- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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FORT WORTH, Texas -- Dan Jenkins has forgotten more about Ben Hogan than most of Hogan's own biographers will ever know.
The World Golf Hall of Fame writer grew up in this same Texas town as Hogan, covered him for the Fort Worth Press (and later, Sports Illustrated), played dozens of rounds of golf with Hogan and eventually became friends with Hogan. He is the defender of the Hogan realm. Jenkins, not easily impressed by anything or anybody, once called Hogan's vast collection of trophies, medals and plaques "my favorite jewelry store."
So you can imagine Jenkins' reaction when, as we drove to Carshon's Deli for a piece of his favorite chocolate meringue pie, I casually mentioned that I thought Hogan and Tiger Woods have more in common than anyone realizes.
Jenkins' eyes narrowed and for a moment I thought he was going to stab me with my car sun visor. Remember, this week's U.S. Open is the 60th of Jenkins' brilliant sportswriting career and his 218th major. And it is being played on sacred ground: Merion Golf Club, where Hogan won the 1950 U.S. Open, just 16 months after nearly losing his life in a car crash.
There was a painful pause, nearly as long as it takes Kevin Na to line up a putt, before Jenkins finally said, "How so?"
Glad you asked.
The two players were alike in enough ways that Hogan's wife, Valerie, granted the then-21-year-old Woods a few precious minutes of phone time with an ailing Hogan in 1997. This was at a time when Valerie took her role as gatekeeper and protector to almost paranoid levels.
In his biography, "Ben Hogan: An American Life," James Dodson wrote: "The two spoke for only a few moments, and Valerie supposedly heard her husband at one point remark, 'I feel the same way about you, too, Tiger.' "
During the recent Memorial Tournament, I asked Woods about the conversation, which came only a few months before Hogan's death in 1997.
"It was one, saying, 'Thank you,' " said Woods. "I played Colonial [a PGA Tour stop in Fort Worth that Hogan won five times during his career] that year and we talked a bit about golf, about life. He was very energetic that day. He was struggling at that time, but I happened to catch him on a really good day. He was long-winded, I didn't expect that. Certainly some of the stories he told me and some of the things we talked about I will take to the grave. But they were pretty incredible."
Don't bother asking Woods to elaborate.
"As I said, there are a few things I will take to my grave," Woods said. "Certain parts of that conversation are between he and I and always will be."
The understated Hogan would have appreciated that. He would have appreciated much about Woods' game.
Think about it: The golf personas of Hogan and Woods were built around an aura of intimidation. They held a 1-shot lead over the field before they even teed off. Jack Nicklaus was the same way.
Woods and especially Hogan could go through an entire round without speaking to an opponent. They weren't there to make BFFs.
Their lives were undone by car crashes -- Hogan's in 1949, on a fog-shrouded two-lane road in Texas; Woods' in 2009, on a street just outside his Florida mansion.
They each completely retooled their golf swings and then totally committed themselves to those changes.
They understood that the secret, as Hogan once said, "was in the dirt." Translation: Practice until your callouses had callouses.
They had little or no respect for players who didn't work hard.
They were aware of their critics, detractors and doubters, remembered every word, and used the criticism as motivation.
They were essentially loners: loyal to a select few; careful, guarded to most everyone else.
They shared a love for that one moment in a golf tournament when the pressure was almost suffocating in nature, a moment that broke lesser golfers. They sought those situations, embraced them and then overwhelmed them.
Woods won the 2008 U.S. Open on one leg. Hogan won the 1950 U.S. Open on even less.
Only two players since 1930 have won three majors in a single year: Hogan and Woods.
Only two players have had Slams named after them: The Hogan Slam, when the Texan won the Masters, U.S. Open and Open Championship in 1953; The Tiger Slam, when Woods won the 2000 U.S. Open, Open Championship and PGA Championship and the 2001 Masters.
Hogan dropped out of high school to become a professional. Woods dropped out of college to become a professional, and played in his first PGA Tour event as a high schooler.
As their careers evolved, both became impeccable dressers on the course.
Hogan customized his golf shoes to include an extra spike. Nike customized a running shoe into a golf shoe for Woods.
Hogan won all four majors and nine in all (10, if you agree with the compelling argument made by Jenkins that the wartime Hale America National Open in 1942 should count as a major -- as it did to Hogan himself). Woods has won all four majors and 14 in all.
Hogan competed in five decades. Woods is on his third decade, and counting.
Hogan came to Merion in 1950 with something to prove. He had survived a head-on collision with a 10-ton Greyhound bus and the subsequent surgeries that sapped his legs of their strength. But there were those who wondered if Hogan could ever win another major.
Woods comes to Merion 63 years later with similar motivation. He hasn't won a major since that U.S. Open in 2008. And despite his four victories this year, there are those who wonder if he can break his majors drought.
Something tells me Hogan wouldn't have been one of them.
And who knows, maybe Jenkins, too.