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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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Opinion & Analysis

The Wedge Guy: Power vs. accuracy

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It is an argument that may never be resolved, but I thought I would toss this out for cogitation today. That is, which is the quicker path to lower scores – adding distance or improving your accuracy through the bag?

Every week, we see the PGA Tour dominated by outlandish distances off the tee and towering iron shots from distances most of us “mere mortals” cannot even closely fathom. Golf course architects have become all but powerless to hold back the modern tour professional, short of building 8,000-yard golf courses. About the only “defense” the game has against these modern athletes is when Mother Nature decides to grace a tour event with 15-25 mph winds. Wind is a great equalizer to the power game that dominates today.

But what does that have to do with the rest of us?

Based on various research into the golfer population of the United States, it is likely that your driving distance is a lot closer to 200 yards than 300 and that a 150-yard approach is calling for at least a 6- or 7-iron — not a pitching wedge like you see the pros hit.

So, which do you think would lower your scores more – learning to hit more fairways and greens or adding 5-10 yard to your drives and iron shots? Here’s a little exercise I devised years ago to help you accurately and realistically come up with the right answer.

It requires you to devote 2-3 rounds of golf to really learning what would help you the most, so you might have to take a break from a regular competitive game you play every week, but I’ll guarantee you that this little “game” will reveal that answer very clearly. Here’s how it goes.

For round #1, hit your drive and go find it. Then, pick up the ball and walk it another 10 yards (likely the maximum distance gain you’ll get from a new driver). But don’t walk it toward the green unless it finds the fairway . . . to be fair and accurate, you have to continue on the line it was taking from the tee. If it was headed OB and stopped 3 yards short . . . you just hit it OB with that “possible new driver”. Do this on every driving hole and see how your scores turn out.

For round #2, hit your drive and again go find it. Then, pick up your ball and “improve your lie”, either to the nearest edge of the fairway or to the preferred spot in the fairway if you didn’t hit it there. But here’s the kicker . . . any drive you move to its new preferred spot, also walk it back ten yards. Again, play it out and see what happens to your scores when you gave up a few yards for better accuracy.

If those two rounds of golf don’t accurately show you which is more influential on better scores, I’ve got another one for you.

For round #3, play your drives and iron shots just like you always do, but for every green you miss, do the following. If you didn’t hit your chip or pitch shot within 10 feet of the hole, play your ball out, but also drop another ball somewhere in the 5-10 foot range (vary it up) and see if you make the putt. Keep track of the difference of the scores you shoot with your “gamer ball,” and the score you would have made with the “one-chip mulligans.”

I’ve always approached golf as a game of continual learning, but that certainly isn’t limited to learning more about your swing or the courses you play. It’s also about learning where your own game really needs the most work and improvement, and just what that improvement can do for your weekly scores.

I hope many of you will dive into this learning exercise with gusto and share your experiences with all of us in the coming weeks.

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2022 Shriners Childrens Open Preview: Back Rickie to finally win again

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With a roll call of winners that includes Bryson DeChambeau and Kevin Na, TPC Summerlin offers players of all skill sets the chance to compete, but no matter how long off the tee, find the fairways in order to have the chance to record a score similar to that seen over the last four years – over 20-under.

Joohyung Kim – Win

Rickie Fowler – Win and Top-5

Hayden Buckley – Top-10 and Top-20

Full respect to the top of the market, but look slightly further down to Joohyung Kim, who may be priced closer to the likes of Patrick Cantlay and Sungjae Im at this time next year.

‘Tom’, as he is fondly known, has had a meteoric rise since turning pro at 15 years of age, but the short five years has seen him win at every level from Asian Development to the PGA Tour.

Even ignoring the impressive early years that includes a sixth place finish on debut at the Thai Country Club, a course that two-time Shriners winner, Kevin Na, won at some 17 years earlier, and the South Korean still retains an incredibly progressive profile.

Early days on the PGA Tour saw the then 18-year-old miss the cut at Harding Park, though he was top-50 after the first round; finish 67th at the Safeway (11th after round one) and 33rd at the Corales, before again dominating the Korean Tour in 2021.

Returning to the PGA Tour in 2022, an early top-20 at the Byron Nelson and 23rd at the U.S Open at Brookline was enough to confirm promise, although he surpassed all with a 3rd at the Scottish Open, in front of Patrick Cantlay, winner and two-time runner-up around Summerlin, and Cameron Tringale, top-five at the Rocket Mortgage Classic, an event that strongly links Tony Finau, and therefore Matt Wolff, Sungjae Im and Kevin Na, a two-time winner of the Shriners.

Everywhere you look, Kim’s best three efforts of the year have connections with previous winners or challengers at this week’s course.

Seventh place at the Detroit Golf Club sees form lines with Cantlay, Bryson DeChambeau and Wolff, whilst his impressive five-shot victory at the Wyndham Championship sees him go after the same double that Webb Simpson achieved when beating Na!

The figures work well throughout, ranking an average of 10 for approaches and around 20th for tee-to-green across his last five starts on the tour, whilst his top-class accuracy off the tee – an average of better than 5th since Brookline –  will continually give him chances to attack the right side of the pins.

Of course, Kim went on to be one of the stars of the Presidents Cup last month, being one half of a winning duo that beat world number one Scottie Scheffler and Sam Burns in the foursomes, and Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele in the later four-balls.

A self-confessed joker, he relaxes at all the toughest moments and yet is still focussed enough to record final rounds of 63 and 61, as he did at Detroit and Sedgefield.

He’s on his way to the top.

 

I wanted to be with Dean Burmester, playing very well across the Korn Ferry and now PGA Tour, but I’m uncertain this will be his track, so row along with another 33-year-old, this time one that might do a ‘Martin Laird’ and resurrect his career.

Rather like Kim, Rickie Fowler was linked with a move to LIV, but whilst admitting the PGA Tour had its faults, it was still the best place to play golf.

And he has backed that up with what looks like a new desire. Having jacked his former caddy and recruited Rickie Romano, it looks as if he will reunite with former coach Butch Harmon, with whom he had great success. The changes look as if they have struck gold almost immediately.

Having not had a top-10 finish since the C.J Cup almost a year ago, Fowler bounced back to form at Silverado last week, when his sixth place finish saw him improve in almost all aspects. Indeed, his overall strokes gained of +8.8 were the best set of figures since the Wells Fargo in 2019, and came courtesy of positive aspects in driver, irons and putting, the latter something he is concentrating on above the other factors.

Form figures here need a touch of editing. The last two missed cuts are during a long, barren and depressing period for the man in orange, but previous course figures of 4/25/22/7 sit well with the most recent record of contenders.

Back happy with his game, with a team he is comfortable with, and with back form at the Memorial and Honda events, expect better still.

With course form repeating year on year, take a chance with Hayden Buckley at a big price for both a place and a top-20 finish.

A winner on the Canadian Mackenzie Tour and on the KFT (beating the highly rated and strongly fancied Taylor Montgomery), the 26-year-old hasn’t quite hit the heights expected, even if we are all too quick to expect players to be winning within months of arriving on tour. That is harsh given in 32 PGA stars, the former Missouri athlete has six top-20 finishes that include three top-10s.

Best of Buckley’s starts in a handful of top level starts last year were a fourth place in his home town at the Sanderson Farms, followed immediately by a top-10 here, and therefore last weekend’s top-20 in Mississippi may be the catalyst for a similar effort this week.

Long off the tee, Buckley should again give himself plenty of chances to score and, importantly, confidence with the putter will be high after finding almost six shots on the greens last week, a similar figure to that at the Rocket Mortgage and Detroit.

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Opinion & Analysis

2022 Open de Espana: Betting Picks & Selections

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Golf may be in a strange place at the moment, but at least the DP World Tour is serving up quality courses, if not always the best of fields.

It seems as if we have had quality courses on show for a few weeks now, and with Valderrama, Dom Pedro, Gary Player CC and Jumeirah still to come, the tail end of the season does not let up.

This week, the Club de Campo hosts the Spanish Open for the third year in succession, and whilst a gifted short game will never go amiss in mainland Europe, the course is more forgiving than previous locations, allowing the likes of Julien Guerrier, Wil Besseling, Alex Levy and Bernd Wiesberger the chance to win despite the frailties in other departments.

Hennie du Plessis Win/Top-10

Lucas Bjerregaard Win/Top-10/Top-20

Hot favourite Jon Rahm could lap this field as he did when winning by five shots in 2019, and whilst he was nowhere near right and had several excuses last year, it serves as an example to those wanting to smash their way in to the 9/4 chance, a price shorter than many of the prices offered about Tiger Woods in his prime.

Whilst it’s tough to see Rahm out of the frame, there are cases against Adri Araus and Eddie Pepperell for win purposes, so look further down the list for a couple of players that should suit the course, even if current form doesn’t scream out.

South Africa has seen a couple of winners here in the shape of former Masters champion Charl Schwartzel and Thomas Aiken, and I’ll take a chance that fellow Springbok Hennie du Plessis can join them.

 

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A post shared by Hendrik Du Plessis (@hennieduplessis)

Although the winner of just two events in a career close to 150 starts, the 25-year-old has shown enough in five starts in Spain to think Club de Campo will light him up again.

At the beginning of the season, du Plessis led the MyGolf Life Open for three rounds before finishing runner-up at Pecanwood, behind Pablo Larrazabal and Adri Arnaus.

Having then finished runner-up at the Limpopo Championship for the second time, has finished third to Larrazabal at the ISPS Handa at infinitum Golf Course and sixth in Girona behind Arnaus again – cracking form if the latter’s second and fourth in two attempts around here ae any guide.

He then flirted with the LIV tour, and banking almost $3 million when running up at LIV London, would not have been too depressed when he was dumped by Greg Norman et al, even if it seems as though the move took something out of him.

Despite a top-20 at Crans, recent form leaves a bit to be desired, but he should be buoyed by returning to Spain, where he can add finishes of fifth,18th and 39th to the results listed above.

Very long off the tee, there is a chance he performs similarly to the players listed higher up the page, those that also took advantage of length.

Lucas Bjerregaard is tough to read, but is another that comes to a track that should suit his length and par-five skills, as it did when 12th last season.

As a winner of the Alfred Dunhill Links and Portugal Masters, the Dane’s modus operandi should be fairly clear, and with last year’s leaderboard showing correlation with much of the courses in the Middle East, I expect the 31-year-old to thrive this week.

Lucas turns up when least expected, as he did when coming off a series of missed cuts and poor finishes to finish third at Celtic Manor in August, whilst he also did the same when needing to do well to keep his card, recording his best finish of 2021 in Portugal, and when just outside the top-10 here last year, again off a series of poor results.

When he is ‘with’ us, the Dane has a game full of strong tee-to-green product, using his length off the tee and strong iron play, but it is also the way he repeats form at certain tracks that just pushes him into being a play.

First, second, ninth and 12th at the Dom Pedro, and second and ninth at Crans, both courses can be tricky but are susceptible to those with experience in the wind and with power on their side – again, find the short stuff leaving wedges to the greens.

Whilst he may have his supposed safety net of Portugal in a few weeks’ time, Lucas needs a good finish to get him much closer to the top 117 in the rankings. Why not start at a course at which he found over seven shots in overall strokes gained just 12 months ago?

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