6 years of playing golf, starting at age 54, and reading Five Fundamentals sometimes a line at a time, I have realized that the 2 main points I have come away with are:
    1) The answer IS “in the dirt”. If you are not willing to practice, expect a static golf game. Most of us are not talented or natural enough to perform well without it.
    2)It IS personal. I have had some wonderful lessons with some great instructors and players. Until I got to the point where I started trusting what I could do and took it from range to course, the lessons didn’t mean much. This is when I realized that “self-taught” was not just for Bubba Watson.(Lessons ARE important!!)
    I am very thankful for Mr. Hogan’s MASSIVE contribution to my game, and it rests primarily in his taking and making the game so personal. He experimented and had loads of failures, but ultimately took a piece of stone and carved away everything that didn’t look like a masterpiece golf swing! I won’t be there if i live to be 100, but pars and birdies are starting to be much more common, and I begin to feel the satisfaction he may have felt not just with a win, but with a perfectly executed shot.

    Dennis – enjoyed this a great deal.

  5. Kirk Clements

    December 12, 2012 at 12:01 pm

    It is easy to pull a quote from here or there and ascribe a resulting shot tendency. But if you study the book and work at the applications of what Hogan said, you should be able to develop a good swing that will allow you to play shots and score well. If you just read once and go out there you get what you deserve. Do the studying and the work and you get what you deserve also, a good swing.
    If that is too hard, I just discovered a pill that will give you a great golf game, and it can be yours for just$5,000.00. Limited time offer!!

    • Dennis Clark

      December 26, 2012 at 6:54 pm

      Study it all you want as-I have for 40 years- and you will come to the same conclusion I have: If I taught the things in the book (as I THOROUGHLY understand them) I would be broke as an instructor. “How to not hook” may have been a better title. The 35,000+ lessons I have given are grateful I decided on this tract. Thx for your comment. DC

  6. Jeremie Walker

    December 6, 2012 at 9:39 am

    Funny you should dissect this book. If you remember, amongst other amateur mistakes, I had embraced some of Hogan’s teachings (which are not universal). Immediately, as my coach, you had discerned that my tendency consisted of a ‘reverse pivot’. And yes, before we were introduced, I had read Hogan’s book thinking it was worth its weight in gold. I still think highly of his accomplishments and influences on the game of golf.

    After revisiting the situation and the evolution of a golf swing, my understanding of the process has grown. The message I feel Hogan really conveyed is the discipline and commitment it takes to find a swing that works for you. He was able to share with his readers the intricacies of his swing in such detail that preceeded its time. But that is why he was and is a legacy now.

  7. Scott Hill

    December 5, 2012 at 2:46 pm

    Great article Dennis, it is a very astute outline of the pitfalls for the “average” golfer in 5 Fundamentals (my all time favorite golf book… closely followed by George Knudson’s Natural Golf Swing).

    Like many I have read both of Hogans book’s countless times… both are wonderful… both also have many positions illustrated that Hogan thought he created that don’t marry up… the arm position at address… the fanning of the clubface in the takeaway… these are feelings Hogan had… as opposed to positions created.

    Hogan by all accounts had an IQ north of 150 and was decades ahead of his contemporaries in his understanding and application of the swing… he figured out the D Plane 60 years before TrackMan came along and changed the ball flight laws!

    For me Hogan stands alone in so many ways… having said that the science of the movement for the swing has evolved for the better since 5 Fundamentals was written… much as one would be disadvantaged by using Hogans clubs in 2012… you are putting yourself at a disadvantage following his book verbatim slicer or not.

  8. Kent

    December 4, 2012 at 3:06 pm

    I agree with Jeff, though I know there is some logic in your analysis. I learned golf young and struggled with a slice/fade most of my life. I had read ‘5Lessons’ when I was young and thought I was doing most everything that Hogan suggested only to find the slice got worse. I developed more of a hitter’s square at impact swing, reduced the slice to a fade.

    Fast forward 25 years, working with a local pro who wanted to help me be more consistent. He has me working on a rotational release and I’m seeing ‘Hogan/5 Lessons’ all over again. But I persevere, stop ‘trying’ to release the club and just turn through. Once I stopped fighting it and just let it happen, not only did I start to hit more consistently than I have ever hit the ball, but I developed a little draw that I can control with my grip strength.

    I think that part of the problem was that when Hogan wrote the book there was little high speed video available, so he was trying to relate how he felt he was swinging, which wasn’t exactly how he swung. If you can find some good video and relate it to what he says it should feel like, I think you can make huge progress over most other methods. But it takes quite a bit of practice to unlearn old habits. I’m still ‘diggin’ it out of the dirt.’

  9. 85renegade

    December 4, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    I am not a certified golf instructor but from all of the people that I see slice the ball, it comes from not allowing the club to do what is designed to do. 95% of the people I see have the club closed at address which means the club is closed throughout the swing. This leads people to manipulate their bodies and swings to combat the closed face which leads to bigger slices. Hogan found the pieces to the puzzle and when done correctly, all five lessons, the club is allowed to do what it was designed to do. From Hogan’s positioning you can move the ball either way based on setup. If you are an instructor and you don’t address what the club is designed to do then you are doing your student a disservice. Most golfers don’t even know how the club is supposed to hit the ball. If I was trying to make a living teaching the game of golf, I would start with basic education and go from there and not worry about teaching somebody five fundamentals before they know what those fundamentals are supposed to accomplish.

  10. Andrew

    December 4, 2012 at 1:10 pm

    Good article Dennis. I remember John Jacobs saying Hogan’s book was great for his teaching business-fixing all those slicers.
    Hogan was also an athlete, with great speed, flexibility and strength. The regular guy simply isn’t physically capable of swinging like Hogan.
    I’d also say it fired the trend that turned golf instruction into the science of swing mechanics, with the idea of a “perfect” swing that could be copied, and I think that’s not been helpful for the general golfing public.
    That wasn’t Hogan’s fault, but definitely a fault with how the book was interpreted.

  11. Jeff

    December 4, 2012 at 11:44 am

    I have read five lessons cover to cover many times and its probably still the best single piece of instruction. The adjustments hogan made in his swing are quite apparent when you read Power Golf then compare it to Five Lessons. The pieces are all there but my opinion is that Jim Hardy’s one plane swing does the best job of adding understanding of hogans details that might have been left out. The golf swing is a mountain of building blocks and it would be a mistake to turn people off of hogans teaching because implementing a piece of hogans teaching makes a slice worse. It may for a time until the next block of knowledge is added..

  12. Nick

    December 4, 2012 at 11:01 am

    I completely agree with this. Hogan has been mythologized (forgood reason) and the swing thoughts he needed to keep in mind to keep his perfect motion going are not necessarly the swing thoughts a high handicapper needs to keep his quite imperfect motion going. Certainly, the Five Fundementals is a must read, it contains the blueprint for the modern swing (leaving aside the post modern stack and tilt and other such debates) but some of his recommendations when applied imperfectly by a high handicapper will make things worse, not better.

  13. Will o'the Glen

    December 3, 2012 at 2:06 pm

    It’s not often that an article on golf instruction makes me laugh out loud, but I sure as hell did when I read this:

    “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.”

    So, since I have basically taught myself everything I (think I) know about the golf swing by reading “Five Lessons”, I guess I can blame Ben Hogan for my slice? ;^)

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