2006: Ben on Ben
Fort Worth, Texas
Many in these parts refer to the late Ben Hogan as Mr. Hogan. Almost nine years after his death, it’s still Mr. Hogan. Especially to those who knew him and felt his aura. The salutation carries reverence and respect. That is what you get when you are the best at something – in Hogan’s case, the striking of a golf ball.
The lucky ones got to watch him swing. The luckier ones got to visit with him.
Ben Crenshaw is one of the luckier ones.
Crenshaw, 54, was one of the few older past champions who returned to Hogan’s Alley for the 60th Bank of America Colonial. He came out of respect for a tournament he won twice. He came out of respect for the game he loves dearly. He came for a celebration at what he calls a “unique place,” the famed course where Hogan won five times. And while here, Crenshaw also managed to make the 36-hole cut, whipping up on a bunch of younger professionals who can outdrive him by 40 yards.
“It’s a very special year,” Crenshaw said, “and I wanted to give it one last shot.”
Crenshaw is one of golf’s original articles. People for years asked, “Who will be the next Jack Nicklaus?” Out of a highchair in Cypress, Calif., we got our answer. But perhaps we should wonder who will be the next Crenshaw. That might be harder to find, a golf Renaissance Man who overflows with enthusiasm, who possesses that rare blend of a champion’s skill, a historian’s curiosity and the old soul of a throwback architect.
Crenshaw, of course, wears that wide-eyed passion on his sleeve. If he were defined by an arm tattoo, it might say golly or wow. It is well established that he cries when a new Wal-Mart opens in town. It is little wonder then that the sage Jackie Burke once told him before Crenshaw accepted an award in Houston, “Don’t leave me standing in casual water.”
It follows that Crenshaw went nostalgic early and often upon arriving in the city that, by chance, somehow gave us Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson in 1912. Crenshaw can get misty just looking at the Wall of Champions by the first tee. He can get goose bumps just at the mention of the Horrible Horseshoe, that curved piece of grass known as the third, fourth and fifth holes.
But Sentimental Ben left little doubt about his favorite memory from decades of coming here. He gave a quick, three-word answer.
“Meeting Mr. Hogan.”
That was one of Crenshaw’s favorite things to do back in the day. “Lucky,” he called himself. He went to see the Hawk about a half dozen times. “Just to visit,” he said.
Visiting with Mr. Hogan.
I could listen to Crenshaw talk about golf all week. I could listen to him talk about Hogan all year.
“It was something I looked so forward to,” Crenshaw said. “I held it on a pedestal. There was no one like him – the way he played, his countenance. He had a way about him. He was no nonsense and meant everything he said.”
Crenshaw said he was intimidated by the strong-willed Hogan on each visit. “Every time,” he said. “Every time.”
The first three times he went to see him, Crenshaw tried not to say anything about golf. He knew Hogan “hated” being pelted with questions about the swing and the “secret” to the game right away. So they’d talk about common friends from Texas – Jackie Burke and Jimmy Demaret – and about Marvin Leonard, Hogan’s mentor, friend and business partner, and the founder of Colonial and Shady Oaks.
“He was playful to me,” Crenshaw said. “I was easy to poke fun at. He liked yanking my chain.”
Such was the case in 1990 when Crenshaw won his second Colonial. At the winner’s dinner, Hogan playfully chided, “There’s no way he’s won twice here. No way.”
Crenshaw was struck by how hard Hogan laughed as he said that. He was also amused a little later when Hogan, leaving in his big, black Cadillac, rolled down his window and said, “I still don’t believe you’ve won here twice.”
A few times in the late 1970s, Crenshaw went across town to Hogan’s hangout, Shady Oaks, and watched him hit balls. Hogan was approaching his late 60s.
“It’s difficult to describe what I saw,” Crenshaw said. “It was like a machine gun. He was a solitary figure out there wanting to make that ball behave, and generally he did.”
Crenshaw was practicing on the Shady Oaks range one cold fall day when Hogan, wearing a suit and fedora, came out to watch. Kneeling, he asked to see Crenshaw’s right hand and then said, “I want you to move the club more into your fingers. Now give it all you’ve got.” Crenshaw found that his ball flew straight, not left.
“Mr. Hogan,” he said while reminiscing. “It was unbelievable.”
Another time, a round in the Colonial, Crenshaw was hitting balls at Shady Oaks. Hogan motioned him over and asked what he shot. “Sixty-five,” Crenshaw said. Then Hogan said he was just finishing up and told Crenshaw he could hit his clubs. The younger Ben’s ball flight wasn’t pretty.
“I hit it horribly,” Crenshaw said. “They were the most unhittable clubs ever. I hit all these bad shots off to the right. Then I hit my clubs and also struggled. He looked at me and said, ‘What did you say you shot? Well, good luck to you, fellow.’ ”
Crenshaw said he has had discussions with some of his colleagues on the Champions Tour about what Hogan might do with today’s technologically advanced equipment.
“It might be scary,” he said. “Hitting the ball, it would be unbelievable.”
Hitting a golf ball was Hogan’s passion. He said there wasn’t enough daylight for him. He was so proud of his ability to do it so well. He felt he was born to do it.
“He was the proudest golfer ever,” Crenshaw said. “He had such a deep conviction to do things right. He took pride in everything he did. The guy’s clothes were magnificent. He wore the most intensely tailored pants. You could cut yourself on those pants, there was so much quality.”
Crenshaw says he still can’t believe the quality of Hogan’s swing, even in his mid to late 60s. He gushes.
“It’s still hard to imagine anyone hitting the ball as well as what I saw Mr. Hogan do,” Crenshaw said. “He could sting it. I was very lucky to see it.”