One & DONE

Ben Hogan's lone foray into golf architecture proved so disappointing that he never again tried his hand at design.

By Sam Blair

Until the day he died in 1997, Ben Hogan was golf’s consummate perfectionist. No player worked harder at studying, understanding and perfecting the golf swing. No one was more devoted to quality than he was when he ventured into the club-making business. (He once had $100,000 worth of clubs discarded because they didn’t meet his exacting standards.)

But Hogan found perfection much more elusive when it came to course architecture. He designed one layout. Now named in his honor, the course is one of two at The Trophy Club, a rolling, wooded property 10 miles northwest of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

“It’s pretty much like you’d expect a Hogan course to be,” says fellow legend Byron Nelson, who remembers playing the course shortly after it opened in 1976. “It’s long and it’s hard.”

In a 1975 article for Golf Digest, renowned writer Herbert Warren Wind called the course “fresh and stimulating and sound -  replete with exactly the sort of holes one would expect of Hogan. After a great deal of earth-moving, the fairways roll like an excellent old-time seaside course.”

Ron Whitten, who has written extensively on course design, visited earlier this year and saw a layout that had the year 1976 written all over it.  “The course looks like it has been preserved in time because Trophy Club didn’t want to change anything Ben Hogan did,” he wrote.

Indeed, in the 25 years since the Hogan layout opened, little has changed from the original design. Two fairway bunkers were added at the par-4 seventh and nearly 100 trees have been planted. The green at the par-3 eighth lost two oak trees that died, and two huge pecan trees that hung over the approach area at the par-5 16th were removed after they were struck by lightning. Now, as when it opened, the Hogan course at the Trophy Club is remarkable for being unremarkable. How the course came to be and why Hogan never designed another is a story in itself.

The person most familiar with Hogan’s layout is veteran course architect Joe Lee, who shared in its creation. Now living in Florida and still involved in course design at age 79, Lee says he and Hogan spent many memorable days between 1972 and 1974 tramping across the property, imagining the course. Hobbling on aching legs from his near-fatal 1949 car crash, Hogan marked every tree he wanted removed and detailed the playing areas to Lee, who did the routing.

Lee remembers occasionally seeing Hogan’s storied shot-making up close as he tested each hole. “One day,” Lee recalls, “wearing khaki trousers and snakeboots, Ben hit a 4-wood off bare ground 190 yards to the ninth green. It was amazing how his ball split the green. I consider it the equivalent to Babe Ruth pointing to the fence and then hitting a home run over that spot.”

Lee still marvels at Hogan’s work ethic. “He walked every hole and climbed every fence. His legs had to be hurting like mad, but he never complained,” he says. “Once he was so cramped up when he got back to his Cadillac, I had to lift his legs up under the steering wheel.”

Two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw also knows the effort Hogan put into the course. “Mr. Hogan had more conviction than anyone I ever knew,” Crenshaw says. “I know he felt very deeply about every detail at Trophy Club. He spent a tremendous amount of time out there.”

Crenshaw, who designed the highly respected Sand Hills in Mullen, Neb., and more than a dozen other U.S. courses, clearly recalls his first impression of the course.

“What struck me was how Mr. Hogan wanted everything in front of you,” he says. “He didn’t want anything hidden. He  selected a great partner in Joe Lee to make sure they built the course he wanted. Joe Lee’s routing was vital to making this course what Mr. Hogan believed it should be.”

In a 1987 interview with CBS, Hogan explained his distaste for blind shots. “The topography of the land may mean that sometimes you have to have a blind shot,” he said, “but I don’t like it. I can’t play by radar.”

Whitten agrees  that the philosophy is evident. “There are no secrets on that course,” he says. “Number 11 is a little bit of a water hole, but it’s likely from erosion on the left front green. If Ben Hogan was alive today and saw that water, he’d say, ‘Hey, get rid of that.’ “

In 1975, Hogan told Nick seitz of Golf Digest that he had contemplated building his own course since his days as a touring pro had ended. Typically, he had definite ideas about what he wanted the course to be, but he knew he would need help. 

