The Mystique of Hogan & Woods

By: Blaine Newnham

The mystique of Ben Hogan surrounds our golf club today. We play a game called "Hogans," where you receive a point on a hole only if you hit the fairway, hit the green, and make par or better. A Hogan.

It requires impeccable play. So difficult, so Ben Hogan, So passť in the skyrocketing world of Tiger Woods. I don't think so.

Covering golf for the Seattle Times, I was on hand for the four consecutive major wins by Tiger Woods, starting at the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach when he won by 15 strokes. Perhaps a golfer has never been more dominant at that level, or any level.

Then it was on to St. Andrews for the British where he didn't find a bunker in four days despite more than 400 opportunities. At Valhalla in his PGA playoff win over Bob May he was perhaps as competitive as any golfer has been, and, finally, majestically, completing the slam of his own with the win the next year at the Masters.

For all of this - I also saw Woods win at Bethpage, and in the U.S. Amateur playoff against Steve Scott in Portland, and the seven-hole playoff against Jim Furyk at Firestone - my lasting memory will be of him on a dusty practice range at Jefferson Park, a Seattle muni where Fred Couples learned the game.

Earl had brought Tiger to Seattle following the last of his three USGA junior championships. He was to do a clinic for kids sponsored by Fir State, a club of principally African-American players. I sat in a set of bleachers brought in for the occasion as Tiger, 16 and maybe 140 pounds, shaped shots for the kids and at the behest of his dad.

"Tiger," said Earl, "hit it left around that big tree. Now hit it right."

Even before power, Tiger understood finesse.

Later, we chatted and both Tiger and Earl assured me that Tiger only practiced when he wanted to, that his love for the game superseded any dreams his father might have, and that at this rate burnout was unlikely. I went away convinced Tiger would make his mark, but not, of course, as early or as dramatically as he's done.

Woods, already, has done more than Hogan ever did, or probably thought of doing. Hogan didn't win his first major until he was 34 years old. He was barely better than Byron Nelson, let alone the rest of the world, the way Woods is.

But if my first impression of Woods is indelible - and it is - my first and last impression of Hogan goes even deeper. I was a young reporter in 1966, just three years out of college. I was already infatuated with golf, and was assigned to cover the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco.

After telling me where to pick up my credential, the editor said I could write whatever I wanted. After all, it was only the first day of the tournament, a day I will never forget. I glanced down the tee sheet looking for Hogan. He was playing with Ken Venturi and Frank Beard. Venturi, a local hero, had won the Open two years earlier. Beard was one of the long-hitting young lions.

Hogan was 53 years old. He hadn't played in an Open in five years and was there only because he had gotten a special invitation. He deserved the exemption. He had dominated the Open then the way Woods does the Masters now. In one six-year period, he won four times, finished third in the fifth and missed the sixth while recuperating from his horrific car-bus accident.

In 1966, there wasn't the crush of spectators for Hogan as there would be for Woods at Pebble or Bethpage. As reporters, we could stroll along behind the players and the caddies, close enough to smell the smoke of Hogan's cigarette.

There weren't people yelling "You da Man'" at Hogan. It was quiet among the cypress at Olympic, a perfect theater for Hogan. I was aching to see in Hogan's bag, but couldn't get that close. At Merion many years earlier, he had played without a 7-iron because, as he said, "there are no 7-iron shots at Merion."

As I would later know that Tiger Woods was just getting started, I knew then that Hogan was finishing up. In fact, he would play in only one more Open. But there was so much to be gained by seeing Hogan in the flesh. My images of him were frozen, the 1-iron shot at Merion. Save "Shell's Wonderful World of Golf," there was little play on television.

You didn't see Hogan swing, you just read about it.

I don't remember what Hogan shot that day, a 74 I think. He did make the cut to finish 12th, a remarkable result. All I remember is that I'd never seen anyone hit the ball better. Then or now. His performance from tee to green was clearly the work of a virtuoso, the concert pianist for a romantic, the surgeon for a realist.

He hit it so much better than Venturi and Beard did. The Olympic Course seems to be one long, tree-lined dogleg par-4 after another, demanding one "Hogan" after another.

Hogan was, in his time, the best driver of the ball, not just for accuracy, but for distance, even though he was 5-foot-7 and weighed 140 pounds. But what was unforgettable and perhaps never repeatable by anyone but him was his iron play. Hogan whistled head-high, long-iron shots at every green.

He was 53 years old.

Once on the green, you didn't even want to watch. He smoked, and shook and finally pulled the trigger on putts that gamely fought their way to the hole but seldom went in.

I'd take Tiger Woods in a match against Ben Hogan. As the story goes, Hogan didn't even like match play. It distracted him from shooting the lowest score he could. Hogan could never putt as well as Woods does, let alone get up and down from off the green, a situation Hogan seldom found himself in. They were just different.

But I don't think there is any question that Hogan had a better, crisper more reliable swing. I love the story of Hogan telling his caddie during a U.S. Open practice round to be sure to fix their divots. "We'll be back," he said.

It is a shame that Woods isn't obliged to hit the ball with the accuracy that Hogan did. Driving the ball in the fairway just isn't that important anymore. Woods ranked 152nd on the PGA tour last year in driving accuracy, Vijay Singh was 155, Adam Scott 160 and Phil Mickelson 181.

They play the game with driver, wedge and putter. Perhaps eliminating the U-shaped grooves will make the wedge less valuable and hitting it in the fairway more so. I hope so.

Simply put, I'd rather watch Hogan hit a golf ball than Woods. Surely there is an explosive quality to Woods game that is appealing, and a competitive zeal that is unmatched. But for those who have struggled with the game, there is nothing better than watching someone who has mastered it.

Hogan did that.

Blaine Newnham has covered golf for 50 years. He still cherishes the memory of following Ben Hogan for 18 holes during the first round of the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. He worked then for the Oakland Tribune, where he covered the Oakland Raiders during the first three seasons of head coach John Madden. Blaine moved on to Eugene, Ore., in 1971 as sports editor and columnist, covering the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. He was to cover five Olympics all together - Mexico City, Munich, Los Angeles, Seoul, and Athens - before retiring in early 2005 from the Seattle Times. He covered his first Masters in 1987 when Larry Mize chipped in to beat Greg Norman, and his last in 2005 when Tiger Woods chip teetered on the lip at No. 16 and rolled in. He saw Woods four straight major wins in 2000 and 2001, and Payne Stewart's birdie putt to win the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. Blaine plays golf at Wing Point Golf and Country Club on Bainbridge Island, Wash., where his current index is 12.6. In 2005, Blaine received the Northwest Golf Media Association's Distinguished Service Award. He and his wife, Joanna, live in Indianola, Wash., where the Dungeness crabs out-number the people.