By John Steinbreder
Ben Hogan won 13 PGA Tour events in 1946, and seven the following season. Although those titles included a PGA Championship and wins at high-profile tournaments such as the Western Open and Los Angeles Open, it’s not a stretch to say the Hawk felt his victories at the first two Colonial National Invitationals were his best during that time.
That’s partly because those tournaments were held at Colonial Country Club, Hogan’s home course since it opened in 1936 in Fort Worth, Texas. He not only consulted on the design created by Perry Maxwell and John Bredamus, paying particular attention to the green bunker complexes, but also spent hours playing and practicing there. In fact, Hogan knew the layout that ran along the Trinity River so well that many pros on the post-war PGA Tour felt he had an almost unfair advantage when he played there.
Another important consideration was that Colonial was conceived and founded by one of Hogan’s best friends, Marvin Leonard. A prominent Fort Worth businessman, Leonard had backed Hogan during his early years on Tour, and in time, that financial relationship became a lifelong friendship that was as good as either man had ever known.
So it was not surprising that Hogan made sure he was part of the field of that maiden Colonial, held in May 1946. And while the Hawk certainly felt comfortable competing at Colonial, he also sensed an enormous amount of pressure to do well on his home course and in the town where he and his wife, Valerie, lived. Another factor was Hogan’s play at the 1941 U.S. Open, which Leonard had staged at Colonial after a great deal of wrangling with the U.S. Golf Association, which had never held an Open in the South before. Hogan had played well in that championship, tying for third, five shots off the pace. In his mind, however, he should have done better.
Leonard had hoped to hold the Colonial in 1942 and make it an annual event in hopes of putting Cowtown even more prominently on the golf map. But the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and America’s subsequent entry into World War II, put those plans on hold until peacetime.
But after World War II, Leonard was ready, putting up the third-largest purse offered on the PGA Tour that year – $15,000, with $3,000 going to the winner – and limiting invitations to 36 top players, 24 of whom would be professionals and the rest amateurs.
Leonard was able to assemble a field of only 32 players, as he had difficulty attracting enough top amateurs. But it was a formidable group nonetheless, including Texans Hogan and Byron Nelson, arguably the top two players of the era. And if winning at his home course for his good friend Leonard was not motivation enough, there also was the impetus to defeat Nelson, who had completed one of the most extraordinary seasons in golf the year before when he won 11 events in a row.
Says Hogan biographer Jim Dodson, whose 2005 book, “Ben Hogan: An American Life,” is the definitive study of the man:
“Hogan had had a pretty good year in 1945, but Nelson got all the attention, and understandably so. So Hogan was not about to lose to him at Colonial.”
Hogan blitzed the field at that first Colonial, firing a 65 to set a new course record and capture first place, nine strokes ahead of Nelson. And during a short speech at the 18th green after his victory, Hogan admitted that he would have rather won the first Colonial that year than the U.S. Open.
Hogan didn’t win the Open in 1946, or the following year. But he successfully defended his Colonial title in 1947, once again posting a 72-hole score of 279. And though he was unable to three-peat in 1948, the Hawk won Leonard’s tournament three more times, the last victory coming in 1959, when he was 47 years old.
No wonder they came to call the course Hogan’s Alley.