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Afternoon with Mr. Hogan
By Jody Vasquez
GothamCopyright © 2005 Jody Vasquez
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePrice of Admission: 95 Cents an Hour
Fort Worth has produced some interesting and dynamic individuals, but its most widely revered and well-known citizen was Ben Hogan. Despite his prominence in my hometown while I was growing up, I wasn't very familiar with the legendary golfer. That was about to change.
I was 17 years old and attending Northside High School when an ordinary question changed my life. I was enjoying an uneventful spring morning in Mrs. Johnston's geometry class, when a classmate, Gary Lumpkin, leaned across the aisle and asked me if I needed a job for the summer. Since I didn't have a job lined up yet, I was all ears.
I played on the school golf team, so he knew I'd love what he was about to say. He told me there was a job opening in the golf shop at Shady Oaks Country Club. Actually, the job was Gary's. He was leaving town after the spring semester to rejoin his parents. His dad was in the Air Force and was heading back home to Chicago. I jumped at the chance. I thought working in a golf shop at a country club like Shady Oaks would be a perfect way to spend my summer. It certainly would beat my other option, sacking groceries at Hill's Grocery Store on Twenty-fifth Street.
On Saturday, Gary took me to Shady Oaksto meet with Art Hall, the golf professional. The job as Art described it was simple: I would start each morning at 7:30, set up the driving range, and then take care of the members when they began arriving a short time later. It's the same bag-room job you see kids handling at just about any course you might play. I would clean their golf clubs, pick up the driving range balls, vacuum the shop floors, and perform other odd tasks. Art eventually offered me the position, and I eagerly accepted it.
At the time, Mr. Hogan practiced almost every weekday afternoon at Shady Oaks. He didn't hit balls on the driving range with the general membership. Instead he hired caddies to go out on the course with him to his private practice areas. There he would hit his own balls for a few hours and the caddies would pick them up. A variety of caddies might get the call to work for Mr. Hogan, although he did have a semi-regular caddie in Fort Worth. Known only as "Old Folks," he was on Hogan's bag when he played casually with friends or was competing in the Colonial National Invitation Tournament. Old Folks was an easygoing big black guy who worked for the local telephone company and came to the course when Mr. Hogan needed someone to work his bag. But at Shady Oaks, no individual worked exclusively for Mr. Hogan as a shag-boy until I began working for him in 1964.
I should make clear that I did not caddie for Mr. Hogan. Although I spent countless hours shagging balls for him, I never caddied for him on the course. When Mr. Hogan played, he usually walked using Old Folks or one of the local caddies. Sometimes a college kid from Texas Christian University would get his bag. That must have been a real treat. You show up expecting to chase balls for a 15-handicapper and bingo, there's Ben Hogans bag instead. If no caddies were available, Mr. Hogan would put his bag on a cart like everybody else.
After the Shady noontime crowd had teed off and was on the course, there wasn't much to do in the golf shop. The entire shop staff consisted of the head pro, Art; his two assistants, Tom Sisolak and Fred Chancey; and me. Shady Oaks didn't need a big staff because the club had only about 100-plus members. Therefore, my working for Mr. Hogan on a regular basis made sense. As I was always at the club, Art didn't have to scramble around on busy days looking for someone to accompany Mr. Hogan. It wasn't fair to ask a caddie who was there to make money carrying someone's bag to hang around and see what Mr. Hogan was going to do. Moreover, my working for Mr. Hogan saved Art from paying me my usual wage of 95 cents an hour for working in the shop. To me, the most sensible aspect was the fact Mr. Hogan paid much better than Art did.
I enjoyed my job with Mr. Hogan from the start. It was pretty exciting just sitting next to him on a cart waiting to hear what he might say, even though he didn't say anything to me at first. It's not often a teenager gets to stand in the shadow of an icon and witness firsthand the countless things others would have paid to see but couldn't. At first, I didn't know enough about Mr. Hogan to appreciate his legendary accomplishments, but I was quickly schooled in all things Hogan, beginning with his reason for choosing Shady Oaks as a place to practice and hang his hat. A private club, Shady Oaks was built by Marvin Leonard in 1959. Mr. Marvin, as he was affectionately known, was an exceptional individual and Mr. Hogans best friend. Prior to building Shady Oaks, Mr. Leonard was best known for building Colonial Country Club, also in Fort Worth. Colonial is recognized as the best golf course in Texas and is regularly ranked among the top 50 best courses in America. Opened in 1936, Colonial established the prestigious Colonial National Invitation Tournament in 1946. It helped that Hogan won the event a record five times; for decades it has been known as "Hogans Alley," and is an official stop on the PGA Tour.
