As a long-time observer curious about the mysterious art and science of the golf swing, I’ve realized that the deepest pleasure is in watching a player control the ball. It used to be easier to discern the truly great practitioners when players carried one-irons, when the golf ball curved more, and when clubfaces were small and woods were, well, woods.
Anyway, I’m thinking about this just now while watching the first round of the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic, which is being played on two courses at the Walt Disney Resort in Florida. There’s nothing wrong with the courses, but they’re not likely to force players to show what they can really do. With that in mind, and old issues of the wonderful British magazine Golf Monthly at my side, I’ve been asking myself, well, who in the history of the game really is the true master of ball control?
I’ve gone through the usual cast of contenders. It usually comes down to Bobby Jones, Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Nick Faldo, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods. I’m considering only male golfers here, and so am excluding Joyce Wethered and Mickey Wright. Each knew where the ball was doing, that’s for sure.
I’ll skip the arguments for each of the golfers I’ve mentioned, and cut straight to my choice. That’s Hogan. I believe he made the fewest mistakes. I’d argue that Hogan controlled the flight of the ball better than anybody who has played the game. He won nine majors while doing so. Hogan won the Masters and the U.S. Open 50 years ago this year; that was only two years after he was nearly killed when his car was hit by a bus in thick fog on a two-lane highway in West Texas. It was amazing that he walked again, let alone played golf, let alone played tournaments, let alone won majors.
Hogan won that 1951 U.S. Open at the Oakland Hills Country Club in Birmingham, Mich. Robert Trent Jones Sr. had updated the course and turned it into what everybody called the “Monster.” Hogan shot descending scores of 76-73-71-67 to win. He finished par-par-birdie, each closing full shot a surgical strike. The legendary West Virginia amateur Bill Campbell—he won the 1964 U.S. Amateur and even the 1967 Ontario Amateur--played the Open, and watched Hogan finish.
Jim Dodson spoke with Campbell for his magisterial biography of Hogan, called, simply, Ben Hogan: An American Life.
“The way he played those closing three holes illustrates something wonderful about Hogan,” Campbell said, “namely, that he could almost always hit exactly the shot that was needed at that moment. Great champions can all do that, of course, but I never saw anyone better at that than Ben.”
To further make my point, here’s what five-time Open Championship winner Peter Thomson told writer Donald Steel for a story in the December 1969 issue of Golf Monthly.
“I don’t think anybody before or since—certainly not since—has reached the accuracy Hogan did. It is a simple way of rating a fellow’s performance to count the number of bad shots he hits. Well, in a game like cricket, every bad shot you hit, you are liable to be out, whereas it is possible to play golf, and in fact win, by hitting an awful lot of bad shots if somehow you make up for them with spectacular recoveries or fantastic putting. But Hogan would play a whole tournament, sometimes for four days, without a single bad shot. For this reason, I would say that there couldn’t possibly have been a greater player in the history of golf.”
Thomson said this 42 years ago, and he called Hogan the greatest player in the game’s history to then. Nicklaus or Woods or both of them might be greater, given their records. But I’m not writing about records. I’m looking at the ability to control the flight of the golf ball shot after shot after shout. I’m looking at precision.
Nobody has been more precise than Hogan. Nobody.
ALSO FROM LORNE RUBENSTEIN:
Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada’s Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and, most recently, he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 11 books, including The Natural Golf Swing, with George Knudson (1988); Links: An Insider’s Tour Through the World of Golf (1990); The Swing, with Nick Price (1997); The Fundamentals of Hogan, with David Leadbetter (2000); A Season in Dornoch: Golf and Life in the Scottish Highlands (2001); Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); and his latest, This Round’s on Me (2009). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein