Tiger Woods, Walter Hagen, Ben Hogan – A Character Study of Three Golf Legends From Three Different Eras
Few players become great at golf, fewer still become golf legends. Some have the heart but not the talent; others are profusely gifted yet recoil from hard work. Flawless golf swings have been thwarted by nerves that couldn’t hold up. Fearless players have sunk into mediocrity. So what does it take to master this frustrating but powerfully enchanting game? Here we look at three of golf’s highest achievers and what they tell us about success - in golf, and the wider world.
1. The Machine: Tiger Woods
“As a kid, I might have been psycho, I guess, but I used to throw golf balls in the trees and try to somehow make par from them. I thought that was fun” -Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods has scaled such daunting heights during his amateur and professional golf career that when he eventually fell from grace, his impact with the mortal earth was catastrophic. Woods is a phenomenon, in sport and life, but behind his rampant success on the golf course hid an equally rampant carnal appetite that ultimately wrecked his family life, threw his golf game into disarray and shattered a billion dollar brand. Anyone familiar with his childhood, teen years and rise to prominence may have been keen enough to sense that something would give eventually.
The Tiger cub was a sensation by the age that most children are learning to talk. At six months he would sit in his high chair watching his father, Earl, hitting golf balls into a net. When he graduated from the high chair to his own feet, Tiger mimicked Earl’s swing and was soon capable of striking the ball with the panache of a single handicap golfer. At the age of two he entranced the audience on The Mike Douglas Show with a freakish early display of the confidence that would later win him fourteen major titles. He made further appearances on television and in newspaper and magazine articles, setting in motion his rise to the world’s most recognisable sportsman.
Tiger on The Mike Douglas Show in 1978
Engineering a Champion
Unlike fellow golf legends, Ben Hogan and Walter Hagen, Woods had a relatively affluent and middle-class upbringing in the city of Cypress, California. It is not easy to pinpoint a solitary event that was to shape his adult temperament and strength of mind although there is evidence to suggest that his upbringing was far from conventional, despite his claims to the contrary.
It is apparent that Tiger had few friends as a child. His parents insisted that his first priority was completing school homework; any surplus time appears to have been spent on the golf course or the range. He split up with his first girlfriend, reportedly at the behest of his mother and father who felt she was a distraction from his golf. It is debatable whether there is any truth in this story although it certainly matches the portrait of his father. Earl, a Vietnam War Veteran, often declared that he envisaged Tiger’s greatness before the child was even conceived. The 2010 television documentary, Tiger Woods: The Rise and Fall, suggests that Earl Woods had a preordained master plan for his son and that he practically conditioned Tiger to be brilliant, rather than simply leaving his enthusiasm and natural talent to the whims of fortune.
Woods has often insisted that it was his own decision to pledge his entire childhood to golf. Yet his father was never short of manic encouragement, seeking out renowned golf coaches, driving Tiger to the course and even remortgaging the family home to fund his son’s dominance of the junior golf circuit. Earl deployed an arsenal of tricks to sharpen Tiger’s mental strength and focus; jingling his car keys noisily when Tiger was mid-swing, recruiting a hypnotist, supplying Tiger with tape cassettes containing motivational clichés that the boy could listen to while sleeping. In short, Tiger supplied the enthusiasm and talent - Earl did the rest. It raises the question: How much of Tiger’s brilliance stems from natural talent and how much can be attributed to the conditioning that began in the high chair? Woods could have probably picked up a club for the first time at 18 and still made it as a competent touring pro. But without Earl’s grand design, would Tiger still have made it as the world’s greatest golfer?
By all accounts, both Earl and Tiger’s mother, Kultida, were loving and protective parents, who placed paramount importance on academic excellence. Kultida was the authoritative parent who dispensed the discipline whenever it was needed. Earl’s parental guidance appears to have been far more subtle but powerfully effective. Tiger has described his dad as his ‘best friend’ and ‘mentor’. Mindful of the actions that lead to Tiger’s domestic breakdown in December 2009, it is worth noting that in later years, Earl was alleged to have cheated on Kultida with several women, which was said to have grieved Tiger immensely.
'Most Marketable' Sportstman
Following a glittering amateur career, perhaps only bettered by the great Bobby Jones, Woods turned pro in 1996 after ditching his economics degree at Stanford University. Overnight he was transformed from college kid to multi-millionaire, signing contracts worth $60 million with Nike and Titleist. It was one of the rare occasions where a budding professional sportsman gained instant, vast wealth. Many pro golfers spend years on the PGA Tour without acquiring even a fraction of what Tiger received from his very first endorsement deal.
“I did envisage being this successful as a player, but not all the hysteria around it off the golf course.” --Tiger Woods
In 1997, less than a year after turning pro, Tiger won the US Masters with a record score of 18 under par. Over the next eleven years he stormed to a further thirteen major titles including three majors in 2000 alone, equalling Ben Hogan’s record from 1953. When Tiger won the 2001 US Masters, he became the first golfer to hold all four major crowns at one time, a feat which became known as the ‘Tiger Slam’. He has rarely been off the top spot in the world rankings, acquiring several hundred million dollars in tournament winnings and endorsement deals. From a commercial perspective, he was described as sport’s ‘most marketable’ person, prior to the revelations about his infidelity. In the eyes of the media he is the ‘least accessible’ athlete in the world. The demand for Tiger’s time is huge. Despite the frenzied clamouring for his attention by the media and fans, Woods has largely presented himself in public with decorum, aside from the occasional spat in the press tent or minor act of petulance on the course.
His status as one of the greatest golf legends is assured but at an age when he should be enjoying the most fruitful years of his career, he has dramatically fallen from grace. It will be fascinating to see whether he can return to his best form and achieve his long-stated goal of overhauling Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major titles. It would be foolish to bet against him.
Major Championships: 14
PGA Tour Victories: 71
World Golf Hall of Fame inductee: Still Waiting
What Can We Learn From Tiger?
Like Ben Hogan, Woods has shown a steely determination to succeed. In contrast to many other child prodigies, crippled by the unrestrained pressure surrounding them, Tiger thrived on the inflated expectations of his father and fans. His ability to enter ‘the zone’, seemingly at will, and focus intensely on the task at hand has often been the difference between himself and those behind him, scrapping it out for second place. Distraction may have proved his undoing in his personal life but it has rarely bothered him on the golf course.
Wood’s personal ‘transgressions’, as he deemed them, and the pain he caused his family have already been discussed ad nauseam in the media and on the internet but the scandal reveals as much about Western habits as it does about Wood’s sexuality. The undignified scramble by the media to expose the next scandal can only be reflective of the market that consumes it. In this case, the market encompasses a broad stretch of society. The healthy intrigue into the lives of brilliant individuals appears to be have been outstripped by an urge to know their darkest, innermost secrets.
2. The Maverick: Walter Hagen
“You’re only here for a short visit. Don’t hurry, don’t worry. And be sure to smell the flowers along the way.” --Walter Hagen
Perhaps no other golfer has done more for the modern professional than Walter Hagen. One of sport’s original playboys, Hagen drank and partied hard, but he also possessed an acute business sense that earned him over a million dollars – perhaps the first pro sportsperson to achieve this feat. Hagen brought money and glamour to golf whilst ridiculing the class divisions and status quo that festered in the stuffy halls of private member’s clubs.
Born to a working class family in 1892, Hagen’s introduction to golf came as a child when he began working as a caddie at a local country club to help provide for the family. He soon became an adroit golfer himself and was employed by the club as an assistant professional. Hagen also excelled at baseball but at the age of 21 he turned down a trial with the Philadelphia Phillies to play in the US Open instead. It was an astute decision and he won his first major tournament. Ten more majors were to follow over the next fifteen years.
Rocking the Boat
In Hagen’s era, the professional golfer had yet to achieve the elevated position he holds today. In Britain especially, they played a servile role to rich amateurs and were often barred from entering the clubhouse through the main entrance, or making use of the facilities. This irritated Hagen who was always keen to experience the best that life had to offer. When he was prevented from entering the locker room at the 1920 British Open, he rented a luxury car and chauffeur which he parked in full view of the clubhouse and used as a dressing room. Like Lee Elder and Tiger Woods who later challenged the bigoted, widespread assumption that golf was exclusively a white man’s sport, Hagen rocked the foundations of upper-class privilege on which the game was built.
Hagen was a charismatic and animated professional with a penchant for extravagant living, possibly a reaction to his humble upbringing. He dressed in expensive and colourful attire, driving fancy cars and staying in the finest hotels. In contrast to the reclusive Ben Hogan, Hagen was a socialite who attended the glitziest party in town whenever he wasn’t hosting it himself.
