I have this friend Sean. It’s an odd friendship. At 27 years his senior, I’m old enough to be his father, although it’s obvious to anyone who has met us both that I’m not.
Despite differences in age, ethnicity, and era, we get along pretty well thanks to golf. Four years ago, when the Ben Hogan Company announced its comeback, I was as psyched as a Hoganista could be. Sean? Not so much. He had no connection whatsoever to Ben Hogan the brand or Ben Hogan the golfer.
“I basically thought it was a nostalgia grab for old guys who loved the good old days."
Then he tried Hogan's PTx irons.
“I still don’t have that connection to Ben Hogan like you old guys do,” he told me last weekend. “But I’m really impressed with the brand, not only because they make great performing clubs, but that they bounced back the way they did.”
I’m not sure Sean realized it when he said it, but he struck at the heart of why Ben Hogan, the golfer, and the company, still matter.
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It's gone bankrupt twice, has no retail presence (and doesn't want any), has negligible market share, and is available only online. Despite all that, the Ben Hogan Company still matters. Talk with anyone working for any OEM, and it’s clear they love their jobs. But have a sit-down with any current or former Hogan employee, or read anything they’ve written, and you’ll learn their time at Hogan wasn’t so much a job as it was a unique and special time in their lives. They speak of it almost reverentially.
“I was lucky to have had some time with him, and I hold that as very special,” former Hogan CEO David Hueber told MyGolfSpy recently. “Mr. Hogan embodied all of the character and qualities and everything you admired about the game of golf.”
Mr. Hogan. He’s been gone for over 20 years, and to this day everyone associated with both the old and the new company still refers to him as Mr. Hogan.
“I do it every day,” says Steve Dreyer, manufacturing chief for Hogan in Fort Worth from 1985 until it was sold to Bill Goodwin and moved to Richmond in 1993, again when Spalding moved it back to Fort Worth, and yet again when Hogan returned in 2015.
“Mr. Hogan was always Mr. Hogan. It sure wasn’t Ben in the plant. To this day I never refer to him as Ben. It’s always Mr. Hogan did this, Mr. Hogan did that.”
“It’s really hard to describe to people who don’t play golf, like my wife,” says current Hogan CEO Scott White, who also worked on the brand during the Spalding years. “She understands there’s a connection to an individual, but it’s almost mythical and somewhat inspirational.”
I’m usually a bit cynical about these things, but when you hear it from so many people, you have to take the cynic’s hat off and ask a simple question:
“No One Makes Golf Clubs Like We Do”
“Mr. Isutani, you’ve bought the family jewels. Don’t f**k it up.” – Mr. Hogan to Minoru Isutani, who bought Hogan in 1988, after learning Isutani could speak English
You can’t separate Ben Hogan from the Ben Hogan Golf Equipment Company, although Bill Goodwin tried to do just that – and failed miserably – during his five-year brand stewardship in the mid-90’s.
“Everybody knew what the mission was – to make the finest golf clubs,” says Hueber, whose office was next to Mr. Hogan’s, and who had coffee with him twice a week for nearly 5 years. “That’s why he started the company. He said it many times: if you want to improve your game, you have to have the best golf clubs, and you need to dig it out of the dirt yourself.”
During Hueber’s tenure, the Hogan Company released a series of powerful branding ads featuring Mr. Hogan. “(Those ads) perfectly illustrate the corporate culture and connection everyone who worked at the Hogan Company felt with the legend and his legendary company,” says Hueber. You can view those ads here.
At the risk of sounding schmaltzy – there may be no way to write this without sounding schmaltzy – doing right by Mr. Hogan has been the common theme in every conversation I’ve had with anyone associated with the brand.
“The word that resonates with me is responsibility,” says White. “Without a doubt, in my 30-year career in the golf industry, my two times touching the Hogan brand are the most important and most satisfying to me. You’re protecting somebody’s legacy. You’re putting a product out there with a man’s name on it – a great man’s name on it.”
“Everybody maybe feared Mr. Hogan, but everybody respected Mr. Hogan,” says Dreyer. “When he walked out on the floor, let me tell ya, everybody was nervous.”
“We all tried to do it the right way, we all wanted to do it the right way, but he had an eye. That gentleman could pick up a golf club and he could you tell you the specs on that sucker, and it better be right.” – Steve Dreyer
Hueber ran Hogan from 1988 to 1993, its most successful years in terms of sales, but its most challenging financially due to an odd arrangement with Cosmo World, its Japanese ownership. Hueber’s predecessor, Jerry Austry, convinced Mr. Hogan to embrace a rapidly changing market and endorse a new, forgiving forged cavity back, the Edge, which ultimately became the best selling iron in Hogan’s history.
“He knew what a good golf club looked like, and it looked like a blade,” says Hueber. “The Edge…you knew it better be good because if he found something he didn’t like from a quality standpoint, you’d better figure out what you’re going to do next.”
