We visit the Ben Hogan Museum in his hometown of Dublin, Texas. The little town is proud of their son and celebrates him with a great museum.
Madeline and I have deep connections to Dublin. All our parents and many relatives are buried in the local cemetery. Besides visiting Dublin for funeral, we always went to the Dr. Pepper bottling plant. It was the only plant in Texas that still made Dr. Pepper with cane sugar instead of artificial sweeteners. The bottling plant had a great museum with all sorts of history relating to Dr. Pepper.
I didn’t know Dublin had a historical museum, which we’ve recently visited. I also did not know that Dublin is the hometown of the famous golfer, Ben Hogan. Madeline was doing research for a family history project and found the local historical society and the Ben Hogan Museum.
Madeline called Karen Wright, the marvelous docent for the Ben Hogan Museum. Karen said that she’d make herself available and also make sure the Dublin Historical Museum was open for us. She met us at the local coffee shop and took great care of us.
As a golfer myself, I knew many of famous golfers like Arnold Palmer, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Jack Nicklaus and Ben Hogan. When I was younger, I used to watch golf on a black and white TV and would watch these legends play the major events on the weekends.
William Ben Hogan is considered one of the greatest players in the history of the game. He had an unfortunately short career, but he won nine major championships. To put it perspective, only Jack Nicklaus (19), Tiger Woods (15) and Walter Hagen (11) had more major championships. Gary Player is tied with Mr. Hogan with nine major victories.
The other thing Ben is remembered for is his substantial influence on golf swing theory and his ball-striking ability. He wrote articles in Sports Illustrated that were later incorporated into a single book. If you are a golfer and want to improve your score, you should read Hogan’s book: Ben Hogan’s Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf.
Karen Wright proved to be a Hogan expert and taught us a lot about the master. Here is some history along with some anecdotes you may not know.
Ben was born on August 13, 1912, to Chester and Clara Hogan of Dublin. Ben’s father was a blacksmith but his business prospects were negatively affected as automobiles replaced horses as basic transportation. Chester Hogan did not adapt well, and the family suffered. In 1920, Clara Hogan moved to Fort Worth with Ben, his sister, Princess, and brother, Royal. Times were hard, and Clara worked as a seamstress to make ends meet. In 1922, Ben’s father went to Fort Worth on Valentine’s Day to try to bring Clara and the children back to Dublin. Clara had no intentions of returning to Dublin with Chester. When Chester realized that Clara was never coming back, he committed suicide in the family home. Ben was only nine years old.
In 1924, Ben began to earn money to help support his family. At the age of 11, he took a job as a caddy at the Glen Garden Country Club. Ben was a natural left-hander and tried hitting some golf balls on the driving range. The other caddies made fun of him for being a wrong-way golfer. Ben would try to caddy two rounds on the weekends. When he had enough money, he purchased one used club for a dollar. Over time, he had enough clubs for his set.
When he was 13, Ben met Byron Nelson, who would become another legendary golfer from Texas. While both were in their early teens, neither showed much promise. Byron and Ben were thin and always hungry. They both practiced as much as they could when their caddying jobs were over for the day.
They competed against each other in the local Glen Garden Caddy Championship. Byron won the first matchup only after they were tied after nine holes. They played another nine holes and Byron won by one stroke. They both received a new golf club. Mr. Nelson remembers that they traded golf clubs because they both already had the club they had won.
With his victory, Byron was able to work in the pro shop and get extra free playing time. Ben continued to be a caddy. Ben turned professional early in 1930, when he was 17. Nelson followed him late in 1932, when he was 20. Nelson was the first to make money in golf. He had a few top-three finishes and won some money. He won his first tournament in 1935 and another in 1936. Nelson won The Masters in 1937.
For Ben, the years 1930 to 1938 proved a rough path to success. The Depression had a negative effect on golf purses. Many tournaments were canceled because money was tight. Ben married Valerie Fox in 1935. She encouraged him to keep at it. Together they saved enough money to purchase a used car. In 1937, they drove to all the tour stops and he finished in the top 10 in five of the events. He finally was turning the corner financially.
