Byron Nelson, Sam Snead and Ben Hogan would have turned 100 in 2012a milestone that recalls the incomparable legacy they left
This year golf commemorates a chronological oddity: A trio of legendary players whose influence on the game was profound and persistent was born within seven months of each other. Byron Nelson, Sam Snead and Ben Hogan would have turned 100 this year.
This Country Boy Triumvirate turned an entire sport on its ear. Unlike the previous greatest golfer, the aristocratic amateur Bobby Jones of Atlanta, golf’s new prodigies were employees of the club, not members. Nor did they much resemble the original golf trinity. Harry Vardon, John Henry Taylor and James Braidtwo Englishmen and a Scotbelonged to a tweedy, provincial past of handlebar mustaches and hickory shafts.
But Nelson, Snead, and Hogan made indelible marks with high-tech steel, painted persimmon and their sharply drawn personalities. And they still fascinate us. The greatest players in the world try in vain to approximate their records, while instructors and students continue to study their swingsespecially Hogan’sfor the keys to the kingdom.
The unlikely emergence of these sons of rural Texas and Virginia coincided with the rise of American golf. As the game boomed in the colonies in the teens and ’20s, gentlemen with burrs and brogues sailed west to become self-anointed gurus of course design and instruction. But once Nelson, Snead and Hogan ascended in the 1930s, there was no need to import champions. We’d grown our own in the American mode: cheap, eager and fresh off the farm.
How good were they? They were giants. Despite the diminution of the Depression-era tour schedule, the interruption of World War II and, for Hogan, the aftermath of a car-bus collision that almost killed him, Byron, Sam and Ben won a staggering 198 official PGA Tour events (Palmer-Player-Nicklaus, the third and final golf triad of the 20th century, won 159). “Majors won,” wrote Herbert Warren Wind, golf’s great mid-century historian, “is the true measure of a champion.” Except that it’s not. There is nothing wrong with the records of the Country Boys in the majorsbetween them they won 21but they pre-dated the exaltation of “major championships”a process that would require a marriage of convenience between TV and hype. The Country Boys played the game to make a living, and glory was incidental and only marginally negotiable.
For example: Snead, for whom the mythology of links golf was as foreign as the legend of the Loch Ness Monster, played in the British Open only three times and won in his second try, in 1946. Hogan journeyed to Scotland in 1953 for his only Open and won. Nelson teed it up in two Opens: in 1937 when he and Snead were Over There for the Ryder Cup (he finished fifth) and a post-retirement appearance in 1955. Even if they handed you a claret jug at the end, the trip was a money loser for an American professional, so almost no one bothered.
The PGA Championship also gave lie to Wind’s widely accepted premise. Until 1958 it was contested at match play, producing dimly remembered champions who had some great matches but were themselves not great. Bob Hamilton and Vic Ghezzi, for example, both won PGAsand both beat the mighty Nelson in the final. So what are we left with: player of the year awards, Vardon Trophies, sand saves? In the end no trophy or statistic is adequate to measure Nelson, Snead and Hogan against champions from other eras, or captures how thoroughly they defined their sport.
Golf and the times they lived in united them, but their styles and characters were as distinct as chocolate, strawberry and vanilla. In the end, they were incomparableexcept to each other.
President William Howard Taft campaigned for re-election in 1912 (he lost), horses and cars mingled uneasily on American streets and the April 10 newspapers trumpeted the launchand, five days later, the sinkingof the RMS Titanic. Byron’s mother Madge had just turned 18 when she delivered her extra-large (12 pounds, 8 ounces) infant Feb. 4. Laura Snead was 47 when Sam appeared May 27. Ben was born Aug. 13. Clara Hogan was the only one of the three to give birth in a hospital. Nelson was the oldest of three children, Snead the youngest of six and Hogan the youngest of three.
