MY TOP SHELF – Chapter 15


[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]




Ben Hogan (1957)

Golf Digest Classics, 1985; foreword by Nick Seitz; drawings by Anthony Ravielli; rebound in quarter beige leather with sage label embossed in gold ‘Ben Hogan’ with stone canvass boards.

They tend to think of it as something unique in itself, something almost inspired you might say, since the shot [a two iron of 200 yards to an elusive well-trapped plateau green] was just what the occasion called for.  I don’t see it that way at all.  I didn’t hit that shot then – that late afternoon at Merion.  I had been practising that shot since I was 12 years old.  After all, the point of tournament golf is to get command of a swing which, the more pressure you put on it, the better it works.

Paratroopers are endlessly drilled on procedures to follow when jumping from a plane.  The idea is that any fear that they may have will not overcome their training.  This is just a variant of the basic military idea of drilling and disciplining men so that they will do as they have been trained to no matter how stressful the occasion might be.  This was the idea that Ben Hogan brought to golf.  He became its most successful player because he was its most practised and disciplined.  Over countless hours, days, weeks and months, he planed his swing and machined himself like a tool.

Peter Thompson, five times winner of the British Open, once saw Hogan hit the flag-stick with shots to the 13th and 14th greens at the Masters.  Thompson marvelled that Hogan ‘really played a different brand of golf.  There’s never been anybody like him, and I don’t think there ever will be….He was our unreachable ideal.’  That ideal has at least been reached by Jack Nicklaus, but that is all.

All games are difficult to teach.  Golf certainly is.  You cannot do it with a book, but drowning desperadoes will seek solace anywhere, much like a terminally ill patient will turn to voodoo.  What keeps drawing golfers of all levels back to this book are the wonderful drawings of Anthony Ravielli.  Like great art and inspired thought, they immediately look to be obviously correct and simple and within the reach of any one – and so it is until you put the ball down and you can feel people hold their breath as you drive from the tee or watch the ball take a wobble that you did not expect in a simple four foot putt.

Some person claiming to be wise once said that that which does not kill us leaves us stronger.  Where does that leave the rape of a golf shot or of a golf course?  Ben Hogan does not succeed in communicating the incommunicable, but at least the drawings offer hope, if not solace.

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