The Continuing Mystery of Ben Hogan’s Secret

Sixty three years ago this spring a golfer experienced the breakthrough of a lifetime.  He discovered something that transformed him from a very good golfer to a legend in his lifetime, with an enduring reputation as the greatest ball striker the game has ever known.  Ben Hogan discovered something in 1946 and later insinuated and finally acknowledged that he had discovered a “secret”.  A secret that enabled him to accomplish a goal he sought for nearly 14 years on the pro tour, namely how to produce a consistent, powerful, repeating swing that allowed him to gain almost total mastery over the golf ball.  Debates continue to this day over who is the greatest golfer of all time. But as Jack Nicklaus recently observed in response to a question about whether Tiger Woods is the best ball striker he had ever seen, “No, no that would unquestionably be Ben Hogan”.   And we have all likely read the comment attributed to “Terrible” Tommy Bolt, a champion golfer in his own right, who famously observed that “All I know is I seen Nicklaus watching Hogan practice, but I ain’t never seen Hogan watch Nicklaus practice”. 

For a number of years Hogan would only acknowledge that he had discovered a secret.  A number of professional golfers speculated about his secret in the 5 April 1954 Life Magazine.  The next year Hogan revealed his secret for all to see in the 8 August 1955 Life Magazine,  The article was entitled simply “This is my secret”, with Hogan detailing how he had further weakened his grip by moving his hands left so he could barely see 2 knuckles, with the V of both hands pointing right at the button of his chin.  I say further weakened his grip because he had previously moved his grip to the left or a neutral position in 1938 based on a tip to prevent hooking from Henry Picard.  He had also adopted a so called shortened thumb position upon his release from the service in 1945.  The shortened thumb gave him better control of the club on the backswing by cutting down on his tendency to “John Daily it”, particularly with the driver.  The secret he described involved the use of the Scottish technique of deliberate pronation.  This technique involved a twisting or cupping of the left wrist on the backswing.  The move was believed to make it difficult to close the face of the club on the downswing, therefore preventing a hook.  Most expert golfers considered it a technique not only suited to get the ball in the air but also to promote a hook.  He also described how he “supinated” his left wrist through the ball.  Hogan further advised that his secret would not be worth a hoot to the average golfer and it would be ruinous for a bad golfer, particularly one that already fights a slice.  But it certainly worked for Hogan, as he won 33 tournaments and 3 majors from 1946 until the interruption of his career by his automobile accident on 2 Feb 1949.  This was a phenomenal run of success that took him to the pinnacle of the golf world.


Perception of another Secret.


Several months before the revelation of his secret in Life Magazine, Jack Fleck defeated Hogan in a playoff for the 1955 U.S. Open Championship.  Fleck was little heralded and lesser known and it is considered one of the greatest upsets in U.S. Open history.  Hogan was devastated by the loss, announcing that he would be a “ceremonial golfer” from that moment on.  The win would have given him a record fifth U.S. Open Championship and atoned for his perception of being slighted by his win of the Hale Open in 1942, which was conducted like an Open in all but name, including the award of an identical medal that matched Hogan’s other four.  Hogan later released in the spring of 1957 a series of Sports Illustrated Articles that were later packaged into his classic instruction manual “Five Lessons, The Modern Fundamentals of Golf”. 

The book remains relevant and a classic over 52 years later.  The book was not without controversy, though, as the secret revealed in 1955 was nowhere to be found within the book.  There was little to no discussion about “pronation”, save for a brief mention of the ruinous effects of early pronation on the downswing.  There was quite a bit of information on “supination”, however.  With its focus on the basic golf fundamentals, Hogan’s philosophy held that proper application and practice of the basic elements of the swing was all that was needed.  The basic elements consisted of about 8 total movements that were linked together in a chain action to produce a repeating golf swing.  He felt that a golfer of average athletic ability could break 80.  Golfers became skeptical when the book did not quickly lead to the promised results.  There were around 18 pages on the grip alone.  After all that coverage, the relatively weak grip advocated in Five Lessons was held up by many instructors as an example of a bad technique for beginners, as it exacerbated the bane of most golfers, the dreaded slice.  For golfers already prone to draw the ball, the focus on a strong adhesion of the right arm and elbow to the side, coupled with the inside swing, often produced the worst kind of confidence destroying shot, the snap or duck hook.  The recommendation to move the hips as fast as one could, as if they were attached to the wall by an elastic band, wreaked havoc on the swings of golfers whose arms could not keep pace with the body and often ended up swinging wildly or by tossing their arms through impact like a rag doll.  Finally, a key tenet of the swing presented in the book as a breakthrough of sorts, the plane, proved too complex , a bit esoteric and an issue that few understood. 