By any modern measure, all three grew up poor. The Nelsons farmed cotton (and picked it by hand) on rented land in Ellis County, south of Dallas, in a town, Long Branch, that has disappeared from the map. Then they moved west to the grim agricultural outposts of San Saba and San Angelo. Hogan’s father, Chester, was a blacksmith in Dublin, a tiny burgh southwest of Fort Worth. The family’s modest circumstances became dire when, with his family present, Chester shot and killed himself when Ben was 9. The eight Sneads crammed into a six-room house in Ashwood, Va., hillbilly country; Sam had to share a bed with his sister, Janet, who was nine years older. He began to caddie at age 7 at the courses owned by the Homestead Hotel, where his father worked as a handyman. In fact, if not for the fluke that as adolescents Byron, Sam and Bennie lived within walking distance of private country clubs where they might caddie and sneak on to practice at dawn and twilight, we might never have heard of them. They weren’t going to learn the rich man’s game from their fathers, that’s for sure. John Nelson, Harry Snead and Chester Hogan never hit a ball, and they never saw their boys hit one either.
Caddieing led to golf, and golf led to everything else. The game hypnotized all three. Nelson struck a ball as he walked to and from school. Snead fashioned clubs from broken buggy whips and from the limbs of maple trees, and he also walked the dusty country road, whacking rocks and horse turds. The game was fun for Byron and Sam, and soothing for Ben, who enveloped himself in ritual practice for respite from thoughts of his lost father. All three swung hickory into their teens, which probably helped develop their sweet timing and tempo.
None of them cared about the books. Nelson quit school halfway through 10th grade. Hogan barely showed up for the start of his senior year at Paschal High in Fort Worth, and then he too dropped out. Snead hung around long enough to graduate, mostly because of sports. A superb athlete, Sam ran a 10-flat hundred, could hit a curve ball and a set shot, and played halfback well enough for the Valley High Hornets to attract football scholarship offers from the University of Virginia and others. He also got $50 a fight for occasional boxing exhibitions in Hot Springs. Even in late middle age Snead remained so springy and limber that he could (if you bet him) jump off one foot and plant the other over his head on a doorjamb.
In an all-time great coincidence Byron and Ben arrived at the caddie yard of Glen Garden CC in Fort Worth at the same time, probably in early 1925. They couldn’t have been more different. The tall boy, Byron, who didn’t swear or gamble or smoke, became the club’s most popular looper, scoring a job in the pro shop and sponsors when he turned pro. The short kid, Bennie, was a hardass, with a cigarette in his mouth, a willingness to fightand no friends.
Hemmed in by the Depression and, in a way, by their own talent, the three turned pro as if it were their only possible occupation. Hogan declared his intention to play for pay at age 17, for the Texas Open in San Antonio; Nelson at age 20, for an open event in Texarkana; and Snead in 1934, when he was 22, after years as a de facto pro in the Homestead golf shop.
Nelson was 6-foot-1, wiry-strong and could talk pleasantly with anyone. Imagine a successful club professionalexactly what he became. In his giant hands a golf club looked like a toothpick, and his compact, back-and-forth swing resembled a piston in an engine. Snead stood 5-11 but seemed taller; he was all arms and legs and had a 35-inch sleeve. His swing tempo described a Viennese waltz but, as Jack Burke Jr. recalled, when Sam hit a ball with a driver, “You could feel the earth move.” Snead could be folksy and charming, and was complicit in creating his naive country boy image, but he was far from a rube, and he had a suspicious streak a mile wide. The first pro he worked for underminedrather than helpedhis efforts to become a great player, and Sam never forgot. Until 1949, when he gained weight post-accident, Hogan deserved one of his nicknames, The Little Man. But at 5-foot-7 and about 135 pounds, Ben’s long, strong monkey arms allowed him to absolutely crunch a golf ballsomething he’d rather do than talk with people. His flat slash of a swing took a full second less to execute than Snead’s musical stroke.
After relatively short apprenticeships as touring pros, Nelson and Snead succeeded spectacularly. Byron won the ’37 Mastersthe biggest win of his career, he always saidand Snead killed in ’38, with eight wins, six seconds, and three third-place finishes. Hogan? Not so much. As golf historians will recall, Ben came home with his pockets turned inside out in 193034 and ran on fumes during a make-or-break effort in ’37. A win in a two-man event (with Ghezzi) in ’38 provided some breathing room until he won on his own four times in 1940. And then the jockey-like Little Man was off to the races.
All three were slim, powerful athletes with great smiles, and they looked terrific in their tailored, pre-logo clothes. But we best remember their hats. Snead’s follicles had gone into full retreat just as he was making a name for himself, which embarrassed him. He tried a variety of lids before settling on a snap-brim palmetto model with a fancy, wide band. Hogan’s flat, white linen cap was the opposite of fancy, and it packed well. In the final third of his life, it was rare to see Nelson without a lightweight white fedora that advertised his golf tournament.
