Why Jack Nicklaus Is Not the Best Golfer in History, Part Four: Ben Hogan

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Why Jack Nicklaus Is Not the Best Golfer in History, Part Four: Ben Hogan

This is Part Four of a series in which I am comparing the great golfers of the past to Jack Nicklaus, who is generally acknowledged as the best golfer in history.  It is my contention that Jack's place as the best golfer of all time is disputable. 

In Parts One through Three,  I reviewed the careers of Harry Vardon, Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones.  Today's subject is Ben Hogan.  I will conclude the series with a ranking of the greatest golfers of all time.

 
Hogan's Stats

Hogan first turned professional in 1930 at the age of 18 and his prime playing years lasted until 1960.  Hogan won 9 majors in total.   Before Tiger Wood passed him up in  2005, he owned the second most major titles after Nicklaus's 18.

This is one reason he is often regarded as the second best player of all time after Nicklaus. (Bobby Jones is most often listed with 7 major wins, because his 6 other major victories were not modern majors and don't show up on most lists).

Rather than simply judge Hogan by his 9 major victories, we are going to look deeper into his numbers and legacy.  Hogan played in more majors than Vardon, Hagen or Jones.  He competed in 47 in the prime of his career, compared to 118 for Nicklaus, 43 for Hagen, 27 for Jones and 24 for Vardon. 

Hogan is also the first golfer we've discussed whose career spanned all of golf's modern majors. Nonetheless, he was unable to compete in 4 majors per year like top modern golfers for a variety of reasons:

1) The Masters didn't start until 1934, four years after Hogan turned professional.  
2) The British Open was most often played the same week as the PGA Championship.  It was rare for players to compete in both in the same year until the 1960's.  This may have prevented Hogan from winning the Grand Slam in 1953.
3)  Because of ocean travel, the British Open was difficult to get to and was a financial burden for Hogan, who was basically poor.
4) Hogan missed 3 years of majors due to World War 2.
5) After his car accident in 1949, he played a very limited schedule.  The only majors he played in during the '50's were the Masters and U.S. Open, except in 1953, when he played in his one and only British Open at Carnoustie. He won by 4 strokes.

As readers of my previous posts know, I consider it more instructive to compare these golfers by their career winning percentage in majors, rather than their total number of major victories. 

Hogan won 19% of the majors he entered during his prime years, which is better than Jack's winning percentage of 16%.  If he had competed in 118 majors as Nicklaus did and maintained his 19% winning percentage, he would have won 22 or 23 majors, not 9.

Early Career

What most sets Hogan apart from the previous golfers we've discussed is that he didn't win his first major until the age of 34.  Hagen, Nicklaus and Jones all won the U.S. Open at the ages of 21 and 22.  Vardon won his first British Open at age 26. 

His first ten years on tour Hogan fought a tendency to snap hook his drives when under pressure.  As a result, he didn't even win a regular tournament until 1940 at the age of 28.  At that point, though, he caught fire, winning more than 30 regular tour events between 1940 and 1946.  However, despite 5 top five's in majors, but could never win the big one. 

During this long six year period, Hogan was the quintessential "Best Player to Never Win a Major".  In 1942 he blew a 3 stroke lead in an 18 hole playoff to lose the Masters to Byron Nelson.

Four years later at the 1946 Masters (after the war), he came to the 72nd hole with a one stroke lead, then proceeded to 3 putt from 10 feet to fall into a playoff, which he lost the next day.   There is no record of any such chokes in the histories of Vardon, Hagen, Jones or Nicklaus.

Major Success

Something must have clicked in Hogan after his humiliating 3 putt at the Masters, because he broke through and won his first major later that year at the 1946 PGA Championship. 

Although he failed to win another major in 1947, the next year he began a five year romp through the PGA Tour during which he won 8 of the next 11 majors he entered, including 3 straight majors - the "Hogan Slam" - in the calendar year of 1953.  Hogan didn't play in the PGA Championship that year because is was held the same week as the British Open. 

What's most amazing about Hogan's streak, which is only rivaled in golf history by Bobby Jones' play in the 1920's, is that it was interrupted in 1949 by a horrific car accident that nearly killed him. 

Up to that point, Hogan had not been popular with galleries or the press.  Although extremely polite and a consummate professional, Hogan had a grim and taciturn personality that didn't endear him to fans or his fellow players.  The great outpouring of sympathy after his accident and his subsequent heroic rebound completely transformed his public image. 

Other Legacies

He was the first player to win the modern career grand slam, which means he won all four majors in his career.  The only other golfers to accomplish this are Sarazen, Nicklaus, Player and Woods.  Nicklaus accomplished it twice.  Woods is working on his third time round. 

This may sound suprising to modern audiences, but Hogan was the first great player who practiced extensively.    Byron Nelson, Hogan's boyhood friend from Fort Worth, Texas, said that Hogan "invented practice".  Keep in mind that prior to the sixties, purses in professional golf weren't big enough to pay the bills.  Professional golfers all had regular jobs, usually running the pro shop at private clubs. 

In fact, the British Open used to be played during mid-week so the players could be back at their clubs on the weekend selling shoes and giving lessons to wealthy hackers.
It took a tremendous amount of dedication to practice as much as Hogan did in his era. 

He was famous for beating balls for hours on the range, while his colleagues were all just trying to relax from their hectic weeks.  Imagine if Vijay had to work 30 hours a week at McDonald's on top of his practice and fitness regimen.

He won 64 total tour events, which was good for 3rd on the career list until Woods passed him last year.

He was also one of the first students of the golf swing and published a series of analytical articles that are still widely read by golf professionals to this day.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that Hogan was one of the greatest golfers of all time.  His career major winning percentage is impressive at 19% and it seems reasonable to project him at least 20 major victories if he had the opportunity to compete in as many events as a modern golfer of his stature.

However, like Jones, in terms of being "the" greatest, Hogan has a longevity issue.  In a way, he's a mirror image of Jones, who retired early.  Hogan had his great years during the second half of his career.  He didn't win a regular event until he was 28 and didn't win his first major until he was 34.  In terms of career longevity, compared to Vardon, Hagen and Nicklaus, he comes up short.

Next week: Eldrick Woods

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