A Book Before or After its Time?


Out of fairness to his book, a new breed of “franchise” golfer was emerging in the form of Arnold Palmer, Gary Player to a lesser degree and amateur star Jack Nicklaus.  The “swashbuckling” era of golf was in full force and the go for broke style of Palmer, with a unique swing style that only an athlete could produce, seemingly bore little resemblance to the style advocated by Hogan. Then there was Nicklaus, with flying right elbow, reverse “C” and prodigious length that was described by Hogan’s hero Bobby Jones as “A style of golf with which I am not familiar”. The reverse “C” gained prominence on the tour and the style was quite unlike that advocated in Five Lessons.  Despite Hogan’s reputation as a great ball striker and having achieved the admiration of his fellow golfers, Hogan’s style paled in comparison with Palmer.  Palmer’s golf was compelling, emotional, and it created a ground swell of fan support that became known as “Arnie’s Army”.  Golfers wanted to play like and be like Arnie.  There was no love lost between Palmer and Hogan, whose insistence on referring to Palmer as “Fella” irked Palmer throughout his career.  The relatively conservative style of golf played by Hogan fell somewhat into disfavor during the period where Palmer peaked, Player began to be a force to reckon with and Nicklaus came to the fore.


What of the Secret?


There was the hint of unfinished business over the years as Hogan closed out his career.  From time to time for the next several decades, there were insinuations that there was more to his golf swing and his knowledge than had been revealed in his golf books or the Life Magazine articles.  He often introduced himself as “Henny Bogan” when meeting people or when talking on the phone, which was an apparent joking reference to himself.  He did an interview with Nick Seitz in December 1984 that was added as a foreword for a reprinting of Five Lessons as it closed in on 30 years in print.  Hogan revealed the importance of pronation and the trials and tribulations that led him to the discovery.  He also insisted that he “would not change a thing in Five Lessons and that everything he knew about the full golf swing was in there”.  There was speculation and doubts about these statements anew, since the book made no mention about the secret that he revealed in 1955.  Sometime over the course of the next decade, Hogan reportedly offered to reveal his actual secret that he apparently did not disclose in the Life Magazine article.  There were rumors and speculation that the technique would allow a pro to shoot in the 50s.  The asking figure was reportedly $100,000.  The deal never came to fruition.  There was an update in one of the golf magazines that provided a recap of much of the information known to date about the secret, but there was no new information presented.


Emerging Secrets!


Hogan did not reveal any further information in his lifetime.  Several books have been published over the last decade or so by credible people that purport to reveal Hogan’s secret as told to them, in some cases, by Hogan himself.  While many of these present interesting stories, in some cases the books are fiction and in other cases the premise of the secret is based upon emphasizing the fundamentals outlined in Five Lessons.  Many have speculated that there was no more to be known and that Hogan was just stringing people along.  Others have difficulty explaining why, if there was more to the story, an honorable man with integrity like Hogan did not reveal it in his lifetime.  Still others have postulated that Hogan’s secret was in his head, or it was an 8 letter word that “began with a P and ended with an E” (practice).  Byron Nelson said it was hitting it close to the hole and making the putts.  Still others insisted that whatever secret there may have been, it is no longer relevant in the modern game with the new technology and the focus on target golf and distance.  Jim McLean observed in The Ben Hogan Collection DVD that Ben Hogan’s secret in the final analysis was a lot of little things.  That may be closer to the truth than anyone realizes.