“I’m no architect,” Hogan told Seitz. “A person can have just so much knowledge and there isn’t enough time in the day to absorb very much and be proficient. I’ll work with the architect, but not in detail. Everything takes a professional.”

A decade or so earlier, Hogan had discussed collaborating with Dick Wilson, a course architect he admired and who, alone or in partnership, did several renowned layouts: Bay Hill Club, the Dubsdread course at Cog Hill, and Laurel Valley in Pennsylvania. But Wilson died a few years later, so Hogan recruited Lee, who had been Wilson’s chief assistant and had built his own thriving company. Hogan was delighted Lee agreed to join him, and in August 1973, some 2,500 acres was purchased by a developer for the then-princely sum of $10 million.

Lee and Hogan had considered designing a course in Sugar Land, southwest of Houston, but the deal fell through. The architect was pleased by what he saw when Hogan first showed him the property. “I thought we’d be looking at flat land like we saw at Sugarland,” says Lee, “but this terrain was very favorable. There were lots of trees and some roll to the property, with ravines and a creek.

“When we started working together, Ben’s strategy and feel for each hole was very interesting. He told me, ‘Sometimes you play a course you never heard of but it’s a very pleasant golf course to play.’ I said that was very true where the surroundings are thought out - the tree lines are moving and your bunkers move the eye around. We shared a philosophy that the aesthetics as well as the strategy of golf are important.”

The design is only half of what Hogan envisioned for Trophy Club. He planned to build 36 holes, one a true championship test and the other less demanding. He planned to have a home beside one of the courses and to display his most prized trophies in a clubhouse he was designing. Hogan hoped his new course would become nationally known. It never happened.

“Ben’s dream was that Trophy Club would become a tour stop,” says Wayne Obermeier, who joined the club in 1975 and proudly carries membership card No. 33, signed by Hogan. “After the first 18 holes opened for play, the economy turned sour. The financial institution funding the project kicked the developer out and was at odds with Ben over his clubhouse plans. They told Ben if he brought in 500 more members they would build his clubhouse. He quit.”

When Hogan left Trophy Club, hopes for a championship course, a PGA Tour stop - even a second course - went with him.

“The course that opened that fall was composed of two different nines,” explains Rhett Gideon, an assistant pro at the Trophy Club when it opened and later the head pro. “The first nine was the Oaks, which was intended to be a championship-type course. The second nine was the Creek, which was more open and what we would consider a club member-type course. The holes that were to be the second nine of the Oaks had been roughed out. É But when Mr. Hogan left, everything stalled.”

In a letter to club members dated Sept. 22, 1977, Hogan announced his disassociation with Trophy Club.

“Mr. Hogan delayed opening two or three times,” Gideon says. “He wanted everything just right on a course that had his name on it.”

The second 18 finally opened years later after being redesigned by course architect Arthur Hills.

Lee is proud that he still designs courses based on a philosophy influenced by Hogan. “We liked moving lines, not straight lines, and liked contoured fairways. You see some courses with a lot of fairways like a row of hot dogs. That’s not something I’d like to look at. Ben admired that, and I’m sure he would have stayed with it if he had worked on more courses.”

Hogan’s course had balance, with an equal number of par-4 holes bent right and bent left. He believed it was easier to line up a target if a hole turned slightly. The fairways sloped in the direction of the dogleg and greens were contoured so a player hitting a closer approach shot was rewarded with a flat putt.

Fairness is a hallmark. If you hit good shots, you score. You shouldn’t wind up some place unplayable. “Ben was serious about his work, but he had a good sense of humor,” Lee says. “He told me, ‘If they don’t want you to score on these golf courses, why don’t they just dump a load of rocks on them?’ “

“Mr. Hogan didn’t build this course for himself, a fader,” says director of golf Kyle Stokley. “You have to work the ball both ways. He was very fair when he planned this course.”

Lee considers the par-4 18th the signature hole. It doglegs left around a lake to a green protected by the lake on the left and two bunkers. To get home in two shots, the key is the accurate long-iron shot, a Hogan trademark.

The Trophy Club experience left Hogan with a bad taste in his mouth. In his interview with CBS, he made it clear he had no interest in revisiting the area of course design.

And so, the Trophy Club is like Hogan in one respect: It is one of a kind.