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Hole 1: The day I met Ben Hogan

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This story was selected as one of the 15 best GolfWRX stories of 2015!

It was 1986, and The Ben Hogan Company needed a new engineer. I was a R&D engineer at the time, and working in Wisconsin for the Kohler plumbing products company. It was a great job and company, but I was already golf crazy at that time and I had some good reasons to move to Texas. My very young son Jake lived in Dallas with his mother — plus they play golf year round in Texas.

This was before Herb Kohler built the incredible courses at Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits. Years later I told him that I was glad he had not built these tracks earlier, as that would have made leaving the beautiful, deer-filled Wisconsin even harder.

Getting near my boy was the real reason I wanted to get to Texas, but the golf was a sweet attraction, too. With a perfect touch and timing, the Good Lord prompted the Hogan Company to advertise for a new product development engineer. On just the right day, I was changing flights at DFW and bought a copy of the Fort Worth paper. In the want ads I saw something like, ”Ben Hogan will pay you cash money to engineer and work on golf clubs.” So I applied.

My product development experience at Kohler got me the interview, but the Good Lord got me the job. It was truly a real miracle, because in 1986 I knew zero about club design and manufacturing. I was quickly made the boss of the model shop, and was to manage the master club maker Gene Sheeley and his incredible team of long-time club artisans.

Me as their boss? That was a joke.

I knew a few things about physics at that time, but these guys were the real deal in club design. I knew immediately that I was in over my head, so I went to Gene and professed my ignorance. I pleaded with him to teach me how to do the job right. At that, I guess he considered me harmless and over the next number of years he became my Yoda. His voice was even a bit like Yoda.

Gene was a patriot and the very best example of pure golf craftsmanship. He fought in World War II and Korea, and had a shoulder and arm full of bullet scars from a Chinese machine gun to prove it. He later told me he should have died many times in the wars. The only jobs he ever had in life were fighting for America and crafting clubs for Kenneth Smith and Ben Hogan. Early in the days of his company, Mr. Hogan had hired Gene away from Smith.

Gene later helped me blend my engineer stuff with the true old ways of the club. He also (a bit later) opened a very rare door for me with Mr. Hogan. It was a special few years for me as I learned from the two of them and I took my place inside Gene’s very guarded and close circle.

I never met the man Ben Hogan during my interview period or my first few weeks with the company. About one month after I reported for work, I was invited to play with a member at Shady Oaks. I was thrilled to play at the famous home of Hogan. After the round (and a few quick-moving 19th hole beverages), I headed for the men’s locker room and facilities. While I was standing in front of a single use Kohler product, engaged in my own private personal plumbing business, I noticed a figure pulling up to a nearby fixture. When I realized who it was I nervously looked over my shoulder, but I should have waited until I had completed the task in hand.

The turn to gawk re-directed the stream of my spent beverages. He was ignoring me, thankfully, and didn’t see the errant hosing I gave the wall and the floor. I’m especially relieved (pun intended) that he did not notice the back splash evidence on the leg of my khaki pants. I secretly apologized to the Shady Oaks janitor that would have to clean it up the next morning, cinched up and hurried to the sink to wash. I wanted that man to see me washing my hands, vigorously. I wanted him to have no doubt that my soon-to-be-outstretched hand was clean.

After the wash, I almost reached out to him there at the sink, but then remembered my southern daddy’s advice: “Never introduced yourself to a stranger in the men’s room.” So I went outside the plumbing area and set up for an introduction ambush. At this point of my life no one had ever coached me as to the safest way to approach or interact with this very special man. I stupidly thought he would actually be excited to know he had a new employee and engineer working for his company. That assumption would soon be proven wrong. So I went out to the locker room like a well-positioned ambush hunter and waited for him. After a long couple of minutes that seemed like hours, Mr. Ben Hogan walked out.

Because I didn’t know better, I stood directly in his path to the locker room. There was no way for him to walk around me. I knew this was the golf giant of the world, but I was surprised to see that he was only about my height. Any comfort that gave me soon evaporated. As he got closer I noticed his eyes. Wow, they were so brightly blue! His eyes reminded me of a brilliant blue-eyed Australian cow dog I once loved. These eyes, however, were not happy. A really intense glare started to come over his face. Was he mad I was in his path? Today I’m sure of that, but with the ignorance and bravo of youth I foolishly squared up and stuck out my right hand.

[quote_box_center]“Mr. Hogan my name is Tom Stites,” I said. “I just went to work as a new engineer for your company. I am very proud, honored and excited to be working for you.” [/quote_box_center]

Hogan stopped dead still and stared at me. It was a melting stare. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since. At the focal point of that gaze, I started to quickly lose my ambush objective. I suddenly wished I was somewhere else. Part of me said I should use my military trained “about face” footwork and run. I had already put myself in the head lights, however, and like a doomed deer that would soon be introduced to a speeding car’s bumper I completely froze. I continued to hold out my empty (and now nervous) hand.

After what seemed an eternity, and just before I was almost able to bolt, Mr. Ben Hogan reached up with his right hand and grabbed mine. He gripped it hard. I grew up with real rodeo cowboys so I can say this: Hogan had one of those right hands like a bull rider — nothing but muscle — and a hand strength that was completely out of proportion to the rest of his body. It was one of those “I win” handshake grips.

Still no words yet, just more stare and grip. He didn’t even give it a single pump up or down. A few more seconds…just grip…more stare.

I was losing this encounter and would soon be unhinged. Finally, with his left hand he reached up to cover and grab both or our right hands. When he had added this to achieve complete two-handed control of the connection between us, he gave me a firm body jerk toward him. This was not a normal hand shake. I had to shuffle and find my footing. If he didn’t have my complete attention before, he did now. After I had recovered what was left of my balance, he gruffly uttered the words I will remember to my dying day:

“Well, sonny… don’t you SCREW anything up.”