Byron and Ben
Byron and Ben played the tour with wives in tow; Mrs. Snead stayed home. From Louise Nelson’s ready-to-burst smile in the old photos, a friend guessed that “enthusiastic” might be the word to describe Byron’s first wife. “Exactly,” said Byron, who had a second long, happy marriage (to Peggy) following Louise’s death. Byron had no children; he was sterile, he said, from the typhoid fever he’d had as a child. Nor did Ben and Valerie have kids. Why not? Who knows? It wasn’t the kind of thing they’d talk about. Behind their obsession about appearances, the Hogan marriage had its problems, and Ben moved out more than once, but ultimately the two small-town Texas kids were devoted to each other. In the matter of wives and children, Snead was the complicated one. He and Audrey had two sons, the second of whom had a profound mental disability. That Sam sought comfort, so to speak, on the roadand he could be on the road 45 weeks a yearwas well known to Audrey and to everyone else.
Each had his quirks. It amused Nelson to keep a diary of every penny he spent on travel. Hogan practiced as if he might forget how to play if he missed a day. His no-bull personality engendered fierce loyalty in his friends on tour, some of whom signaled their devotion by dressing, smoking and acting like him. As I wrote in my 1996 biography Hogan , “even talkative or emotional guys such as Gardner Dickinson and Billy Casper imitated his silence and reveal-nothing body language.”
Snead had a deep fondness for cash on the barrel head, and at least some of the stories about his frugality were true, but privately he was very generous. And, oddly, he often didn’t know what club to hit. Sam hawked the bags of other players, especially on par 3s. In a practice round for significant stakes, Bob Goalby or Doug Ford might feather an 8-iron, declare that he’d flushed it, and Sam would hit the same club a mile over the green.
Religion is key to understanding Nelson, who built his life around doing-unto-others and the Church of Christ. His clean living was a reproach to some of his peers on tour, but Byron was a competitor, not a proselytizer. Snead’s father was just as pious and Bible-quoting as Byron’s dadbut the church would have no hold on Sam. Hogan attended University Methodist in Fort Worth as an adult, occupying a pew in the back, near the door.
Nelson won Dallas in ’44, Hogan in ’45 and Snead in ’46.
Snead played a hook.
Hoganafter he fixed his griphit a fade.
Nelson’s basic shot was straight.
How are we to remember them in their primes? Nelson authored a couple of signature years as opposed to signature momentsbut his 3-4-2-3 to start the back nine Sunday at the ’37 Masters was so good that Augusta National memorialized it with a bridge and a plaque on the 13th tee. That birdie-par-birdie-eagle run allowed Byron to come from four behind Ralph Guldahl and win by two. The Hogan moment we love to dust off occurred at the ’50 U.S. Open at Merion. On a hot June Saturday afternoon, The Hawk, weary on his 36th hole of the day and feeling the after-effects of his February ’49 car accident, sputtered like a car running out of gas. But he got his drive on the final hole into the middle of the fairway. Then he drilled a 1-iron to the center of the green like an archer into a target, which got him into a playoff, which he won. Snead’s 67-67 finish when he won the ’49 Masters was particularly tasty, and he always mentioned the ’54 Masters playoff win over Hogan as a favorite accomplishment in his brilliant career. But long-term excellence82 official wins, the last when he was 52defined Sam more than any single achievement.
As with all great performers, they also suffered notable defeats. Nelson lost three of five PGA Championship finals. As scribes reminded him each June, Snead could never win a U.S. Open. Hogan’s final-hole three-putt at the ’46 Masters cost him a tie with Herman Keiser; and four, perhaps five times, 11th-hour miscues (and a small miracle from Jack Fleck) kept him from a fifth U.S. Open in ’55. But coming close should be viewed as a strength, not a weakness. We don’t disparage Nicklaus for his second-place finishes.
Five times, the last at the ’46 Houston Open, the Triumvirate finished one-two-three: Nelson won three times, Hogan twoa reminder that only one of them could win each week. From the middle of the Depression until the end of World War II, the three bumped into each other like basketball players going after the same rebound. Nelson and Hogan were up for the vacant Inverness CC head pro job in 1940Byron got it. “I guess [the club] liked the way I combed my hair better or something,” he said. But the Nelsons and Hogans were friendly, if not great friends, until Byron quit the tour in 1946. Then they went their separate ways.
