.....................................................................................................................Issue #1 Winter 2009

Al's Journey through Golf Book Shop and signings Advanced Ball Striking Instruction Forum

 

A Very Revealing Hogan Letter

I was talking with Loren Roberts at the recent Charles Schwab Cup tournament, in Sonoma, California and Ben Hogan’s name came up. Loren mentioned he had a copy of a letter Hogan wrote about how to hit the driver, said he’d send it to me, and did. It’s a 13-pager written by hand to Pat Mahoney, in 1948. Mahoney at the time was the head pro at the Pasatiempo Golf Club, near San Jose, California.

What Mahoney's relationship with Hogan was is not known. It was probably sketchy, at best. Hogan did not have many close friends in golf, or anywhere else. Which makes you wonder why he would write such a letter, especially because it was very rare for Hogan to give out information on his technique unless he was paid handsomely for it. And even then he didn’t tell anyone what he actually did. That’s not what you would expect, given his reputation for integrity, but the truth is that Hogan had a lot of the con artist in him. It’s a strange quirk in the human makeup that people who are quiet in public (and in private), such as Hogan, are often awarded the honor of having high ethical standards. It’s not always the case.


One Hogan instance in this regard stands out in particular. In 1955, Life Magazine paid Hogan $25,000—a huge amount in that day—to reveal his “Secret,” which had become the Holy Grail of Golfdom. Everybody and his uncle over the years when Hogan had dominated the game - a decade between 1945 and 1955-speculated as to what he did with the golf club that made him so great a player. The “Secret” he revealed in the Life article was that just a moment before starting the downswing he cupped his left wrist inward. Ninety-nine percent of golfers over all the years have cupped their left wrist at the top of the backswing, but with poor results, but never inward as Hogan made it look in the article. Hogan did this early in his career, but when he changed it, in his prime championship years, became "Hogan". One of his most prominent swing characteristics was a flat left wrist at the top of his backswing with the back of the left hand facing the sky. Or, the left palm facing downward.This is called pronation, a word that he helped make popular. An easier word for it is rotation, which he would use frequently in later years. In the image shown below, on the Life Magazine cover, you see his back swing is more upright and a cupping of the left wrist. In the accompanying picture, which is the way I remember seeing his action in competition and on the range, the left wrist was flat and the swing plane was also much flatter. The picture says it all.

Herbert Warren Wind, for many years the doyen of American golf writers, helped Hogan write the Life piece, and also his famous instruction book, Five Lessons. Many years after both had appeared I suggested to Wind that the so-called Life magazine “Secret” was bullshit. I was not the only one to come to that conclusion. Herb was nonplussed, and in a soft voice with an embarrassed tone he said, “Well, you have to make a living.” Wind knew his golf, and that Hogan was doing a number on the public. Proof of that is that in Five Lessons, published in 1957, there is not a single mention of the “Secret.” In fact, he says nothing about the hands except that they stabilize the club during the swing.


There are a lot of instructors out there nowadays who say they are teaching Hogan. But for one thing none of them ever saw Hogan swing in a tournament or on a practice range at a tournament, as I did. They are only teaching Hogan out of Five Lessons, which is another sample of Hogan not giving the public what it thought it was getting, to wit, how he himself did it. For instance, the stuff about the plane, which has always gotten a lot of attention because of the way it was illustrated. A pane of glass angles down from his neck to the ball, and he swings the club just inside that pane of glass. It looks good, and isn’t a bad way to swing the club. But he didn’t do it. His plane was much flatter, the shaft just beneath his left shoulder at the completion of his backswing and his left arm very close to horizontal with the ground.


I had my own experience with Hogan in regard to his putting people on about his technique. When the Hogan Tour was getting started—that was the first title of what is now the Nationwide Tour—Hogan agreed to a long interview, portions of which would be used to promote the new circuit. I was designated to ask him the questions. Afterwards, over lunch, I got a little feisty and told Hogan that I had figured out how he got the club into that backswing position of his. He said he’d give me the secret. Well now! Ben Hogan is going to give me the secret!

Some time passes, lunch is over, and Hogan and I are walking down the hallway at his hangout club, Shady Oaks. I still hadn’t gotten the secret, and asked him when it was coming. At that he steered me through the swinging doors of the kitchen, saying he didn’t want anyone else to hear. Fine. “Take your stance,” he commanded. I did. “Now turn your head to the right,” he said. I did. I waited for the next phase. It wasn’t coming. I asked if that was it, he said yes, and I said it was a gimmick. He said it wasn’t. The lesson was over. Hogan had given me a piece of swing business that went back to Bobby Jones, at least. Some secret!

Now, the letter to Mahoney, which I won’t produce in its entirety here if only because some of it is only common polite formalities. There were some lengthy parts, however, that were interesting in various ways. In one section Hogan presaged a swing concept called “Stack and Tilt” that is popular at the moment but appears to be sinking quickly into the horizon. Hogan wrote:

“The most important part of a good golf swing is to take the club back correctly so as to keep the head in one place. This can be accomplished in only one correct way, by moving the left knee in toward the right knee while moving the left shoulder in a slight downward arc … It feels like the hips are moving to the right but this is not so. Sagging the left side keeps the hips in one position and permits them to make a true concentric turn.”

Moving the left shoulder in a slight downward arc, and essentially shifting no weight to the right side, is the central point in “Stack and Tilt,” which the promoters of the idea almost certainly got from seeing photographs of Hogan’s swing. One in particular hangs on the wall of the Winged Foot Golf Club pro shop. It’s a Jules Alexander picture of Hogan taken in the early-1970s, when Hogan was playing his last tournament on the east coast, the Westchester Classic. The picture is taken facing Hogan’s back and he has completed his backswing. He is tilted so much to the left it looks like he’s about to reverse-pivot.

In this instance, Hogan was laying it on straight to Mahoney, although the move was nothing new or unique to him. Golfers as far back as Harry Vardon dipped their left shoulder toward the ball (and ground) on the backswing. Hogan made this move more pronounced, owing to the deterioration of his legs, which became weaker and weaker over the years in the aftermath of his near-fatal highway accident in 1949. He couldn’t get to the right side even if he wanted to. Hogan may be the only golfer who could make it work, because he could make such a violent hip turn in the downswing.

Another thing Hogan wrote Mahoney was that:

“at the top of the back swing, the left arm is on a horizontal plane to the ground….”

Which was true to his actual form, but is not what he prescribed in Five Lessons. In the book, the backswing plane he shows is conventional, the club’s path relatively vertical with the shaft above the tip of the right shoulder. Furthermore, the horizontal left arm he speaks of translates into a “flat,” backswing, which was another distinctive aspect of Hogan’s action. Here again, in the letter to Mahoney he says something else.
Hogan wrote:

“The left hand should not be turned over on the backswing. To verify this you should be able to see only one knuckle of the left hand at the top of the backswing. Turning the left hand over clock-wise creates a very flat swing and takes the club off the correct plane of the swing.”

In his remarks on the grip it was not at all what he did. He wrote to Mahoney:

“First the club must be gripped (lightly) correctly. The left hand should be in such a position that the vee formed by the thumb and index finger points to the right shoulder…The thumb of the left hand should be placed slightly to the side of the shaft.”

At this point in his career Hogan had come to the grip that played a major role in solving the hooking problem that had dogged his career and kept him out of the money until he was into his early 30s. At the suggestion of Henry Picard (Hogan did not dig it all out of the dirt, as he liked to say, suggesting he got no help from anyone), he weakened the left hand; that’s to say, he turned the hand counterclockwise so the vee formed by the thumb and index finger pointed to his left shoulder. What he gave Mahoney was boiler plate, what every teacher in the game had been teaching since the beginning of time.

One descriptive Hogan used is amusing:

“To verify a correct backswing, at the top of the backswing the groin muscle on the inside of your right leg near your right nut will tighten. This subtle feel of tightness there tells you that you [can make] the correct move back to the ball.”

Hmm, feel a tightness near the right nut. Sounds like it could be dangerous!

 

The Ball

Golf is the only ball game in sportsdom that does not have a universal ball; that is to say, everyone using a ball with the exact same specifications.

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Which is to point up one good reason (another being the condition of the greens) why you can’t really compare the record of Nicklaus to that of Tiger Woods.
The pros of the Hogan-Snead-Nelson and the Palmer-Nicklaus eras may have played different brand balls, and some were overall better than others, but they all had the same dimple pattern and number of dimples. The contention here is, even if it is ruled that the ball be reduced in distance, which is unlikely, the longer hitters will still have an advantage. But, it is not so much that today’s golf ball is longer than ever, it’s because the dimpling has become so technologically or aerodynamically advanced that they correct in flight—a slice becomes a fade, a hook a draw. This reduces the level of skill required to play shots into the fairways and greens. The dimpling may be more of a factor than the shape of the grooves in how much spin can be put on a ball with short irons. In my opinion, the grooves have very little to say about it.

If the dimple is regulated and everyone plays with the same kind in terms of depth, shape, and number, a lot of parity will be reached. And, the efficacy of many older "classic" courses would be preserved.

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The ball makers might complain that by having to build a “universal” ball for the pro tour they will short the average golfer, who needs all the help he can get. I should think the ball makers could find a corner in their plants where a “universal” ball could be produced; while on the main floor continue producing the balls the Average Golfer needs.

By the way, an interesting piece of golf ball history. Back in the day, when the ball was universal in respect to dimples, many touring pros honored their contract and played the ball produced by their equipment company. In some cases they suffered for it. The main culprit in this episode was the MacGregor ball. The company made suuperb clubs, but for some reason was never able to bring out a ball with the qualities of a top of the line Titleist or Wilson Staff.

Mike Souchak swore to his dying day that if he had not been loyal to the MacGregor ball, he would have won thirty more tournaments. Jackie Burke, Jr. only lowered the estimate. All of which makes Jack Nicklaus’ competitive record all the more outstanding, because he played the MacGregor ball for much if not all of his career. Ironically, it was only after he bought MacGregor, near the end of his competitive days, that he switched… and was caught in the act. Remember the tv camera zoom to a close close-up of his ball on a green at the AT&T National Pro-Am (which may still have been The Crosby) and up appeared Titleist?

 

My Putting Book Available Online!

 

For years I never looked forward to putting, not because I thought it wasn't part of the game, but because I was so poor at it. I’ve had good streaks of putting over the years, but they lasted for a couple of days at most. The best putting I did was when I emulated the back-stroke of Billy Casper. He tilted the blade downward when he took it back. It was not closed, as people have often described it, it was just that the clubface “looked” toward the ground. I used this action when I qualified for the U.S. Amateur, in 1971. When I needed a 9-foot slider on the last hole of the qualifying tournament, in New Jersey, I made it and was in a playoff for the last of the three spots opened at this site. Then, on the second hole of the playoff I put my tipped blade stroke on a 12 footer for birdie, and that got me to the main event, in Delaware.

Why I didn’t stick with this stroke after that I’ll never know. With it I somehow judged the distances well, and it was deadly on short putts. I suppose I had a round or two when the ball wasn’t falling, and I went away from the stroke. Or, I took it for granted and got into other technique stuff. But of course, you can never take any part of golf for granted.

Anyway, a few months ago I got to thinking a lot about putting, no doubt because age has gotten me to where I can't get home on a lot of par 4's, therefore neediing more one putt greens to produce a repectable score. That being the case, I went back to that tilted blade stroke. It still works, but this time I have added a new element to combine with it. I came to realize the truth of something I learned from the legendary putting genius, George Low, when I helped him write his book on the art. That is, you should put in charge of the action the hand you use the most, and most efficiently—your dominant hand. If you are right handed, that is the one that will have the most feel for distance and direction when you putt. That’s the central theme of my book on putting, what I have titled The Final World on Putting. That sounds like I’m some sort of whacko egotist. I’m not, but I am very sure it is the way all golfers should putt. That and tipping the blade, what I have decided to call instead, tilting.
There is nothing new about this. It just hasn’t been articulated by anyone, including the putting gurus—Pelz, Utley, Stockton (with whom I did his book on putting), among others. I have had a lot of positive feedback from people who I’ve told about the concept.
You can get the book through this website.

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From the Vault

Redlands CC, California 1954