During Hogan's prime years of 1938 through 1959, he won 63 professional golf tournaments despite the interruption of his career by World War II. Ben’s life changed tragically as he and Valerie were driving home to Fort Worth after a Monday playoff loss at the 1949 Phoenix Open. Hogan and Valerie survived a head-on collision with a Greyhound bus. Before impact, Hogan threw himself across Valerie in order to protect her. There were no air bags or seat belts in those days. He would have been killed had he not done so, because the steering column punctured the driver's seat of their new Cadillac.
Hogan had so many injuries, his doctors said he might never walk again, let alone play golf. His blood circulation was a critical problem. The doctors who treated Hogan in El Paso put him in a large plaster cast to immobilize his hips and legs. Unfortunately, this allowed potentially deadly blot clots. Hogan decided to visit a doctor in New Orleans who was considered the best in the country to tackle these problems. But a hurricane hit New Orleans, and Ben could not take a commercial flight. Dr. Alton Ochsner eventually was flown out to see Ben in an Army B-29, courtesy of a general that the Hogans knew. Dr. Ochsner saved Mr. Hogan’s life with surgery, but the prospects of a golf career were dim.
Hogan’s rehabilitation took more than 10 months. In January 1950, he started playing professionally again at Riviera Country Club. He and Sam Snead were tied after 72 holes. Snead won in an 18-hole playoff. But Ben was back! Before his accident, he had won the U.S. Open in 1948 and the PGA Championship in 1946 and 1948. Between 1950 and 1953, he won six more majors including the Masters Tournament twice, the U.S. Open three times and the British Open.
What is even more remarkable is that he had severe pain and circulatory problems in his legs. The rest of his life he wrapped his legs in elastic bandages every day and soaked them in hot water and Epsom salt after every round. His putting deteriorated after the accident. In addition to hip, leg and shoulder injuries, one eye was also damaged. Many Hogan followers believed he had a problem with depth perception later in life. He would stand over the ball for a long time before putting. Commentators suggested that he had the yips, which mean he was choking under pressure. Hogan was not any more nervous than usual; he was trying to focus both eyes on the path of the ball.
People regularly think of the Big Three in golf as Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. They were terrific golfers and brought plenty of people to tournaments or to their TV sets to watch golf. But before the Big Three rose to prominence, Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead were three of the most prolific winners in the game’s history. They combined to win 198 tour titles. That's 39 more than the Big Three. Ben’s career was obviously impacted by his tragic accident. Who knows how many titles he would have won if he wasn’t seriously injured in that car crash?
In 1953, Ben Hogan won the Masters, the U.S. Open, and the British Open Championship, which was touted as the Triple Crown. The dates of the PGA Championship overlapped with the British Open that year, which made competing for the Grand Slam impossible. The PGA Championship was also a match play event during that era. After winning the British Open (the third major of the year), Hogan was honored with a ticker tape parade in New York.
Only five golfers have won all four of golf's modern majors during their careers, an achievement often referred to as a Career Grand Slam: Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. Woods and Nicklaus have won each of the four majors at least three times. Hogan won the U.S. Open four times.
The museum has pictures of Hogan’s Career Grand Slam along with a very nice picture of him with his nickname: “The Hawk.” He earned the nickname because of the way he studied a course in such detail. Hogan’s course study is now called “course management,” and Palmer and Nicklaus used the same techniques. “No one ever played the game like Mr. Hogan, and no human has ever come as close to controlling the golf ball as perfectly as he did,” said two-time Masters champion, Ben Crenshaw.
During Ben’s playing days and after his retirement from professional golf, he was always tinkering with his clubs. He was recruited by MacGregor Golf, which was one of the most prestigious brands in golf at the time. MacGregor began operations in 1897. Ben knew that a golf club’s loft and lie angles were very important and should be matched to the individual golfer. Ben was only five foot nine inches tall, whereas Byron Nelson was six foot one inch. Today, a fitted club is considered normal. In Hogan’s era, golfers simply bought whatever clubs were available. Hogan knew better and was determined to have his clubs the way he wanted.