Wild Man, Wild Game
His golf game was equally wild. From the tee, he was liable to send the ball careening into the rough but often averted disaster with a brilliant short game. As with Tiger Woods and John Daly in the current era, Hagen drew large crowds who thrilled in his company. Despite the frequent chaos of his long game and the furore from the galleries, Hagen had an inner calm that permitted him to bury the bad shots and focus on the shot that mattered most: the next one.
Hagen approached golf as a business venture, hand-picking the most lucrative exhibition matches across the world and entering the richest tournaments. Product endorsement deals with equipment manufacturers fattened his wallet further. He was a man driven not by money itself but by the luxuries that money could buy. Earnings were spent prodigally and he once said that it was never his ambition to become a millionaire – he only wished to live like one.
Hagen routinely ranks highly on greatest golfer lists. His achievement of 11 major titles comes third only to Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. It is even more remarkable from a historical perspective: the US Masters didn’t exist until 1934, by which time Hagen was past his prime. Furthermore, the Western Open was considered to be one of the world’s premier events in the early 20th century but was overlooked for major championship status. Hagen won the event five times.
Walter Hagen was twice divorced, his second wife blaming his love of golf for the split. He died in 1969.
Major Championships: 11
PGA Tour Victories: 45
World Golf Hall of Fame inductee: 1974
What Can We Learn From Walter?
Walter Hagen had a zest for life. He attained golfing greatness and enjoyed every second of the ride. Although hedonism doesn’t work for everyone, Hagen reminded us that gusto is a crucial precursor to success. His nonchalant outlook jettisoned unalterable mistakes into the past. Refusing to linger in bygone times, he was wholly concerned with the present moment.
Hagen harboured a powerful contempt for class divide and unearned privilege. He demonstrated that questioning the establishment and shaking the status quo can be a worthwhile pursuit.
3. The Introvert: Ben Hogan
“I feel sorry for the rich kids now. I really do. Because they’re never going to have the opportunity I had. Because I knew tough things. And I had a tough day all my life and I can handle tough things. They can’t. And every day that I progressed was a joy to me and I recognised it every day. I don’t think I could have done what I’ve done if I hadn’t had the tough days to begin with.” --Ben Hogan
Had it not been for the Second World War, a near-fatal car accident or a turbulent relationship with his putter, Ben Hogan might have sealed a lid on the title of world’s greatest golf legend that even Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods would struggle to lift. Many golf connoisseurs will argue that Hogan did enough anyway, that during his peak years he struck the ball with a precision that no other human has attained, before or since.
Between 1946 and 1953 he won 39 tournaments including nine majors, a record made even more remarkable by the car crash in 1949 that almost took his life. He was confined to a hospital bed for eight weeks and doctors were doubtful that he would regain the ability to walk. Yet within sixteen months he was lifting the US Open trophy for the second time.
At Home On The Range
Hogan was a quiet, suspicious man, considered aloof by his fellow professionals, some of whom received little more than an icy glare or disparaging remark. When a young Gary Player once called Hogan by telephone seeking advice on his swing, the South African was instantly rebuffed. “Who’s your sponsor?” Hogan had inquired. On hearing it was Dunlop, he responded bluntly, “Then go ask Mr Dunlop”, before hanging up the phone.
“The only thing a golfer needs is more daylight” --Ben Hogan
This introverted and reticent nature, unsuited to the tour social scene, found solace on the practice range. Long before it became fashionable, or even necessary, Hogan spent hours honing his game, discharging endless golf balls into the twilight and only retiring once his hands were raw and darkness rendered it impossible to continue.
Hogan on Hogan
Hogan Vs Nelson
Much of Hogan’s early career was spent in the shadow of another golf legend, the genial Byron Nelson. As teenagers they had both caddied at the same country club where Nelson was awarded a junior membership after beating Hogan in a play-off for the inaugural caddy Christmas tournament. The result was repeated 15 years later at the 1942 Masters – Nelson again seeing off Hogan in a play-off for the green jacket. While Nelson was making the most of his junior membership at the plush Glen Garden Country Club, Hogan made his home among the weeds and scorched fairways of the local public courses.
Hogan endured an austere start to his professional golf career and at one point he dropped off the tour entirely, taking a job as a croupier until he’d saved up enough money for another shot. In 1940 he began winning consistently but a major victory eluded him until he won the 1946 PGA Championship after a two year stint in the US Air Force. Nelson was spared the draft on medical grounds and dominated the sport in Hogan’s absence.
On returning from war, Hogan quickly ascended to the pinnacle of the golfing world. A viscous and unpredictable hook which had plagued his earlier years had been eradicated through countless hours on the range. He was a man who understood every facet and movement of his golf swing. Throughout the 1947 and 1948 seasons he was nearly unplayable, winning eighteen tournaments including two majors.
The Comeback Kid
After the car crash in February 1949, Hogan was forced to limit his participation on tour due to the severity of the injuries he sustained. He was no longer physically capable of indulging in marathon practice sessions or playing more than a single round each day (this ruled out further involvement in the PGA Championship which was a 36 holes-a-day match-play event until 1958). Despite his weakened condition and restricted schedule, tour titles and major championships came in abundance, culminating in perhaps the greatest season in golf history. In 1953 he entered, and won, three major championships including the British Open – his only appearance in the event.
Although we can never be certain what drove Hogan to practice the game obsessively, or understand the psychology that caused him to shun his peers, there was a tragic and painful episode in his childhood that may assist in explaining the workings of his mind. When young Ben was just nine years old, his father committed suicide by blowing a hole in his chest with a revolver. Ben was in the house at the time and some reports suggest he was even in the same room. Understandably, it was something he rarely talked about in later life and even his wife only discovered the truth after several years of marriage. His father’s death caused great hardship for the family. Although Ben’s mother took a job as a seamstress, the pay was paltry, and the children found work to help support the household. Ben became staunchly protective of his mother and he developed a resolve never to be a burden to her.
So began the ‘tough times’ that Hogan was later to speak of. Acting on the advice of a friend, he got the caddying gig at Glen Garden Country Club. His new colleagues welcomed him with a fist fight and then bundled him into a barrel and tossed it down a hill. Within twenty years he was the greatest golfer on the planet.
Ben Hogan died in 1997.
Major Championships: 9
PGA Tour Victories: 64
World Golf Hall of Fame inductee: 1974
What Can We Learn From Ben?
Hogan was tenacious in his dream to be the world’s greatest golfer. Through dedication and hard work he finally got there, if a little later in life than other legendary sportsmen. He overcame several appalling set backs and took years to perfect a swing that had been prone to hooking.
He practiced harder than any of his contemporaries and planned meticulously for each and every tournament. In his only appearance at the British Open, he arrived in Scotland two weeks early in order to familiarise himself with the British golf ball which was fractionally smaller than its American counterpart and yielded greater distance. Every conceivable dilemma was addressed before he teed off.
In the 21st century where the desire for instant gratification breaks millions of resolutions every day, we can all find inspiration in the dogged willpower of Ben Hogan.
Who is the Most Intriguing?
Three golf legends: Three very different men.
Hagen inherited greatness. Hogan had to work for it. Woods had it drummed into him. One man was an extrovert, the second an introvert. The third was somewhere in between. But they all shared a common work ethic and determination that allowed their respective talents to flourish on the course. And flourish they did. Throw Jack Nicklaus into the mix and you probably have the four greatest golfers ever to play the game.
If you have any questions about this article, if you hated it or loved it, or if there is anything that you dispute, please leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you.
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Doc Wordinger (author) from Manchester, UK on May 03, 2012:
Thanks for your comment Steve. Hagen is undoubtedly one of the game's legendary characters and greatest players.
stevemacri on May 02, 2012:
Doc ... I voted for Walter Hagen in the "Most Intriguing" poll. There is simply no ignoring those 11 Majors, and I always admire the working class folks. I absolutely love the story about him renting the luxury car and using it as a dressing room at the 1920 British Open. Great stuff!
Doc Wordinger (author) from Manchester, UK on February 28, 2011:
Thanks for the comment bgamall, glad you enjoyed it.
Gary Anderson from Las Vegas, Nevada on February 27, 2011:
This was fascinating to read and quality writing. Thanks, Doc.
bobbyjones654321 on February 03, 2011:
Great read!Keep sharing!
Doc Wordinger (author) from Manchester, UK on January 19, 2011:
Alex on January 19, 2011: