During the 1977 U.S. Open at Southern Hills in Oklahoma,
sportswriter Dave Anderson asked golfer Tommy Bolt to compare the
careers of Jack Nicklaus and Ben Hogan, two golfers who dominated
previous decades of professional golf. Bolt's response was
immediate. "Well," he drawled, "I've seen Nicklaus watch Hogan
practice. I've never seen Hogan watch Nicklaus practice.
Thus is the mystique of golfing legend Ben Hogan. He was the
golfer's golfer, the man who other golfers sought to emulate. To
capture the essence of a great man's life is a difficult task. BEN
HOGAN: An American Life by James Dodson accomplishes that task in
superb fashion. The biography is a homage to a man who overcame
incredible obstacles to become the greatest golfer of his
generation. It captures the essence and spirit of the sphinx-like
man known to many as the Garbo of golf. Like all great biographies
it builds on the life of its subject by allowing the reader to live
in the Hogan era; to experience his accomplishments and share the
disappointments of his life.
Those with even the slightest knowledge of golf history are
familiar with the defining event in the life of Ben Hogan. In 1949,
after having achieved stardom on the professional golf circuit,
Hogan was nearly killed in a head-on collision with a Greyhound bus
on a foggy two-lane Texas highway. Doctors feared for Hogan's life
and doubted that he would ever walk again if he survived. Hogan not
only recovered, but in 1950 he won the U.S. Open at Merion, a
grueling physical feat that required Hogan to walk and play 36
holes of golf on the final Saturday of the tournament. Hogan's
triumphant comeback was a story that Hollywood producers would
reject as one that audiences would never believe.
Hogan's physical recovery in 1950 was not the first time that he
overcame travail to achieve success in the golfing world. Dobson
recounts several events that affected the bantam Texas golfer as he
sought to achieve his goal of professional achievement and
acceptance. As a young boy Hogan suffered a dark and terrifying
event when his father committed suicide before his eyes. In today's
Oprah confession society, Hogan would probably share such an
event with a national audience. But in the post-depression era
Hogan stoically kept the details of the incident to himself. Even
his wife Valerie was unaware of the true facts concerning the death
of Hogan's father until they had been married for many years.
Hogan was also required to overcome professional doubt as he
attempted to succeed on the fledgling professional golf tour. It
was not until his third attempt that he began to win with any
regularity. Even though he won many tournaments, the goal of a
victory in a major championship still eluded him. Three times he
came to the final hole of a major event needing only to make a
birdie putt for victory. Each time, he three-putted the final green
to snatch defeat from potential victory. Through it all, the grim
but dogged Hogan silently plodded onward, determined to become the
greatest golfer in America. That he finally reached his goal was a
tribute to his unremitting work ethic and self-reliance.
Any great biography is more than a story of one person's life. It
must also be the story of those who touched the subject's life and
the times in which the subject lived. BEN HOGAN: An American Life
has all of these elements, and more. It is the story of Hogan and
his wife Valerie, a woman as determined as her husband and perhaps
equally as shy. She would travel with her husband to each
tournament but could not bear to watch him on the course. She was
with him in his car on the day of the accident, and his movement to
shield her from the collision probably saved his life. She was his
life partner who shared in his success.
James Dodson has also captured the essence of the early era of
professional golf. The legends of golf in the 1930s and '40s all
appear. Sam Snead and Byron Nelson who, in the public's eye, were
everything Hogan was not, are an integral part of the story.
Hogan's major championship victories, from the Masters to the
British Open at Carnoustie, are recounted in detail. The reader is
with Hogan for every critical shot and, like bantam Ben, probably
reaches for a cigarette at a tense moment.
There is so much more of the life of Ben Hogan to experience in
this extraordinary biography. Hogan was a unique and enigmatic man.
Dodson has captured the true Hogan in this epic work. BEN HOGAN: An
American Life is a book that golfers and non-golfers can savor. It
is a must addition to any golfer's library and an inspirational
saga of an American icon.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on December 22, 2010