Both Nelson and Snead
Both Nelson and Snead dominated Hogan in playoffs. Byron beat Ben in overtime in the ’40 Texas Open, the ’42 Masters and the 1927 caddie tourney at Glen Garden. “It seems as if I played better against Ben on the average than I did against anybody else,” Nelson wrote in his autobiography. “I tried harder against him because I had to.” Sam and Byron ascribed to the theory that Hogan’s laser focus on a 72-hole target score left him adrift when he had to go extra holes.
Snead won 11 times in 1950 including a playoff at the L.A. Open over Hogan in Ben’s first event since the car-bus collision. But Hogan, who won two tournaments (including the U.S. Open) in ’50, had become a sympathetic figure, and he won the PGA’s Golfer of the Year award. The slight twanged Sam’s latent persecution complex. “I almost quit the tour after that,” he wrote in The Game I Love . “I said, ‘The hell with it,’ and cut back my playing significantly … had I kept a full schedule, I think I would have won more because I was playing pretty well then.”
That incident upped the ante in the Snead/Hogan showdown in the ’54 Masters. Sam had won in Augusta in ’49 and ’52, Ben had won in ’51 and ’53and this time they were tied at one-over 289 after 72 holes. Before the playoff began, the Virginian asked the Texan if he would like to split the purse. Hogan took two drags on his Chesterfield, staring at Snead through the blue smoke. No, he would not like to split. “Let’s play,” Hogan said. Sam won, 70 to 71.
Nelson beat Snead in the final of the 1940 PGAwith a three-foot chip-in over a dead stymie on the third hole of the afternoon round, and a birdie-birdie-par finish to win 1 up. But their off-course differences were profound. Slammin’ Sam’s catting around and casual profanity contrasted sharply with Lord Byron’s ardent Christianity. While Byron cringed, Snead told dirty jokes at the Masters Champions Dinner; when Byron became emcee, he limited Sam to one R-rated jest. At the end of Nelson’s autobiographyin which he gives his impressions of various high-profile people, from Tommy Armour to Babe Zahariasconspicuous by his absence is Snead.
Nelson on Hogan: “He grew quite discouraged at times, but I could see he not only had talent, but a kind of dedication and stubborn persistence that no one else did. I encouraged him to keep at it.”
Snead on Hogan: “Hogan gave away less about himself than anyone I ever knew. If you asked [him] almost anything about his game, he didn’t have an answer. He sort of snorted. He didn’t want to give up any of his edge.” Asked if he ever helped Ben with his swing, Snead said, “No. Hogan’s gotta do it the hard way.”
Snead on Nelson and Hogan: “Byron seemed to accept that he was human and that he would miss a shot here or there, and I think I was much the same way [but] Ben hated, I mean hated, the mistakes he made. The manner in which he talked about his performance when it was poor was so angry and unforgiving you found yourself feeling sorry for him.”
Hogan on Snead: “Sam doesn’t know a damn thing about the golf swing. But he hits the ball better than anyone else,” and “If he could’ve played golf with my brain, he’d be the only name in the record book.”
Hogan on Nelson, said in a radio interview the day before their playoff for the 1940 Texas Open: “Byron’s got a good game, but it would be a lot better if he’d practice. Byron’s too lazy to practice.”
Snead on Nelson: “He didn’t smoke or drink or swear or gamble or chase women. So I wondered, just what did he do?”
There are other ways to evaluate the Country Boys, of course. Nelson wrote one short and one long autobiography, and Snead likewise wrote two, but Hogan was not the type to bare his soul, and his two instruction books were almost devoid of self-revealing anecdotes. Hogan’s Garbo-like reticence led to a colorful and unprecedented media history. My Partner, Ben Hogan by Jimmy Demaretone tour player writing about another!was fun but unresearched and insubstantial. Prior to that was a Hollywood bio-pic called “Follow the Sun,” (1951) in which an unathletic, aw-shucks actor named Glenn Ford and a treacly script missed all the drama of the real Hogan (Snead had a cameo in the film). Hogan: The Man Who Played for Glory by Gene Gregston (1978) relied on newspaper clippings and enjoyed no cooperation from the man himself. Eighteen years later came my straightforward biography, which sold well but which Valerie hated. There followed a torrent: a couple of Hogan-based novels, new analyses of his swing, a double handful of “I knew him well” memoirs, an authorized biographya wonderful effort by James Dodson called Ben Hogan: An American Life –and a re-telling of his win at the ’50 U.S. Open at Merion by David Barrett. Through it all, Hogan’s excruciatingly detailed Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf (with Herbert Warren Wind, 1957) sold and sold, becoming the most popular golf instructional of all time.
