SportsProf

(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.

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Wednesday, January 05, 2005

The Best Ball Striker Ever

For those of us suffering from the winter blahs, it can be fun to take refuge in warm weather pastimes, such as golf. Some of us are fortunate to have schedules that will enable us to travel in the wintertime and play a few rounds. Others play some form of the sport on PlayStation, and yet others might have fun watching the early tournaments on television.

Of course, you can read about it, too, and that's just what I did. There's a good new biography of the Ben Hogan out there, Ben Hogan: An American Life, written by James Dodson, and it's a great read. I had always heard about the Hogan mystique, about how Hogan recovered from a horrible car accident to pull off a miracle at the U.S. Open at Merion 16 months later, how he hit a one-iron from the fairway to ice his victory, and how he was somewhat of a sphinx, especially compared to the good-natured warmth of Byron Nelson, and the homespun hillbilly-ness of Sam Snead, both of whom were his contemporaries.

James Dodson does a great job telling the story of Ben Hogan's very difficult childhood and his subsequent determination to make it on the nascent professional golfers' circuit. Hogan failed twice before succeeding, and he concentrated on his game in such a way that he left little room on the course for interpersonal warmth and charm. Out on the course, he managed his game, and he was all business.

Excellence in many things requires that. The best shooters in basketball block out distractions and find themselves in a zone where it's them and the hoop. The same can be said for the best hitters in baseball. They're up there thinking totally about the pitcher's release and how to read the ball -- if there's a red dot, it's a slider, and so forth. They're not up there thinking about what boat they're going to buy or where they're going to eat after the game. Those with shorter careers and lower averages do that, but not the best ones.

And that doesn't always make the great ones the most interesting stories. I'm sure if you spoke with Hogan, Pete Rose or Larry Bird at their primes it would have been hard to talk with them about anything else other than what they did so well for a living. Why? Because they were so focused on excellence they really didn't leave themselves any room for any hobbies. It may be great to be a renaissance man, but I think it would be hard to be a renaissance man and be the absolute best at just one thing.

Concentration. Preparation. Dedication. That was Ben Hogan.

He wasn't perfect in life, but he wasn't far from it, either.

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