Most golfers understand loft. Every club in your bag has a different loft angle. The loft of a golf club is the angle created between the clubface and the ground. The loft has a material impact on the distance the ball travels; the lower the loft, the farther the ball will go. A high lofted club, like a pitching wedge, is designed to travel high but not necessarily that far.
Most golfers are not aware of the lie angle which is the angle created between the shaft and the ground. For an iron, the grooves should be parallel to the ground when the club is at rest.
If the sole of the golf club at impact is hitting the turf more toward the toe of the club, the lie angle is too flat. If the impact is more toward the heel, then the lie angle is too upright.
Mr. Hogan instinctively knew this and designed his own loft and lie machine. It was a rotation turret table pitched at an angle with some extra engineering measurement features welded on. With this fixture, he could fix or press the face of the club to a plate and turn the turret handle until the butt of the club pointed at a target lie measurement scale (in the shape of a sweep radius). After the club was aimed correctly, he could read the lie angle of the club on the scale radius. At the same time, the loft angle could be read on the turret gauge. Mr. Hogan had no background in math or physics, but he knew what he wanted to accomplish.
He used the machine in the Ben Hogan Company for all the clubs he produced. That would include his personal clubs and those he made for other pros and customers. Ben’s eye was terrific, and he could eyeball clubs and determine loft and lie but the machine was his baby.
All of the Ben Hogan Company clubs went through this machine. It was donated to the Ben Hogan Museum by Mr. Hogan’s longtime engineer, Tom Stites, and you can see it for yourself.
The museum displays lots of pictures of Mr. Hogan at the U.S. Open, the Masters, the British Open and the PGA Championship. They also have quite a few of his original clubs. One club in particular is a five iron. It’s in a locked case.
I asked Karen Wright why it was significant. When Tom Stites left the Hogan Company to join Nike, he took many of the clubs he and Mr. Hogan had designed together. When Tiger Woods came to Fort Worth to see Nike, he picked up the five iron and hit balls around the room. As a result, two of the best golfers in the world have hit balls with that five iron: Ben Hogan and Tiger Woods. There will never be another club with that claim to fame. Now I understand why it is locked up!
In 1953, Hogan was the Athlete of the Year and received the Hickok Belt. The name came from the Hickok Company, which was the largest and most respected maker of men’s belts in the world. The Hickok Belt award was an alligator-skin belt with a solid-gold buckle, an encrusted four-carat diamond, and 26 gem chips. It was valued at over $10,000 in the currency of the time, probably over 250,000 in today’s dollars.
The ultimate sports prize, the Hickok Belt was awarded annually to the top professional athlete, of all sports, as voted on by a panel of 300 sportswriters across the country. For one night each year, Rochester, New York, was the center of the sports world, as the top names in sports flocked to the gala Hickok Belt awards banquet.
The Ben Hogan Museum has a replica of the belt. He received his aware between rounds at the Thunderbird Golf Tourney in Palm Springs. Bob Hope presented the award on January 29, 1954.
Karen Wright told us an amazing story about the belt. For a while it was displayed in the Hogan Room at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth. The belt was stolen but recovered. But then it was stolen again and was never recovered. A replica was made and was placed at the USGA Museum in Far Hills, New Jersey, which had never had a break-in—until it was stolen from that museum, too! Today, there are three replicas, located at Colonial Country Club, the USGA Museum and the Ben Hogan Museum in Dublin.
I’m sure I have forgotten many of the stories Karen told us. She is a great docent for the museum, and we learned so much from her. If you love golf, you really need to visit the Ben Hogan Museum. The Travel Channel heartily recommends the museum and included it in the top ten bucket list destinations for golf fans. Madeline and I loved the tour that Karen provided, and you will too!