Hate to be Rude: Vivid memories of Hogan, Nelson

Ben Hogan, left, and Byron Nelson at the 1942 Masters.

Jeff Rude’s “I Hate To Be Rude” column appears on Golfweek.com, usually on Wednesday.

Twenty years ago, in early 1992, your globetrotting correspondent sat in Ben Hogan’s office, sweating. There are worse places to sweat like Albert Brooks in “Broadcast News,” I suppose, but my moist palms didn’t feel that way at the time.

Hogan, on the cusp of turning 80, had granted an interview, rare for him late in life, and there was some pressure involved because the allotted time was but 15 minutes. So your messenger, honored to have an audience with golf’s best ball-striker, went to great lengths to come up with some great questions, or so he mistakenly thought.

Dusty memory recalls this:

“What does a man who seemingly has everything want for his 80th birthday?”

Hogan looked at me for about eight seconds, shook his head and said, “I can’t answer that question.”

After some sort of gulp, the next inquiry went, “Which of your accomplishments means the most to you?”

He looked at me for about eight seconds, shook his head and said, “I can’t answer that, either.”

After wiping a wet forehead, the next brilliant attempt went, “Can you please fill me in how often you hit balls these days, if at all?”

Hogan stared at me and said, “I’ve played very little golf since the wreck.”

Instinctively, I scooted my chair closer to his desk, made eye contact and said, “Are you talking about the wreck in 1949, or was there one I missed recently?”

“Yes,” he said, “the one in 1949.”

And so I sat there in something of a panic. I was 0-for-3 and desperate. The sands seemingly were flowing through the hourglass like Niagara Falls. I looked down at my notebook and saw that, after burning some precious time with supposedly my best stuff, I had written down exactly nothing.

It was then that I was blessed with the most obvious guardian-angel moment of my career. I left the list of superb questions and winged it and, for whatever reason, these words came out of my mouth: “Do you miss hitting balls?”

Neon went on. Bells rang. The heavens opened. And suddenly the legend who had said virtually nothing beamed and talked profusely. He talked about how he dearly missing hitting golf balls, something he loved more than anything else. He talked about there never having been enough daylight for him. He talked about a deep desire to prove and disprove swing theories while digging shots out of the dirt. He talked about chipping balls into a hotel-room chair to the point all the noise prompted his neighbors to complain to the front desk and the clerk to call and say, “Mr. Hogan, all that thumping is waking up your neighbors. Could you please stop?”

The man of few words couldn’t talk enough about this one topic – his topic: Hitting a dimpled sphere.

“That’s been my life for a long time,” he said. “I hated to give it up. I could hit chip shots around the green now, but that’s no fun.”

Fast study that I am, I realized the lesson in a couple of years, if not later. It’s the most important tenet about interviewing that ever dawned on me: Hit the subject where he lives, asking about what makes him tick, delving into passion. If you’re interviewing, say, Donald Trump, you might want to ask what turns him on about money and tall buildings.

That same February, I got to know Byron Nelson, Hogan’s longtime rival, and eventually was fortunate enough to become a friend. I liked him because he was kind, proud, wholesome, golfy and similar to a jukebox waiting for a quarter. Drop the coin in and records would spin in that fertile mind. He could recall interesting golf moments from a half century earlier as if cue-carded. Tales came accented by smile and twang.

I don’t know if I’ve ever known anyone liked by more people. You couldn’t count how many compliments this one man received over his 94 years until leaving us in September 2006.

It’s pretty safe to say that no one in the history of golf has touched more lives positively than Byron Nelson. That’s his real legacy.

Sure, he won five majors. Sure, his 52 PGA Tour victories include the unthinkable 11 consecutive and 18 total in 1945. But Nelson’s most significant mark on society came because of his association with the tournament that has taken his name since 1968. The Nelson event for so many years has led the Tour in charitable contributions. You can’t even imagine how many boys and girls with emotional and behavioral problems have been helped because of the tournament’s proceeds to the Salesmanship Club of Dallas.

I always felt good when around Byron Nelson. Felt clean. I always came away with a better understanding of the high value of simple pleasures. He’d go to church and Bible study and do his woodworking in the shop on the ranch. He didn’t live a big, fancy life.

My most memorable visit with him was that first one, in early 1992, right around his 80th birthday, at his Roanoke ranch. He sat there in a rocking chair in the family room, a mini-golf museum. He held a cane and fidgeted as usual. He talked almost nonstop and felt pain not only in his new hip but in his heart. His mother had recently died at 98 and brainpower was on his mind.

“I just hope I stay mentally alert,” he said then. “If I can live to be 94 and be OK healthwise and brainwise, that would be fine.”

He got his wish. He called his shot. Ninety-four, it was.

Late in life, he’d be the first to say his 11-straight streak was much more of a big deal 50 years after the fact. He told me he got tired of competing and never regretted leaving the Tour after the 1946 season. He told me he had lived a “wonderful life.” He told me Hogan used to always tell him that he didn’t practice enough.

I remember making arrangements for Nelson and Hogan to photograph together in 1992 for the first time in about 25 years. Both were born in 1912 and caddied at Glen Garden in Fort Worth, but they were as different as short and tall, introverted and extroverted, private and gregarious, blunt and diplomatic.

So I started with Hogan. His secretary said Hogan wanted to do the shoot at his home course, Shady Oaks, in Fort Worth. I informed Nelson of this the same day his gigantic statue was unveiled in a ceremony at the Four Seasons Las Colinas. He bristled, saying, “That’s just like Hogan, wanting to do it on his turf,” but he consented.

Later, he had second thoughts. He called me that night to say he had been thinking about it and wondered if we could compromise slightly and take the pictures at Colonial in Fort Worth, known as Hogan’s Alley. And so it was that on Feb. 10, 1992, they showed up at Colonial, both dressed up in jackets, ties and fedoras. Both held persimmon woods. As they walked off, Nelson using a cane, Hogan wrapped his right arm around Nelson’s left to help his longtime rival with balance. An image of that, signed by both, hangs on one of my walls.

After Hogan died some 5 1/2 years later, Nelson expressed to me disappointment about not being chosen as a pallbearer or being a part of the funeral. He sat near the back of the church and felt left out.

Sam Snead – the third of the great triumvirate born in 1912 and who was one of the pallbearers – told me Hogan and Nelson were friends until “an incident. He had asked Byron about something that he thought happened, and Byron acted as innocent as a young baby. He was mad at Byron for some unknown reason. It was a misunderstanding.”

In separate interviews in ’92, Hogan and Nelson addressed how they felt about not playing golf regularly anymore. This was striking: Hogan talked about how dearly he missed hitting balls, and Nelson said he missed the companionship of playing with friends.

My meeting with Hogan was one of his last interviews, if not the final one. Similarly, I conducted one of the last interviews Nelson granted, in May 2006 at his tournament. It was then that he told me his driver’s license was renewed until age 98 and that he didn’t drive fast because he didn’t want to get arrested. It was then that he dispensed some pearls of wisdom on clean living.

“I didn’t drink, I didn’t smoke, I didn’t chase women and I always exercised,” he said. “I was always active and I thought right. I wanted to do things that made people proud of what they were.”

It follows then that the Texas Two-Step over the next fortnight has a particularly special meaning to me. Of course, I refer to this week’s HP Byron Nelson Championship and next week’s Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial, or Hogan’s Alley.

I’ve covered each of those tournaments every year starting in 1992, and fortunately I’ll be back again this time. You can expect some nostalgia in the air, for each would have turned 100 this year.

It works that way with legends. They might not be around anymore, but the memories never seem to die.

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