Ben Hogan had a huge impact on me as a golfer, long before I ever met him. As a child, I used to marvel at his ability with a golf club and the level of greatness he brought to the game. I had always been a student of golf history, and Hogan was one of the few living legends of our time, so I always dreamed about getting to meet him someday. That chance finally came while I was playing at the Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas.

I was playing in a pro-am with Randall Reiley, a local federal judge. During our conversation, Randall happened to mention that he lived on the Shady Oaks course, where Hogan went every day to hit balls. In fact, the back of Randall’s house overlooked the very spot where Hogan always practiced, a hole on the par-3 course nestled within the confines of the regular course. Every day Hogan practiced on that hole, right across from Randall’s house, hitting hundreds of balls to his caddy, who stood by with a shag bag.

 

“The game is the thing—not gamesmanship.”

–Nancy Lopez

 

The judge invited me to come over one afternoon to watch Hogan practice, and I quickly agreed. It turned out to be one of the greatest thrills of my life. The judge wasn’t able to join me on this particular day, but a friend of his named Kermit Zarley went with me. Kermit had met Hogan a few times and promised to introduce me. In fact, he told me to bring my clubs along, just in case.

I’d heard so many stories about Hogan’s serious, competitive side that I was a bit apprehensive. Hogan is often depicted as a cold and hard man on the course, and during the heat of competition, he was. To my delight and surprise, however, Hogan greeted us with a warm smile and a friendly handshake. I found him to be one of the most gentle and pleasant men I had ever met. As we stood visiting on the tee box, I was struck most by the gleam in his eye as he talked about golf. After an entire life on the course, practicing and playing tournaments almost every day, he still had a deep and abiding love for the game, as well as for other pros.

As we talked, Hogan hit shot after shot to his caddy down the fairway, each time landing the ball with arrowlike precision. He would demonstrate shots he had been practicing recently, and you could see his eyes light up each time he took a stroke and pulled off the shot he was trying. He’d hit a high draw, then a low hook, then a fade—each one flying exactly as he had planned.

After a while, Hogan noticed that Kermit and I had our clubs with us, so he said, “Why don’t you boys hit some balls?”

Looking back, the whole episode seems almost surreal to me. The fact that I was standing on a tee box trading shots with the great Ben Hogan was more of a thrill than I ever imagined I could hope for. After a while he even walked over and began encouraging us as we hit balls toward the pin. It made me nervous to think that Ben Hogan himself was standing over me, watching my swing on the course. But he couldn’t have been any nicer about it.

Before that day, I had been an admirer of Hogan’s swing and his competitiveness on the course. I was in awe of what he had done for the history of the game. But I’ve since come to see him as much, much more. He was great not just because he played great but because he epitomized everything that is right and noble about the game. Hogan was not driven by trophies or money or fame but by a deep desire to master a sport he dearly loved. It was the thrill of the game that brought him back day after day.

Seeing a man who had long since quit playing tournament golf still love the game enough to come out every day and practice was a great inspiration. Hogan was a living testament to the fact that golf is a game that can bring joy to our lives long into our later years. It takes so little to give back to the game that has given us so much happiness.

 

“The thing I’m most proudest of is that I got better every day.”

–Ben Hogan 

 

Of all the things I’ve done and seen in my career, my afternoon hitting balls with Ben Hogan is what I treasure most. Just being near him, seeing the sparkle in his eyes, gave me a renewed love and appreciation for the greatest game on earth.

 

A Record to Be Proud Of

Mac O’Grady holds a golfing record not a lot of players would be proud of, but I think he should see it as a badge of honor. He holds the record for the most attempts made at qualifying school before earning a spot on the tour. From 1971 to 1981, O’Grady made sixteen tries at qualifying school before finally getting his card in 1982, on his seventeenth attempt. (From 1975 through 1981, the school was held twice a year).

Until he was able to finally make his way on tour, O’Grady did anything he had to do to support himself and his family. He worked as a cook, a busboy, a dishwasher, a caddy; he even drove a hearse for a funeral home. Most men might have given up after a few years and gone on to pursue another career, but not O’Grady. He continued to try, even when it looked as though he might never make it.

The fire that burned in O’Grady’s heart and kept him going was his deep love for the game. He couldn’t imagine a life without golf, so he never gave up trying. His persistence finally paid off for him.

I had the privilege of being able to play alongside Mac during the last round of qualification in 1982 as he finally gained his card. We were playing at the TPC Stadium course in Jacksonville—one of the toughest courses around. We both were playing well that day, and going into the eighteenth hole, it suddenly hit Mac that he was just one hole away from gaining his card. We each had a nice cushion, and it looked like we were home free. Then on the eighteenth, Mac hit one of the worst drives I’ve ever seen.

