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Ben Hogan: the eternal professional

July 29, 1997 GMT

The exact date is lost to time and even the exact year is hazy. But sometime in the mid 1950s a Pennsylvania steelworker handed his young son a cut-down 5-iron and said, ``All you need to know about using this you can learn by watching Ben Hogan.″

The moment changed a life and the words were never forgotten.

The steelworker passed on 30 years ago, much too young. Hogan died last week at the age of 84 and was buried Tuesday, leaving behind a legacy as the best pure ballstriker ever to play the game.

The child’s love affair with golf remains expressed 40 years later in words written about the game and in rounds played, always accompanied by the memory of the steelworker, the man who first handed him a club, and by images of Hogan, the man who swung a club better than anyone.

Memory is that wonderful place where everyone lives forever.

Hogan will live on in memory and in anyone of limited ability who succeeds purely through hard work.

He will live on in the photos and grainy film of that exquisite swing that exploded with a violent snap of the wrists and ended in the elegant follow through with the perfectly extended right arm.

And he will live on in the stories told about him, stories with a theme of perfection so unerringly similar that it makes no difference which ones are true, partly true or completely made up.

Hogan almost never spoke on the golf course and was just as sparse with his words off it. It was left to those around him to flesh out his life.

The stories all paint the same picture of a man single-mindedly devoted to golf.

In Hogan’s day, caddies shagged balls, standing in the practice range while the pros hit balls at them. One story has Hogan hitting his caddie with a 1-iron shot and then nailing the poor boy two more times before he could get up. He was that accurate.

One acquaintance said Hogan always drove to the golf course below the speed limit to develop a focus on tempo even before he started hitting balls.

The old-timers at Carnoustie in Scotland, where Hogan won the only British Open he played, said he walked the course backward to understand it’s subtle nature and that he never hit a shot above shoulder high all week as he manipulated the ball under the wind.

In 1945, while Hogan was missing many tournaments because of military obligations, Byron Nelson _ whom Hogan had known since they were 9 _ was winning 18 tournaments and 11 in a row.

A national news magazine ran a cover story on Nelson with the headline: ``Mr. Golf.″

When they met head-to-head for the first time after the article appeared it was at the Portland Invitational and Hogan played 72 holes in 27 under par, a mark no one has yet to surpass, winning by 14 strokes.

As Nelson stuck out his hand to congratulate Hogan, the little man in the white hat said: ``That should take care of this `Mr. Golf’ stuff.″

And then there is the dream Hogan told about in which he saw himself making 17 consecutive holes-in-one only to trudge off the course in anger after the 18th spun out of the cup.

Even in a dream, Hogan was telling us, perfection on the golf course was not possible. But he came as close as anyone.

``What has given him his edge over the field?″ sports writer Grantland Rice wrote. ``I’ve seen Hogan finish a hard morning round, grab a sandwich, and then go out for an hour’s practice before starting the afternoon round.″

Another part of the Hogan mystique was the notion that he understood some mystery about the game that no one else had yet to learn.

Deane Beman, the former PGA Tour commissioner, first met Hogan in 1953 and had many conversations with him. One came in the 1980s when they talked about creating the Hogan Tour _ what is now the Nike Tour.

Eventually they discussed equipment _ shafts, balls, different material being used.

``Finally, Hogan said, `If I was playing today I’d play the surlyn covered ball and not the balata,‴ Beman said. The balata was the most popular ball with pros and Beman asked why Hogan would play the surlyn cover.

``There was a long silence and then he said, `Because it is better,‴ Beman said. Again, he asked why.

``Another lengthy silence while he stared at me,″ Beman said. ``And then he answered: `I’m not telling.‴

The memory made Beman laugh uncontrollably.

``If Ben Hogan had a secret,″ Beman said. ``He took it with him.″

Goodbye, Mr. Hogan. Dad was right. It’s a great game and you were the best.