The possibility of Ben Hogan being the greatest golfer of all time had never crossed my mind until a few years ago. Looking back, it is easy to see how he could be overlooked by myself and many other fans of the sport.
Jack Nicklaus has won the most major tournaments, with a total of 18. Sam Snead has won the most PGA Tour events ever. Byron Nelson has the most consecutive wins and wins in a season. Tiger Woods won four consecutive majors and has 14 major titles in total. Bobby Jones also won four consecutive majors, albeit in a much different era and two of them being amateur events.
Ben Hogan only won nine majors, so how could he possibly be considered the superior to someone like Jack Nicklaus? Perhaps the best comparison to Hogan would be Sandy Koufax, who many consider the greatest pitcher of all time. Koufax was relatively mediocre for seven seasons, then transformed into a dominant pitcher for five years. His career was cut short by elbow trouble that had bothered him for two years, and frankly should have prevented him from pitching at a high level.
The story of Ben Hogan follows a similar path. In 1930 an 18-year-old Hogan played his first professional event. He would not win an individual stroke play event until 1940. After finally notching that first win, he promptly went on to win three straight tournaments. From 1940-1942 Hogan won 15 tournaments in total.
He would not win a major until the 1946 PGA Championship, although the 1942 Hale America Open has a strong case to be counted as a major. Regardless of any official label, the event in Hogan's mind was a major and it catapulted his game to another level. However, World War II would prevent Hogan from playing until the tail end of 1945, and he would not play a major until 1946.
Hogan would go on to win an incredible 31 tournaments in three years from 1946-1948. Three majors were among those victories, including two in the 1948 season.
In February of 1949, Hogan was involved in a near-fatal car accident, as his vehicle was struck head on by a bus. While the broken bones would heal, Hogan developed a severe problem with blood clots in his legs. In order to prevent clots from possible spreading to his heart, Hogan underwent a procedure that essentially sealed the main arteries to his legs. Doctors were unsure if he would be able to walk again, let alone play golf.
Hogan was effectively crippled for the rest of his life, but he did manage to make a return to golf. Hogan's legs would swell so severely from walking the course that he was forced to tightly wrap them from ankle to waist as part of an hours-long pre-round treatment. Unable to endure the grind of an entire season, Hogan would never play more than six tournaments in a season again. He also would not compete in the PGA Championship because of the grueling match play format.
What Hogan would do from 1950-1953 is nearly unfathomable. He won six major championships in only nine total starts. In 1953 he won three majors in three starts. The British Open and PGA Championship had conflicting schedules, so Hogan was unable to attempt to win the grand slam.
The 1953 British Open would prove to be Hogan's final major. He lost in a playoff to Sam Snead in the 1954 Masters. He also would lose the 1955 US Open in a playoff to little known Jack Fleck. The 1960 US Open was the last time Hogan seriously contended for a major.
Ben Hogan from 1946-1953 won nine major championships in only 16 starts. From the 1948 US Open through the 1953 British Open he won eight majors out of 11 he played in. From 1940-1956, Hogan played a total of 32 majors. He finished outside of the top 10 only once, at the 1947 PGA Championship.
By comparison, the most dominant stretch of Tiger Woods' career came from the 1999 PGA Championship through the 2002 US Open. Woods won seven majors in 11 starts, which was an amazing feat. Yet it does not match the winning percentage that Hogan achieved.
Despite Jack Nicklaus having a huge advantage in terms of total wins, I think the circumstances of Hogan's career make it an interesting comparison. Nicklaus was able to win 18 majors by being consistently great over a period of around 20 years. He also managed to turn back the clock for nine holes at the 1986 Masters.
While Hogan's nine major championships came over a stretch of only 16 major starts, he managed to be dominant over a long period of time as well. This is evident by his success in majors from 1940-1956. Hogan played in an era where players did not play all four majors in a season.
He had years taken away due to World War II and the car accident. Further, he would not have stopped contesting the PGA Championship had it been a stroke play event. Hogan was consistently great over a long period of time, he just didn't have the chance to play four majors each year like Nicklaus did.
Hogan came from an impoverished background and was entirely self-taught. He initially developed a loopy amateurish looking swing designed to hit draws for maximum distance. This was done so he could out-drive older caddies and subsequently have the right to carry bags and make money at Glen Garden Country Club. He was able to transform this into a swing that produced such accuracy and consistency that many believe Hogan possessed a secret to the golf swing.
While other golfers have surpassed Hogan in terms of wins, I do not believe any have surpassed him in terms of greatness.
I would like to credit the following books: Ben Hogan: An American Life by James Dodson, Miracle at Merion: The Inspiring Story of Ben Hogan's Amazing Comeback and Victory at the 1950 U.S. Open by David Barrett, Golf's Greatest Championship: The 1960 U.S. Open by Julian I Graubart.