A lake was on the left side of the hole, so Mac aimed a bit right to make sure he didn’t hit into it. His ball went about 150 yards dead right, ending on the far side of the sixteenth fairway. I could see the frustration in his eyes, but he was determined to recover. He hit his second shot back into the fairway and then mis-hit his third shot short of the green. He was so nervous that he shanked his fourth shot right into a deep bunker, leaving himself a nearly impossible shot to a pin nestled at the back part of the green, with water just eight feet on the other side.

Somehow Mac pulled himself together and was able to blast it out of the sand to within one foot of the hole, where he tapped in for a double bogey. It was probably the greatest pressure shot of his career.

Mac made the cut that year by one stroke. If he had not been able to recover from the bunker, he would have been looking at another year of qualifying school. Instead he went on to make a respectable name for himself on the tour. He was able to accumulate just over $1 million in earnings during his short time on the PGA circuit before he was forced to step aside because of injuries.

 

Meeting Byron Nelson 

During my high school and college days, I did everything I could to just be near the game of golf. I loved hanging around the top players of the day, hearing their stories and watching them play. I found that the best way to do that was to become a caddy, so I often volunteered to carry bags at the Indianapolis 500 tournament whenever it came to my hometown in Indiana. It was the next best thing to actually playing.

 

“I remember playing my first practice round with JoAnne Carner and I could barely breathe. And I was a professional!”

–Meg Mallon

 

During my senior year of college, I was able to caddy in the Byron Nelson Classic at the Preston Trail Club, in Dallas, Texas. It was Nelson’s first year to host the tournament that bears his name, and a lot of big players had signed up to be there in honor of him. I was there to caddy for Dave Regan, a fellow Gator and a tour professional. I had just finished caddying for Dave in North Carolina, and then I hitchhiked all the way to New Orleans, where I caught a short, cheap flight over to Dallas. I flew in with my tour-size University of Florida golf bag and a suitcase and wandered the airport looking for a ride to the golf course.

I finally caught a ride with another rookie player from Canada, and he convinced me to ride with him in the courtesy car and act like I was one of the players. That in itself was a big thrill for a young tour wanna-be.

Just as we pulled up in front of the clubhouse, Dave Regan came around the corner to greet us. As soon as he saw me, he said, “Hey, Wally, let’s go in and have lunch.” We went into the clubhouse and standing in the entrance was the great Byron Nelson himself. He had been working with Dave’s swing, and as Dave introduced me to Nelson, he immediately invited us to have lunch with him. Of course we agreed, and as we went into the dinning room, Chris Shenkel came by to join us. Sitting at the very next table was Arnold Palmer, bigger than life.

I watched the porter carry my bags into the clubhouse, and I began to get really concerned that someone would find out I wasn’t really a player. Caddies were not allowed in the clubhouse, and a caddy having lunch with the players was unheard of. But I was already in too deep to back out, so I just tried to keep my mouth shut and hope no one would notice me.

I’ll never forget how great it felt to be sitting in the company of these living legends, listening to their stories over the lunch table. This is the kind of thing that every young player dreams of when he lies awake at night, and here I was experiencing it firsthand. It made an indelible impact on my life and career and gave me even more reason to want to work hard and make it onto the tour as a player.

Halfway through the lunch, Gary Player came by and told Dave and I that his caddy was ill, and he asked me if I wanted to caddy for him. I had met Gary a week earlier at a tour Bible study in North Carolina, and while there, Dave had told him that if he ever needed a good caddy, I’d be the guy to ask. Gary remembered that meeting and saw this as a chance to follow through on that offer. Dave was kind enough to let me caddy for Gary, and I worked for him for the next three weeks, at Dallas, Houston, and New Orleans.

Byron Nelson was a delightful man to meet and befriend. He was just as I had imagined him, polite and friendly—a godly man, both on and off the course. Though he had long since retired from playing, he had spent much of his life giving back to the game and helping others any way he could, always ready to pass on his love for golf to younger players. He worked with a number of players on tour, encouraging them and helping with their game whenever he could. Tom Watson often asked Byron to watch him practice and give him pointers, and so did Dave Regan and many others. Byron did the same for me six years later, when I finally gained my tour card and was able to come back in through the front door of the clubhouse—this time as a real player instead of an imposter.

More than most, Byron Nelson remains an amazing example to others of what the game of golf is all about. Even today, some thirty-two years later, Nelson still graciously welcomes players at his tournament. Moreover, the whole purpose of his tournament is to raise funds for young children. He reminds us all that no matter where we are in life, we have an obligation to reach out and encourage those who are following in our footsteps.

One of the things that make golf such a great sport is the feeling of camaraderie and respect players have for each other. Golf is a game that loves and cherishes its heroes, and it never forgets those who have made it the sport it is—a sport rich in history and sentiment, with no shortage of legends.

We golfers love the great players of our sport almost as much as we love the game itself. And that makes it a sport like no other.