“Mr. Hogan could tell stories, and he loved sales meetings,” says Dryer. “But on the other hand, I’ve seen him chew ass because of quality, and I mean chew ass. Not like, ‘Hey, this has to get better.’ It was more like ‘what the hell are you doing at the sales meeting when we have a damn breaking problem. You’re the QC guy!’ I’ll never forget it. He believed that quality was number one, the customer was number one and his name was number one.”
Hueber recalls nothing bearing the Hogan name would escape Mr. Hogan’s scrutiny.
“I remember having coffee with him one day, and he brought in a pair of our slacks. He says ‘What’s the meaning of this?’ They were just a pair of gray slacks, but he says ‘These are crap.’”
“It seemed like 20 minutes passed, but it was probably only 20 seconds. I just looked at him and said ‘I’ll take care of it right away.’"
Golf’s Most Resilient Brand
“People have always been telling me what I can’t do. I guess I wanted to show them. That’s been one of my driving forces all my life.” – Ben Hogan
Ben Hogan could have written a book on resiliency.
“He overcame so much,” says White. “Growing up poor, his father’s suicide, struggling on tour and not having any money. And just when he reaches the top, he gets hit by a bus. But he kept on going. It’d make a great movie - heck, it is a movie.”
It’s no stretch to say the Ben Hogan Company shares resiliency DNA with its founder and has gotten up from the mat more times than Rocky Balboa. Consider this: if not for the Edge, the Hogan Company likely doesn’t survive the 80’s after three ownership changes in four years. It barely did survive the 90’s. Bill Goodwin bought the company in ’92, shut down Fort Worth, moved everything to Richmond, and effectively fired Ben Hogan.
“I can’t tell you what a toll that took on him,” says Hueber. “Factory workers, guys who’d been there 20, 30 years, were being let go. As this was happening, they’d come in to see Mr. Hogan. I remember this one fella; he told me he just wanted to stop by to thank Mr. Hogan.”
“He tells me ‘There aren’t many good jobs like this in Fort Worth. This job’s always been good for me and I wanted to thank him for the opportunity.’ How many people who lose their jobs come by to thank the founder? I’m talking about dozens and dozens of people who came in to say thanks and goodbye.” – David Hueber
Goodwin sold the brand to Spalding in 1997 after losing $100 million in just five years.
“He just miscalculated big time,” says Dreyer. “Goodwin hated unions, that’s why he closed down Fort Worth, and he wanted to be a cast club company. He wanted us to be PING. I’ll say it a million times; we’re not a casting company - our niche was forging.”
Spalding’s own money troubles led to spinning off all non-golf business and renaming its golf entity Top-Flite, which ultimately went bankrupt and was sold to Callaway in 2003. Callaway cared little for the Hogan brand, mothballing it in 2008.
Hogan returned in 2015 but filed for bankruptcy two years later. That should have been it, but last summer Hogan got up off the mat one more time, re-creating itself as direct-to-consumer with factory direct pricing. For a company hit by a figurative bus as many times as it has, Hogan just won’t go away.
“This company’s been bankrupt twice,” says Dreyer. “And it’s been abused by owners over the years, but you know what? It’s still pure. Mr. Hogan’s name is still pure. Thank God I’ve just been a little part of it, but the customers? They’ve been loyal. Not to us, but to Mr. Hogan.”
Old Hogan Meets New Hogan
“Go your own way. And practice, practice. Goddammit, practice.” – Hogan, to first-year pro Frank Wharton, 1963
What would Mr. Hogan think of his company today? I asked Hueber, Dreyer and White that same question, and received very different, but fascinating answers.
"I think it would be incomprehensible to him," says Hueber. "He was still oriented toward the PGA Professional - that was the business model he knew and understood."
The industry changed rapidly in the mid-90's, with manufacturing moving offshore and equipment sales shifting to retail. Hueber says he can't even begin to speculate how Mr. Hogan would have adjusted.
"He'd probably wonder if you're not actually making the club yourself, how could you have someone else make it for you and use your brand to sell it? You need to remember the reason he started the company in the first place - he wasn't happy with the quality and performance of the equipment being made for him by MacGregor." - David Hueber
Hueber says that while Mr. Hogan could be gruff, it was only because he wanted things done right. But there's plenty of evidence to suggest Mr. Hogan would have adapted to changing times. The Edge iron was a serious departure and it took some convincing to get Mr. Hogan's endorsement, but it turned out to be huge success. Dreyer adds as the 80's morphed into the 90's, Hogan management transitioned from shirt-and-tie to golf apparel as the uniform of the day.
"I think the new model would require some explanation," says Dreyer. "But I think he'd understand the dynamics of the marketplace have changed, the distribution strategy has changed. If he really understood the times, the brand and the competition, he'd embrace it."
