The routine was always the same. On weekdays Ben Hogan arrived at Shady Oaks Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, shortly before noon, having spent precisely two hours at the Ben Hogan manufacturing company on the other side of town. He ate lunch at the same circular table overlooking the course, sometimes alone and sometimes joined either by regulars from the gang that teed off daily at one o'clock or by other members. At about 12:45 he retreated to the locker room to rub liniment on his legs, which had been crushed in a 1949 head-on collision with a bus, and wrap them in bandages. Then he pulled on his golf clothes and his trademark cap. Finally, at about 1:30, word filtered down to the cart room: "Mr. Hogan will be hitting balls."
Hogan practically invented golf practice. Back in the 1930s, when he was in his twenties, few courses had designated practice areas and most touring pros did little more than hit a few warm-up balls before teeing off (after their rounds they repaired to the bar more often than they returned to the course to hit balls). But the young Hogan was bedeviled by a vicious hook and cured it only by relentless practice—digging his game "out of the dirt," as he famously called it. By the time his career peaked fifty years ago—when he won the Masters, the U.S. Open and the British Open in a three-month span—practice had become an obsession.
But it was also his art form. At tournament sites his practice sessions sometimes outdrew the galleries on the course. The jaw-dropping precision and variety of his shots were part of the attraction, but so was simply being near the great man at work. When Hogan practiced, he exuded a powerful, almost mystical aura of concentration. It was like watching Picasso paint. And just as Picasso continued to create masterpieces into his old age, so Hogan continued to practice at Shady Oaks long after his tournament career (sixty-eight victories, including nine major championships) had ended in 1971. Almost every day, until he was nearly eighty and the pain in his legs became too much to bear, Hogan hit balls. At Shady Oaks, however, there were no crowds. The sole witnesses to Hogan's latter-day art—and the source of the many lessons we can all take away from Hogan's practice regimen—were his shag boys.
Shagging, for those who may have only an Austin Powers notion of the word, is the now-archaic custom of standing in a field and offering yourself as a target for someone hitting practice balls. Each day, Hogan plucked a boy from the cart room and drove with him to some remote part of the course. Since the main eighteen at Shady Oaks got little play in those days—for many years membership at the extremely private club stood at only about 150—and the supplemental par-three course got even less, they were usually alone. Hogan motioned the boy where to stand and began striping balls. Apart from perhaps a few pleasantries during the initial cart ride, seldom did he say a word.
Paul Darwin, who shagged for Hogan in the late 1960s, remembers reading a newspaper account about the crowds that were turning out to watch Hogan practice during the four-time U.S. Open champ's last appearance at the event, at Baltusrol in 1967. "This was very humbling for me," said Darwin in a strong Texas accent, "because I knew that a week later, there I would be at Shady Oaks, shagging for him with a front-row private view of the same thing. Imagine being Michael Jordan's ball boy when he practiced his shooting. That's what it felt like." During the time he shagged for Hogan, Darwin was himself a two-time Fort Worth city junior champion (later he played at the University of Texas on the same team as Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite) and was totally awestruck: "Hogan is still the best ball striker I've ever seen, bar none. He could just about make a golf ball talk. Tiger may be as driven, but he can't compare to Hogan when it comes to pure ball striking."
Darwin, now 52 and an engineering manager at an area technology firm, vividly remembers one of the first times he went out. Hogan positioned him on a downward-sloping section of the eleventh fairway. "He was hitting four- and five-irons," Darwin explained. "Ball after ball came in exactly the same way: They took one bounce and then spun back. They were spinning back up the hill. I couldn't believe it then, and I still can't hardly believe it." Hogan's consistency was so refined that new shag boys quickly learned to keep the mouth of the bag open (it looked like a bowling-ball bag) and position it carefully—not infrequently a shot would land in the bag on the fly.
Wally Payne, who shagged from 1972 to 1973 and who is now a PGA professional, also remembers his first time working for Hogan, who by then was sixty years old: "He started off as he always would with the nine-iron and worked up to his five-iron; that was the first bag of balls. [Each bag held about four to five dozen balls, and after Hogan hit through them the shag boy would walk the bag back to him.] Then he hit four-iron through driver. With each new club I'd back up a few yards, but it didn't matter what the distance was, I never had to take more than one or two steps to catch the ball." Like the others, Payne used a folded-over towel to field the balls, usually after the first or second bounce, and to wipe them clean before returning them to the bag. "Frankly, it was a little boring. But then after he had hit four or five drives to me at about 250 yards, the next one looked as if it went straight up in the air. I said, 'Alright! He skied one! He's human,' and I ran in a few steps. But then I saw he hadn't skied it at all, he had just hit one on a different trajectory. The ball sailed way over my head, by at least twenty yards. He told me later he had just 'Harleyed' it—given it a little more gas."
For Payne, the most incredible shots that Hogan hit were the punch nine-irons from about ninety yards, normally a wedge distance. These shots ballooned up slightly and then fell to the green at a nearly vertical angle of descent, stopping dead on a dime. "Tiger has developed a shot something like that recently," observed Payne, "but otherwise I've never seen anyone hit it."
Every shot Hogan attempted had a design and purpose to it, noted Robert Hoyt, another shag boy from the late 1960s: "He was always working on something, although you usually had no idea what and you never asked. Each session was like a sacred ritual, and the last thing you would have dared to do was interrupt him. Sometimes he was disgusted at the result of a shot for no reason I could figure out, because to me almost every shot seemed perfect."
Frequently Hogan played nine practice holes using the shag boy as his caddie. Here again, the routine never varied. If anyone ever personified the injunction to "practice like you play," it was Hogan. He always played three balls, and his intense concentration never lagged, even for a single shot. "I can't tell you the number of times we reached his drives and all three balls would be within two or three yards of each other in the fairway. Then, a lot of the time when we got to the green, he'd have three ten-foot birdie putts," Hoyt recalled. "Unfortunately, he'd usually miss all three."
Indeed, putting was Hogan's downfall, especially late in his career. The greenskeepers at Shady Oaks maintained two special practice-putting cups for Hogan on the back part of the enormous second green so that he could practice putting without people watching him, which he detested. But it didn't help much. Hoyt, who went on to become the Texas state amateur champion and a golf pro, remembers telling his father at the time that if he could have putted for Hogan, the two of them combined could have won the U.S. Open, even when Hogan was in his late fifties—and he still half believes it: "Tee-to-green, Mr. Hogan's ball striking was just uncanny."
From time to time when Hogan was playing these little private practice rounds, other golfers would ask him to join them. Although he did sometimes play with members, when practicing he always turned such invitations down. Darwin remembers one time when a threesome ahead was playing absurdly slow, clearly dawdling in hopes that the Great One would catch up and play along with them so that they would have a story to tell their grandkids. When Hogan realized what was happening, he simply skipped two holes to avoid them.