A Late Career Reminder from Ben Hogan

Hogan and 9-hole Time Machine Excites at ’67 Masters

Only a week after emphasizing a point that Mickelson, Woods, and other older players will soon be eclipsed by a spectacular young generation, I find myself apologizing, even if it is true. There is, as a rule, a counterbalancing point to such all-or-nothing statements, and I must recognize the one for mine. Tiger did win again, and is probably not done. However, Phil Mickelson recently drove the point home at the Desert Classic by shooting a 60 in the third round. One article suggests that he “flirted with 59.” The only time I did that was the day before my 59th birthday. Kyle Porter penned an article this week that caught my attention for two statements. First, that “golf is stupid.” I know exactly how he meant that, and I translate it as “golf is maddeningly unpredictable” (which is why it’s anything but stupid). Mickelson shot the lights out, then didn’t win the tournament, as it all turned cold again. That reminded me of some of the most inspiring times I’ve ever had watching a golf tournament, where the older hero did not always win. Dick Mayer did, in a three-way playoff, when his two young colleagues were sitting pretty, and he was 100 yards off the green. He holed out from that distance and won the tournament while the kids stood gaping. The bigger thrill, though, came in the last days of Ben Hogan’s legendary career.

At the 1967 Masters, Hogan showed up a week early to really give it his best shot. He was 54 years of age, with a body still crushed and erratic from a 1949 automobile accident. Incidentally, he won the Masters twice soon after. See where this is going?
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The older Hogan showed up at Augusta, according to Bill Fields, so full of injections that a modern doctor wouldn’t allow it. Another surgery was on the way, and he hadn’t played a tournament round since the U.S. Open a year before. None of the older folks will ever forget it. Hogan was hanging in there pretty well, all things considered, when suddenly the time machine appeared. For nine holes, he was a young man again, rattling in birdie after birdie with the legendary Hogan swing perfectly in tact. It was magical, that’s all I can tell you. Famous players wept as they watched the battered old man limp up the fairway, barely able to walk at all, but on the leaderboard regardless. It was no fluke. Hogan was a perfectionist, and at times perfect. He hit fairways at an almost unknown rate, hit greens like a master, and always left himself an uphill putt. He was one of the greatest elevation players of all times, able to hit the perfect type of shot for the situation. He was not a warm fuzzy, but a ruthless competitor within the rules. Even off the course, he observed, “I play with friends, but we don’t play friendly games.” It got so bad for Hogan that during the worst of it, there were occasions where he couldn’t draw back the putter, so bad was the paralysis. One putt took three minutes before he could move the club – and yet he still contended, still won.

To Porter’s second point, Mickelson may be able to take a good lesson from Hogan, and play fewer events. to his advantage.  In the last years, Hogan never played more than seven events per year. Doing that, he won thirteen times, including six majors. At one point, he won three majors in one year, not duplicated until Woods in 2002. He won 9 of the 16 majors he played. The man wasn’t just great, he was scary great. For younger golfers, I only wish you could have been there.

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Humans are incredibly resourceful at fighting off all sorts of injuries, illness, and even age.  Somehow, as a species, we find a way, even for the hard stuff. Hogan was the ultimate aging warrior, and the lessons of his later days urges me to check myself when I begin to write the Mickelsons and Woods off, at least not while they are winning again or shooting a 60.

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