My previous article walked through some of the mystery and the history of Ben Hogan’s swing, leaving off with an observation from Jim McLean that Hogan’s secret was in effect a lot of little things. Many have studied Hogan’s swing without getting to the bottom line of his hooking problem. While it may be intuitively obvious, that is, Hogan did not hook simply because he was Ben Hogan, it is not so obvious why he did hook.
Most golfers familiar with his story know that he struggled with a hook and that he spent the better part of his early years battling it. But the question of what Ben Hogan was trying to do with his swing that caused him to hook (in the first place) is not often asked and is even less often discussed as part of the analysis of his swing. The subtle or implied issue is that a hook is a symptom of a problem and not something to fix per se, for instance like a faulty grip or an improper swing path or a faulty weight and balance distribution. So while it is roundly acknowledged that Hogan had a hooking problem, it is rare indeed to see that issue decomposed to assign cause to his action and to also look at why he did not do more about it before 1946.
The reason Hogan hooked the ball is because of the action he initiated to hit the ball farther when he was competing with the other caddy’s at Glen Garden Country Club, Fort Worth in the 1920s (likely 1924-1927). The caddy’s played a game where they hit balls toward holes for nickels.
The winner obviously won money but the loser had to gather all the balls up for the next round. Hogan was younger and smaller than the other caddy’s and found he could not hit the ball nearly as far. At the time he was doing two things over all others; fighting for his place in the pecking order to get choice corners for selling newspapers, as well as with the other caddy’s because that was the nature of the caddy yard, and he was learning to play golf. He combined the two to devise a golf action that would enable him to hit the ball farther and farther as he matured. The action was similar to throwing a punch, with the action of the arms keyed to the rotation of the hips. He likely worked on his timing in order to have his right arm launch just as quickly as possible to follow the action of the right hip. He staged it off the hip just like throwing a punch, as he would later relate in his books.
I should add here that this was not the “cartoony hay maker”, often depicted as being wound up behind the head like a baseball pitcher. Hogan’s action was the punch of someone who knows how to use his hands, akin to a boxers jab or short punch that travels a short distance propelled off the hip. While it may not be obvious, timing his action off the hip, all things being equal, means that everything is rotating powerfully to the left through impact. Without some other form of swing compensation, the shoulders, arms and hands work aggressively left or closing through the ball. The obvious problem with this action is that it causes a low running hook, but this type shot was ideal for the dry fairway conditions of the golf courses he played in Texas. Hogan likely worked on his swing in earnest during this time period, as much if not more so than he did throughout his life while earning a reputation as a tireless ball striker.
It would be no easy feat to change this basic action that had been so ingrained by the time he turned professional in 1932. He would struggle with a hook problem initially through 1938 and then off and on through the early part of the 1946 campaign, when he finally figured out a way to cure the problem once and for all. He revealed pronation as his “secret” in an article in the 8 August 1955 Life Magazine. Pronation is what he added to his swing to solve the problem, and a careful look at his swing reveals that he continued to maintain the link between his hips and his arm swing throughout his career.
But if pronation was his real secret, then why has there been a continuous debate over this issue for the past 50 years or more? Hogan often implied that he made his swing “hook proof” by erecting, in effect, a giant wall down the left side of the golf course, beyond which he was supremely confident he would not go. He felt that pronation saved him a stroke a round, although it is likely that it was worth quite a bit more than that in terms of confidence and consistency.
While it is possible that pronation was indeed his secret, there is a bit of an incongruity to resolve between some of his statements and the facts. For instance, many believe the combination of little things that Hogan did represented his actual secret. He used extremely stiff shafts, oversize grips, he weakened the lofts on his clubs, he placed his hands in an extremely weak grip position directly on top of the club, and he employed a shortened thumb position with his left hand grip. The “Vs” of his grip pointed right at his chin.
When he stated that he used pronation, it was in addition to all these other elements of his setup and swing. While that seems to make some sense, once he demonstrated that he had indeed found a way to cure his hook, he also stated that he had actually started to play better golf in 1946 because he had stopped trying to do a whole bunch of little things perfectly. Hogan had discovered that such over thoroughness and attention to detail was not only impossible, but it was unnecessary as long as the basic fundamentals of the swing were sound.
Hogan’s premise that mastery of the fundamentals was enough to play top flight golf, put forth in Five Lessons, The Modern Fundamentals of Golf, was met with some skepticism. Many who tried his relatively streamlined instruction were unable to prevent themselves from slicing the ball badly. Others found that their tendency to hook the ball was exacerbated by the inside swing action. Still others puzzled over the lack of any mention of pronation, which had been accepted as Hogan’s secret. There was also the matter of the plane, with a different path for the back swing in comparison with the path followed to hit the ball.
But Hogan had apparently resolved his swing problems by using pronation, since he never again suffered from the problem of hooking after 1946. Or was there something else he discovered that allowed him to hit the ball without fear of hooking the ball? We are left with the conjecture of those who believe there was more to it than what was revealed in his lifetime. In the final analysis, his secret appears to be a lot of little things that were implemented in his swing, with pronation potentially the final element necessary for him to hit the ball so well.