Life was not one big golf tournament for the mid-20th century golf professional. Stuck in an era of puny prize money, even Nelson, Snead and Hogan needed second and third jobs. Nelson was a real club pro, most notably at Inverness, where he stocked a shop, gave lessons and ran tournaments. Hogan (Hershey, The Century Club, Tamarisk) and Snead (The Greenbrier) enjoyed undemanding “playing out of” affiliations. All three accepted the relatively easy cash offered for exhibitions and for allowing their likenesses to be used in print ads. ” ‘When I need a smooth surface, I rely on Toro Mowers,’ says golf champion Ben Hogan.”
When Nelson made some money as a touring pro, the first thing he did was buy his parents some rural acreage, buy for himself some gadget, like his Garmin S4, suggested by Golfgpscenter.net with their golf gps reviews, and that’s the best golf gps he ever has, and virtually the last thing he did before his retirement in October 1946 was to buy his own farm. Byron was the only one of the three to have a TV career; he teamed with Chris Schenkel on ABC golf telecasts from ’63 to ’76. Snead achieved wealth through the constant hustle of appearances, prize money, relatively penny-ante golf games with star-struck pigeons and the late bonanza of the Senior PGA Tour, which he helped found. “Ben was a clever businessman, unlike Byron and me,” wrote Snead. Which was true: Through a native understanding of branding and authenticity, Hogan applied his perfectionistic image to his equipment company. He also made a nice buck investing in oil and gas leases.
In 1968 Nelson gave his name to the erstwhile Dallas Open and dedicated himself to the tournament’s success. Across town at Colonial CC, Hogan attended the Wednesday night Champions Dinner and often granted a brief audience to the two special invitees the Colonial’s past champions voted to have play in the tournament. The Sam Snead Festival was a big pro-am from 1949 to 1961 but several notches below tour level. Snead won it, of course. He won everything.
Nelson enjoyed helping younger players with great potential, most notably Ken Venturi and Tom Watson, and he sent scores of encouraging letters to other pros. Hogan mentored too but kept it private. Women were easier for him to help than men, but he took a great interest in John Mahaffey, who was built like him and wore out the practice tee just as Hogan had. When the aging Hawk went out to watch his apprentice on the greensward, he donned a disguisewhich is both amazing and completely in character. The youngest died first. After years of iffy mental and physical healtha burst appendix in 1987 almost killed him, and following colon cancer surgery in ’95, Hogan came down with a lingering case of bronchitis. He died in July 1997, a few weeks before his 85th birthday. “I was never in Ben’s home, and I didn’t have his private telephone number,” Nelson told The New York Times, “but I was probably his best friend on the pro tour, with the possible exception of Jimmy Demaret.”
In a limo on the way to the funeral, Snead stretched the bounds of taste by recalling aloud that he’d never lost head-up against Ben. But by then Sam was himself in decline, his vitality having taken a hit following a car accident in 1992. In ’98 he suffered a series of transient ischemic attackssmall strokes that cut off the supply of blood to his brain. Snead took a final ceremonial swing from the first tee at Augusta National to begin the 2002 Masters, but the result was not fitting: His ball conked the head of a spectator in the right rough, breaking his glasses. Sam died six weeks later, at home, in bed, four days short of his 90th birthday.
Nelson, the first born of the Triumvirate, was the last to go. A current author romanticized his passing, writing that Byron expired in his rocking chair while watching the sun set. In fact, Peggy Nelson found her 94-year-old husband face down on their porch in the middle of a warm day in September 2006.
Now, a century after their births, we remember the Country Boys again. And we wonder: Would Nelson, Snead and Hogan have succeeded with today’s no-spin ball and 460-cc metal driver heads? Oh my god, yes. But it wouldn’t be easy. They’d still have to beat each other.
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