Actually he used another word for “screw,” but I clearly understood what he meant. “Don’t worry Mr. Hogan, sir. I won’t.” That was all I could say, and it was barely audible. I did my 180-degree about face and got out of there. It would be months before I would be near him again, but his specific verbal directive was with me for the rest of my days at The Ben Hogan Company.

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Tom Stites has spent more than 30 years working in the golf industry. In that time, he has been awarded more than 200 golf-related patents, and has designed and engineered more than 300 golf products that have been sold worldwide. As part of his job, he had the opportunity to work with hundreds of touring professionals and developed clubs that have been used to win all four of golf's major championships (several times), as well as 200+ PGA Tour events. Stites got his golf industry start at the Ben Hogan Company in 1986, where Ben Hogan and his personal master club builder Gene Sheeley trained the young engineer in club design. Tom went on to start his own golf club equipment engineering company in 1993 in Fort Worth, Texas, which he sold to Nike Inc. in 2000. The facility grew and became known as "The Oven," and Stites led the design and engineering teams there for 12 years as the Director of Product Development. Stites, 59, is a proud veteran of the United States Air Force. He is now semi-retired, but continues his work as an innovation, business, engineering and design consultant. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Ben Hogan Foundation, a 501C foundation that works to preserve the legacy and memory of the late, great Ben Hogan.

22 Comments

22 Comments

  1. bob

    Jul 31, 2015 at 1:12 am

    we judge people today on how they act in front of a camera. outgoing, friendly-good people. surly, not talkative-a jerk. mr. Hogan was simply a man that had no outgoing personality, he really didn’t care what you thought about him. he was who he was. some people just cannot open up to the public. generally they are deeper thinkers than normal people. lee Trevino was great when they turned the camera on, but when it went off, all that disappeared. I think mr. Hogan had a “engineers mind” that never allowed him to see things that a “normal person” saw. he was different-so we criticize him.

  2. Perry

    Jun 16, 2015 at 9:24 am

    This is awesome. How does anyone rate this a shank?

  3. JHM

    Jun 13, 2015 at 11:08 pm

    Great read – looking forward to more

  4. Matty D

    Jun 12, 2015 at 8:16 am

    Hey Tom Stites

    Will there be a season 2 by chance?

    “Tiger and Nike”

    Nice Drive down the middle on 1.
    Great Read looking forward to the next 17 holes!

  5. RG

    Jun 11, 2015 at 7:20 am

    Hogan was famously rude. When Arnold Palmer first went on tour, Hogan would insult him and say he had no business playing professionally with a swing like his. Hogan would never call Palmer by his name, always called him “fella.” Great golfer, rude man.

  6. Johnny

    Jun 10, 2015 at 9:55 am

    Tom,

    Would love to hear your thoughts about the book that Kris Tschetter wrote, Mr. Hogan, The Man I Knew.

  7. Jeez Utz

    Jun 9, 2015 at 3:46 pm

    Too bad Deke couldn’t teach Ben that it costs nothing to be nice.

  8. Ricky Redline

    Jun 9, 2015 at 10:31 am

    So which is it? Gene Sheeley or Gene Sully?

  9. Joe

    Jun 9, 2015 at 9:30 am

    Not impressed by Hogan. No story ice ever heard makes me give two cents about the guy. Nor his lack of understanding of his own swing…

  10. other paul

    Jun 9, 2015 at 8:17 am

    I feel much less silly now about my own meeting of a great local celebrity and hockey player now. I just fell over my tongue and sounded stupid.

  11. Monte Scheinblumh

    Jun 9, 2015 at 12:32 am

    Reminded me of the time i met Jack Nicklaus. All he said was “Monte, just lick my sack”

    Just sat back and laughed

  12. Sean

    Jun 8, 2015 at 9:14 pm

    Thanks for sharing that story…and being so honest about it too. 🙂

  13. Christosterone

    Jun 8, 2015 at 9:04 pm

    Great story….I am mixed on my thoughts regarding Mr. Hogan.
    2 stories come to mind every time someone mentions his name(and I wish these thoughts did not as I would love to love him)
    Anyhow, the first is when an amateur Johnny Miller approached him at a U.S. Open during lunch to introduce himself to his hero and tell Mr. Hogan he was the low amateur…Mr. Hogan’s response was terse(to put it kindly)
    Johnny was a kid seeking to meet his idol and Mr. Hogan was a fellow competitor and his behavior was unnecessary.
    The second is the litany of behaviors he exhibited towards Arnold Palmer. I won’t go into details but Mr. Palmer has alluded to these “incidents” numerous times with Arnie’s patented kindness….in short, Arnold is a better man than most considering his treatment.

    • Jack

      Jun 11, 2015 at 9:44 pm

      Why do you keep calling him “Mr. Palmer?”

      • RG

        Jun 12, 2015 at 8:02 am

        Why wouldn’t you call him “Mr. Palmer?”

      • Christosterone

        Jun 12, 2015 at 12:10 pm

        I called him Arnie and Arnold as well.
        “Mister” is typically used as a courtesy in America for addressing elders.
        If someone is your elder by a decade or more(general rule of thumb) it is a show of respect…
        As a contemporary of Johnny Miller, I am less instinctually predisposed to use “mister” in reference to him…

  14. Nevin

    Jun 8, 2015 at 9:04 pm

    Excellent story.

  15. Philip

    Jun 8, 2015 at 6:18 pm

    Just a priceless story and experience.

  16. JBH

    Jun 8, 2015 at 3:19 pm

    Great story Tom, what a fantastic experience!

    • MHendon

      Jun 8, 2015 at 4:37 pm

      +1 You took the words right out of my mouth.

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