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Follow the Sun

A different side to Goling Legend, Ben Hogan

Posted Mar 14, 2011 by Dermot Gilleece

ben hogan

On St Patrick’s Day 50 years ago, Raymond Floyd became the youngest player since 1928 to win a PGA Tour event.  The achievement, at the tender age of 20 years and six months, is brought to mind by the celebration on March 17th of the Irish national holiday.  As it happened, Floyd carded a closing 69 to capture the St Petersburg Open.

Ten years further back, golfers had a quite different milestone on their minds.  It was the launch in March 1951 of the first serious movie with golf as the central theme.  “Follow the Sun”, the life story of Ben Hogan, was premiered in the player’s home town, Fort Worth, Texas where Hogan was pictured standing beside Anne Baxter, who played his wife, Valerie, and matinee idol Glenn Ford, who took the lead role.

The cast included golfing contemporaries Sam Snead, Jimmy Demaret and Cary Middlecoff and recounted Hogan’s struggle to become arguably the greatest ball-striker in the history of the game. Naturally, a key element of the movie was his brush with death in an horrific car accident in February 1950, followed by an extraordinary comeback to the game.

Nobody could have been more aware of his courage than Phyllis Wade, a remarkable woman whom I happened to meet at Riviera Country Club two years ago.  Then a wonderfully fresh-looking 80-year-old, she had known almost constant pain from the time both her knees were crushed when the car her mother was driving was hit by another vehicle. She was only 12 and as a cruel legacy had to undergo 28 operations on her left knee and seven on the right, over the ensuing 18 years.  Yet she found the strength to become a volunteer at golf tournaments, leading to friendships with most of the leading players, including Hogan.  He, incidentally, sustained a double-fracture of the pelvis, a fractured collar-bone, a left ankle fracture, a chipped rib, and near-fatal blood clots.

"It stemmed from being introduced to a member here at Riviera,” she said. “My first assignment, in 1948, was as scorer for Ben and we seemed to hit if off straight away.  Everybody said that he concentrated so much he didn't know what was going on around him, but he always had time to acknowledge me.  Whether I was walking on my crutches or without them, on seeing me he'd nod as if to ask 'are you tired?' or 'are you OK?'"        

From living in the Hollywood area, she got to know William Holden as well as Ford. "Glenn was a friend of Ben's and a lovely man, but he was over six-feet and much too tall for the part," she said.  "And I told him so.  A bit like Jimmy Stewart playing Glenn Miller.  But I thought Anne Baxter did a great job as Valerie.  The movie turned out OK, but I don't think people were overwhelmed by it."

On February 2nd 1949, Phyllis heard the news of Hogan's accident, which occurred when he and Valerie were driving home from a tournament. "It was all over the papers and the radio," she said.  "I remember thinking 'Oh my gosh! He's might not make it.'  I felt terrible.  And poor Valerie.  I felt it would be a miracle if he came back."  Then her smile returned as she added: "Which it was."

She felt Hogan's battle for mobility created a special bond between them.  He knew her pain and she knew his.  And she felt he admired her stubborn refusal to think of herself as being handicapped. "I think that's why he was always checking on me," she recalled.  "He'd smile, and as you know, he did not smile a lot.”

Apart from meeting at tournaments, she and Hogan would contact each other a few times every year.  And she got very close to his wife.  "Valerie was an absolute doll," she recalled of the woman who married The Hawk in 1935.  "Very quiet, very sweet.  I talked to her about my injuries and she talked about the severity of Ben's surgeries.  She was absolutely devoted to him and was shattered when he died in 1997.  

"I was invited to attend his funeral and I was also present when he was the honoree at Muirfield Villege in June 1999. Barbara Nicklaus told me it was going to happen and I made a point of being there.  I hadn't seen Valerie since Ben's death and we had what proved to be our last lunch together.  She died a few weeks later.  And I shed tears for Valerie, just as I had shed them for her husband."

- Dermot Gilleece

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