How Ben Hogan Helped Phil Mickelson


January 21, 2013: Phil Mickelson made some remarks today about his income taxes. He has a real problem, and he is complaining about it. But he should keep quiet. Lots of men suffered, sacrificed, and worked to build the PGA Tour which is the immediate basis of Mickelson’s earnings. Pros of Mickelson’s generation seem to take their ability to earn great sums of money as some sort of natural, God-given right. But it isn’t. So without the hard work, the innovation, the sense of fairness and justice of Ben Hogan and others of his generation, Phil Mickelson would not be worried about his income taxes because he might not have any income.

I am an old man. I am an avid golfer. I played my first round in 1946. My father, my brothers, and assorted uncles and cousins play golf. We grew up not far from where Ben Hogan was born, and my youngest brother became a friend of Hogan’s. Hogan took his first job as a professional just 30 miles west of my front door. We live and breathe golf, and we are steeped in the lore of Ben Hogan. In my garage I have one car, a riding mower, and barrels of golf clubs. I coached golf in high school for a while more than fifty years ago. I play in tournaments of many types, and I can still make the young men cry on the course. And I love it. My handicap is in the low single digits, and I am not the best golfer in my family. I say all this because it was fun, but also to let you know that my family and I are knowledgeable about the game.

We love to watch Phil Mickelson. We love his willingness to take chances. We admire his skill with his wedges, especially around the greens. But Ben Hogan had such skills as well. At one time he played on Shell’s Wonderful of Golf in a match against Sam Snead. They both still had all their skills. At the end of the match Hogan had hit seventeen greens in regulation, the other he hit in one less than regulation. He played a perfect round and beat Snead. In the aftermath, Snead was interviewed by a Houston newspaper reporter. The reporter asked: “Does Mr. Hogan talk much during the round?” Snead replied: “Talk? He talks all the time. I couldn’t get him to shut up.” The reporter asked:  “What did he say?” Snead said: “He said the same thing every time. He said, ‘You’re away.’”

In 1949 Hogan was nearly killed in an automobile accident in far West Texas. In fact, the place was so remote that he nearly died before help could reach him. In 1950 he returned to the tour, but his legs were so damaged that he had to shorten his schedule because it was difficult for him to walk 18 holes in one day. In 1953 he was only able to play six tournaments and he won five. After winning the Masters and the U.S. Open (on the final day, he had to walk 36 holes), he entered the British Open. He had to qualify by walking 18 holes. Then in the tournament proper he had to walk 36 holes on the final day. He won by four shots and his score improved each round. He could not play in the fourth major, the PGA, because it overlapped with the British Open.

There are four “Hogan’s Alleys” in the world. One is at Carnoustie, the site of his British Open victory. It is located on the left side of one par five hole’s fairway, near an out of bounds fence. The landing area for his drives was very narrow, but he hit it all four rounds. No other player had the nerve to try it. That narrow, dangerous space became known as Hogan’s Alley. Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles is also known as Hogan’s Alley because of his wins there including one U.S. Open. Likewise with Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth where Hogan won several times. The fourth Hogan’s Alley is actually a street in the town of Dublin, Texas, where his family lived when he was born.

Hogan was also the greatest student of the game that the game has ever known. His 1957 book about the fundamentals of golf was earthshaking (in the golfing world at least). Many great modern teachers use his insights as a basis for their systems. His book has been reprinted more than 60 times. Some of these teachers have even written books about his book. He understood the game better than anyone, then and now.

I got to watch Hogan play at the Colonial Invitational a few times and it was a beautiful thing to see. But the most uncanny thing was the sound that came when his club struck the ball. It was like no other strike. Since that time I have heard other observers, professionals, remark on this sound. He played a different game from everyone else, and if his legs had held up, his records might well have been untouchable.

What has this to do with Phil Mickelson? Plenty. Hogan’s record is rich with accomplishments at the highest levels, and he is one of only five golfers to win all four of the modern majors: the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open, and the PGA. The others are Gene Sarazen, Gary Player, Tiger Woods, and Jack Nicklaus—the best of the best. Hogan is also a member of golf’s great hall of fame, the four-time winners of the U.S. Open. The other three are Willie Anderson, Bobby Jones, and Jack Nicklaus. Hogan is, and will remain, in the top echelon of great golfers. Mickelson is somewhere in the middle of the second tier, and there he will remain.  Why is this the case? Mickelson is extremely talented, so what is different between the two men, Hogan and Mickelson? The difference is that Hogan was highly intelligent. He had brains. Mickelson? Not so much. He has squandered his chances to be a great golfer and instead became a great entertainer.

But there is even a stronger connection between Hogan and Mickelson and professional athletes of all kinds. In 1957 Hogan sued a publisher for unauthorized use of some photographs of his swing. He won, and that case became the basis for all professional athletes licensing of their name and image. So Mickelson’s 2012 income of $47.8 million includes $43 million from endorsements which he would not have received but for Hogan’s intelligent decision to bring suit. Many athletes owe Ben Hogan a debt.

So no one should give a second thought to Mickelson’s ideas about anything. He seems to be a really nice guy, but he is a dummy, and he knows it. That is part of his charm. Check the Internet. You can find the interview where he blew the U.S. Open Championship in a truly stupid way. In that interview he admits his stupidity. And it is not the only time he has done such a thing. We still love Mickelson, and we will always root for him. But we will never take financial advice from him.

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