By Thane Peterson
Sunday is Father's Day. If your dad plans to be out on the golf course, you might want to consider as a gift Ben Hogan: An American Life (Doubleday, $27.50), the new biography of one of the greatest golfers of all time by author and Golf Magazine columnist James Dodson. In title and style, the book is modeled on Seabiscuit: An American Legend, the 2002 bestseller about the great race horse that was made into a movie last year. Like that earlier book, Ben Hogan recounts the inspirational life story of a sports champion and is also a highly readable re-creation of a lost era -- in this case, professional golf's hardscrabble early years in the 1930s and 1940s.
For lovers of the game, this book comes at a particularly opportune time. The U.S. Open is under way at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on Long Island. Hogan won four U.S. Opens in his career, which puts him in a tie with Willie Anderson, Robert T. Jones Jr., and Jack Nicklaus for the most ever. Hogan's last U.S. Open win in 1953 at Oakmont Country Club near Pittsburgh is still widely regarded as the greatest triumph of his career. Given Tiger Woods's difficulties of late, Ben Hogan also provides an object lesson in how even the greatest champions struggle with slumps and adversity in their careers.
Hogan had his fair share of both. Unlike Woods, and other modern champions such as Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, Hogan wasn't a natural golfer. Just 5-feet, 8 inches and 135 lbs, he became a champion only by dint of an exhausting regimen. Hogan practiced until his palms were cracked and blistered, then soaked his hands in pickle brine to toughen them up, and practiced some more. He didn't win his first tournament until 1940, when he was 28 and had been struggling (and mainly failing) for a decade to make it as a pro. All told, he went on to win 64 pro tournaments.
Hogan has inspired other biographies, but Dodson is the first author to have the full cooperation of the golfer's surviving family. During his lifetime, Hogan, who died in 1997 at the age of 84, was highly respected but not really liked by many sportswriters and fellow golfers, who regarded him as too cold and calculating (his great rival Sam Snead once said Hogan "played golf like he had a grudge against the game").
Hogan's niece, grandnieces, and other family members opened up to Dodson in the hopes he would paint a more nuanced portrait -- and he largely does. The book is appropriately admiring, but doesn't flinch from exploring all facets of Hogan's personality.
Hogan's dark secret, in Dodson's telling, is the suicide of his father, Chester, a blacksmith who shot himself when Ben was just 9 years old. According to one newspaper account, Ben witnessed the suicide, though Dodson notes that other accounts contradict that detail. What's undeniable is that his father's suicide troubled Hogan all his life (he talked about it shortly before he died with a home-care attendant Dodson interviewed).
Chester Hogan's death also plunged the family into financial difficulties. Ben's mother moved them from their rural Texas home to Fort Worth, and Ben and his siblings had to find work to help make ends meet. By happenstance, Ben took to caddying to make money, and golf became his road out of poverty.
The other event that humanizes Hogan -- and forms the basis of the most moving sections of the book -- is the 1949 auto accident that nearly killed him. This was in the days when pro golfers still drove from event to event, and Ben and his wife Valerie were hit head-on by a Greyhound bus in a fog.
Hogan saved Valerie from serious injury by throwing himself over her at the last second, but his own legs were crushed. Blood clots rising from his injured legs toward his lungs and brain threatened his life. He was saved at the last minute by a risky operation, but he was in pain and walked with a limp for the rest of his life.
Dodson is at his best in recounting the accident and Hogan's remarkable comeback. Doctors told him he might never walk again, let alone play tournament-level golf. By dint of difficult and incredibly painful physical therapy, he was back on the links within 10 months. His damaged legs had to be swathed in elastic to keep the swelling down, and he limped as he walked, but, incredibly, he was soon winning major tournaments again. In 1953, he won three of the four majors -- the U.S. and British Opens and the Masters. And he remained the dominant player in the game until the dawn of the '60s, when Palmer and Nicklaus exploded onto the tournament scene.
The dogged Dodson digs just as deeply into Hogan's declining years. As determined as Hogan was on the course, he was also a wily businessman, who made a small fortune investing in oil wells. An inveterate tinkerer, he developed his own line of golf clubs, and late in his career launched a successful golf-equipment manufacturing company.
However, Dodson also uncovers considerable sadness: Hogan and his wife had marital problems, and his older brother was a troubled man whose wife drank secretly and whose son fell down steps, hit his head, and died afer a night of heavy partying. Near the end of Hogan's life, Alzheimer's or dementia destroyed the his short-term memory. In a mistaken attempt to protect him, Valerie isolated him from the golfing buddies he loved to spend time with.
Dodson is a courtly writer whose prose goes well with the era and events he is describing. A nice guy is a "swell egg," newspaper reporters are "deadline chasers," and $10 bills are "ten spots." His 544-pages book is wordier than Laura Hillenbrand's remarkable Seabiscuit, and doesn't do quite as good a job of bringing a bygone era alive. But it comes close. And in Hogan, he has a remarkable subject whose story any golf lover will find compelling.
Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online
Edited by Patricia O'Connell