Hogan sources its forged heads from China, and Dreyer says their supplier is a huge Ben Hogan fan. "Mr. Hogan was one of his idols. He's a good player and good engineer. They do it right. The quality of the clubs? Mr. Hogan would be very proud."
"I never met him," says White. "But I feel this incredible responsibility to do the right thing. I certainly don't want to be the one to mess it up. I walk into work every day feeling like I have to make Mr. Hogan proud."
White feels once he explained the current business climate and what he's trying to do to reestablish the brand, Mr. Hogan would get it.
"We're trying to make the game as enjoyable and affordable as possible. The distribution strategy has changed, and PGA professionals aren't selling a lot of golf clubs anymore. That's not part of their business model any more." - Scott White, Hogan CEO
During our conversation, Dreyer recalled how the factory worked overtime to fill orders for the Edge - 7 days a week, 24 hours a day - for nearly a year. With the recent Equalizer wedge and new Edge irons releases, it's kind of like the old days down in Fort Worth.
"Holy mackerel - last week we worked 7 days, this week we'll work 7 days, just to get orders out," he said. "Things are going well, and you don't want to let that customer wait too long."
And when it comes to getting fit, both Dreyer and White say Hogan encourages golfers to get custom fit - by a qualified fitter or PGA professional - just as Mr. Hogan would have.
"We're not a fitting company, we're a golf club equipment manufacturer," says White. "Go get fit and send us your specs. We'll build you the best set of clubs you've ever had."
"Ben Hogan's name is on it," says Dreyer. "So we do go a little above and beyond. We still buy the best forgings that can be bought, and we still take more time in assembly than other companies, who just ram and jam."
"We build a set at a time, and we do it right."
“Your name is the most important thing you own. Don’t ever do anything to disgrace it or cheapen it.” – Ben Hogan
The Hogan brand finds itself in a unique spot today. It’s small, and the plan is to grow slowly and deliberately - if it can. Challenging the big dogs isn’t in the cards. No, you can’t walk into a store and demo Hogan clubs, but for $20 they’ll send you a couple for a two-week trial - maybe not what you’re used to, but a pretty solid alternative. Yes, the shaft options are limited, but it’s easy to see more options being added over time. As Scott White has said: in Hogan’s current position, it’s better to do a few things well than a bunch of things poorly.
But the question remains, are we any closer to understanding why Hogan matters?
Does it have high-tech R&D or high-powered marketing like Callaway or TaylorMade? Nope.
Does it have the innovation of PING, the flair of Cobra or the gravitas of Titleist? Nope, nope and nope.
If the brand had any other name or lineage, it would simply be a brand with some slick irons, but little else. If it shut down, most people wouldn’t even notice. Ultimately, Hogan still matters because of, well, Hogan. The connection between Mr. Hogan, employees old and new, customers, and the game’s history, remains powerful.
Scott White and Steve Dreyer work for Hogan today, while Dreyer and David Hueber worked directly with Mr. Hogan. Mr. Hogan won four U.S. Opens (five if you count the 1942 Hale America), the same as Bobby Jones, and two Masters while Jones was still running the show. Bobby Jones played on Walker Cup teams with Francis Ouimet, who beat Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in the 1913 U.S. Open. At some point, Vardon and Ray had to have crossed paths with Old Tom Morris.
Does this Six Degrees of Separation really matter to golfers in 2018? Maybe, maybe not. It didn’t matter to my friend Sean until he gamed the PTx irons. His connection to Hogan may not be as strong as it is for others, but it’s there, and it’s real.
Steve Dreyer’s connection remains as powerful as ever. He still feels as if he’s working directly for Mr. Hogan.
“Oh definitely, because Mr. Hogan’s name is still on the clubs,” says Dryer. “He stood for one thing: do it the best and don’t take shortcuts. We still believe that. The young guys we’re tutoring today, I hope they’ll fill my shoes for the rest of their lives. They believe the same thing, too. They get it.”
“It’s all about his name. He’s looking down - I guaranty he’s looking down. And I guaranty he’s smiling.”
“The most important shot in golf is the next one.” – Ben Hogan
While researching this article, I came across the AP story on Mr. Hogan’s funeral in July of 1997, which may help explain it all.
“Quoting from Romans, Dr. Charles Sanders, associate minister of the University Christian Church, alluded to the poverty, hardships and pain Hogan overcame in a career interrupted by a near-fatal car accident.
‘Suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,’ Sander said. ‘I think Ben Hogan’s life underlined the truth of that passage.’”
Mr. Hogan himself, in his own slightly profane way, may have gotten closer to the truth – metaphorically, at least - about his own resiliency, as well as that of his company.
“That was a bunch of bullshit. I was trying to get out of the way of the bus.”
As it approaches its 65th anniversary, the Ben Hogan Company is still dodging buses. And it still keeps getting up, producing hope.
And for any golfer with a soul, that matters.