Colonial was Mr. Hogan's second home until Mr. Marvin opened Shady Oaks. At that time, Mr. Hogan and a small group of invited friends moved to play at the new course, which is located on the west side of Fort Worth. Even though Mr. Hogan spent all his time at Shady Oaks and visited Colonial only on special occasions, Colonial remained his home course in his heart. When he referred to his "home club," he was referring to Colonial.
The first story I remember being told about Mr. Hogan was of his 1949 Greyhound bus accident. It's one of the most inspiring stories in sports history, but it wasn't until I visited with Mrs. Hogan in 1994 that I fully understood the extent of what Mr. Hogan had gone through. I was awed, and still am, by his determination to rise up and return to the game. The level of accomplishment he achieved after all he had endured is something else entirely. I couldn't have done it. I doubt many could. I think after you read a little more, the PGA Tour's Ben Hogan Award given annually to honor a recovering player may hold a deeper meaning for you.
Mr. Hogans reputation for privacy and his standoffish demeanor resulted in little interaction between him and the Shady Oaks membership in general. While I worked at Shady, it was unofficial policy that everyone leave him alone, especially when he sat at his special table in a corner of the men's grill. The table, which is reserved for him to this day, is large and round and easily seats six people. But, Mr. Hogan always sat alone. He would drink his glass of Chardonnay, eat lunch, and sometimes finish his meal with a slice of apple pie with cheddar cheese melted on top (his and Mr. Marvin's favorite dessert). When someone did approach him at his table, he would say hello and quickly move away. It was rare for someone to pull up a chair and sit to visit with him. Despite this, members loved to walk over and introduce their guests to Mr. Hogan. Introductions would be made and handshakes exchanged. There was very little small talk. The awkwardness was pronounced; people didn't know what to talk about with Mr. Hogan. What would you say to him? To make matters even tougher, he was uncomfortable talking with people he didn't know well. Even after shagging balls for him for years, we more often than not rode out and back to the practice area without exchanging a word. A quick hello and that might very well be it for the day. When he came to Shady, he came for a purpose and not simply to kill time.
At Shady Oaks, Mr. Hogan preferred practicing to playing. When he did play, typically, it was in a noon game with the "gangsome" The gangsome was a group of ten to fifteen guys who played for some pretty big money by those days' standards. They were all pretty well-heeled and openly enjoyed the thrill of betting. The group included Mr. Hogans brother, Royal (one of the better players), a cast of characters from oilmen to corporate types, and Mr. Marvin, who not only built the club but also owned it up until 1970 when he sold it to the Shady membership. Generally, these guys were medium- to high-handicap players who loved the action.
The gangsome always tried to talk Mr. Hogan into playing with them, but more often than not he turned them down. He played with them on occasion, however, and when he did the foursome group pairings were done randomly. When Tom Sisolak went to the grill to find out who was playing, generally, he was told to team Mr. Hogan with somebody. Tom chose the players randomly, though occasionally someone would speak up for the honor of joining his group. Sometimes, Mr. Hogan and a partner of his choosing would take the "swing" that day.
The swing was a fascinating game and a complicated one. Two players were chosen to play against all combinations of the other players who showed up to play that day. One memorable Friday, Mr. Hogan was a swing partner with Earl Baldridge, president of Champlin Oil Company. Baldridge was an 18-handicapper, and not a very good one at that. They lost, and the financial implication was so significant that Mr. Hogan demanded that he and Baldridge team up again the next day-with the condition that all bets be doubled. The gang was more than happy to oblige.
