Putting A Little More Color In The Hogan Story

The Spring issue of Flagstick Golf Magazine just came out and I have had some great reaction to my Final Putt column. As a result I was posting it to the Blog to provide access to a wider scope of readers. To see a PDF of the issue visit here.

It is one of the most famous images in all of golf. Hy Peskin’s timeless capture of Ben Hogan playing a long iron to the 72nd hole of the 1950 United States Open Championship set the tone for many people’s impression of this golf legend. Rendered in black and white, “non-colors” would continue to mark Hogan through his entire life. Most often you would find him playing a tournament outfitted in a crisp white shirt, gray trousers and a jauntily adorned flat cap. It was the “Hogan look” so often replicated by players he counted among his fans.

Of course the everlasting impression was that between his clothing choices and his reputation as a loner Ben Hogan was a dull, impersonal man with a limited scope of preferences. When you consider the sleek blade iron designs that his golf equipment company began to produce in the 1950’s, it is easy to make the assumption that his idea of golf clubs leaned to the more traditional side as well. At least that was what I always thought, even after reading multiple accounts of the man.

Hogan loyalists would argue that the Ben Hogan Company (now part of Callaway Golf) took a major downhill spiral after it began to produce “non-blade” iron designs – obviously being ruined by the corporate hierarchy more focused on the pursuit of the almighty dollar than maintaining the “Hogan” traditions. In their minds at least. I mean, Hogan would never have accepted that, would he?

Before a recent enlightenment, I would have joined them in the assumption that the Ben Hogan Company was all about “tradition” (which normally translates to forged blades) rather than the more progressive designs that the company started offering up in the 1980’s. I now know they had his every blessing.

How do I know for sure? That is thanks to Tom Stites, Director of Product Creation for Nike Golf. On a recent trip to visit the Nike Golf Research and Design facility in Ft. Worth, Texas it was hard to escape conversations about Hogan. Stites got his golf club design start with the Ben Hogan Golf Company and revered the special moments spent with the golf legend.

It was in Stites’ personal office that he related Hogan’s appreciation for geometry in golf club design and how he pushed his engineering team to make clubs that would help people enjoy the game more. That included what Stites says was Hogan’s favorite set of irons that bore his name, the wide soled Radial irons introduced in 1983. Stites even took on the task of building Mr. Hogan several long putters over the years – the kind of clubs that many people believe are “against the spirit” of the game.

Within the office that held an unfathomable amount of Hogan memorabilia, courtesy of Stites I was able to put my hands on a five iron from one of Ben Hogan’s last personal set of clubs. I would have expected a lean, clean blade crafted for one of the best ball strikers that the game has even seen. Instead, the forged cavity back design of a Hogan Edge iron stared back at me – adorned with thick cord grips with reminder ribs to help position your hands. It was all I could do not to giggle as my preconceived notions of Hogan were dashed. Even a man of his ability enjoyed a little assistance with his game.

Although Stites pushes his Nike team to maintain a level of craftsmanship equal to what he learned under the tutelage of Hogan, he confirmed that even the very “non-colorful” Mr. Hogan still rallied for the pursuit of “forgiving” golf equipment.

So as the next day of my trip dawned and I teed up the innovative Nike Sumo2 on the opening hole of Shady Oaks Country Club, I could not help but think back to the man who ate lunch almost everyday at a table with a direct eye line to where I stood. And as the almost implausible crack of my “square” driver reverberated off the glass of the clubhouse, I took comfort in knowing that I was not committing “blasphemy in the chapel”, so to speak.

As hard as it was to believe, I knew in some way Mr. Hogan would probably have approved.

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