A rumor still persists that Mr. Hogan had a private chat with Henry Martin, the course superintendent, before leaving the club that evening. Mr. Hogan is said to have asked Henry to set Saturday's pins in places that were especially challenging. On the first hole, for example, the hole was cut on a steep slope at the very front of the green. If you hit your approach shot above the pin, it was impossible to two-putt. The stage was set. When the players finished their rounds that Saturday and walked into the grill, the first thing they saw was Mr. Hogans hat turned upside down in the middle of his table. The Hogan/Baldridge team killed everybody. Mr. Hogan shot 62, and Baldridge filled in the gaps. Although I wasn't there to see the money flutter into the cap that day, I was told it amounted to approximately $20,000.
From that, it's easy to understand why Mr. Hogan and the entire gang took this noon game seriously. They even employed their own handicap system. Sisolak would refigure all the players' scores after every round. He kept a book especially for it. Tom would recalculate the scoring average of the last I5 rounds played and compute a current handicap. The USGA handicap system was ignored by the gangsome. The money was serious enough that the gang wanted up-to-the-minute handicaps, computed using all scores. They watched one another like hawks. Sandbagging was never an issue, though it hardly would have mattered to Mr. Hogan. One of the curious things about him was, he hated to give handicap strokes when involved in an individual player-to-player bet. He had to spot the gangsome types something, of course, because those were team bets, but if you played Mr. Hogan head-to-head, you played him straight up. One would think he would have difficulty getting a game this way, but I suspect many amateurs thought losing a small bet to Ben Hogan a small price to pay for the great privilege of playing with him.
Timing is everything in life. When I first started working at Shady, Mr. Hogan was 51 years old and at the end of his playing career. He didn't play in formal competition much, which enabled him to spend more time at Shady Oaks and consequently, for me to get to know him. There was no Champions Tour (not that he would have played on it anyway); yet, he still was deeply committed to being a competitive golfer. He maintained a desire to win and felt he could still compete even though his last victory had been at the Colonial in 1959. While I was shagging for him, he still had flashes of his old self like the back nine round he shot at the Masters in '67.
Mr. Hogan grew to know me, which would have been highly unlikely had he traveled the PGA Tour steadily. Maybe because I met him later in life, I never saw the hard side of his character that people talk about. I don't believe he was cold or unfeeling. My first impression of Mr. Hogan was how confidently he carried himself. He seemed so strong, positive and controlled. I couldn't imagine that anything could ever rattle him. His voice was strong and confident, his tone deep and commanding. Even the way he used his hands while talking spoke volumes to the inner confidence he exuded. With that, I thought he was charismatic and charming-and still somewhat curmudgeonly. I doubt I will ever again meet an individual as positive about his place in life as Mr. Hogan was. I'm sure he was not always that way, but when I was around him he clearly knew exactly who he was and he never strayed from that. If you've ever been fortunate enough to watch a hawk in flight or see it moving toward its prey, you would fully understand why he carried his nickname: the Hawk.
In the fall of 1968, I resigned from my job at Shady Oaks and went to work at another club in Arlington, Texas, where I attended college. Moving to that new job closed the ball-shagging chapter in my life and my regular contact with Mr. Hogan. Nevertheless, in the years that followed until his death in 1997, I was lucky enough to remain in contact with him and feel very privileged to have spent quality time visiting with him.
Like I said, timing is everything. I came to Shady Oaks when I was young enough to accept working for 95 cents an hour and not feel I was underpaid. If this or any other circumstance were different, the most extraordinary relationship of my life would never have taken place.
Chapter TwoPractice as an Art Form
In sports there are athletes who have set records that will never be broken. In baseball, you think of Cal Ripken, Jr.'s 2,632 consecutive games played. In basketball, it's Wilt Chamberlain's single-game scoring record of 100 points. In golf, it's Byron Nelson's string of 11 consecutive PGA Tour victories in 1945.
But the record book doesn't tell everything. There is a select group of athletes who didn't just shatter records to mark their place in history, but must be classified as great because they went beyond the record books and actually altered the fundamental nature of the sport they played. A classic example is Bob Hayes, who won the gold medal in the 100-meter dash at the 1964 Olympic Games. He was known as the fastest human in the world ... Bullet Bob Hayes. Then, he became a wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys. Hayes' speed was so overwhelming that man-to-man defensive coverages simply couldn't contain him. The zone defense was invented purely because of him. Today, zone defenses are the norm.
Excerpted from Afternoon with Mr. Hogan by Jody Vasquez Copyright © 2005 by Jody Vasquez. Excerpted by permission.
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