Golfers love talking about Hogan’s secret and I can’t claim to be immune – especially in golf’s silly season. Perhaps it’s because we want to believe that our very best golf is just around the corner provided we can identify that one magic thought or move. Hogan published a description of his secret in the August 1955 issue of Life Magazine but internet detectives tend to think he didn’t reveal all. A quick Google search suggests the real secret could be in the right knee, some magic angle, or a special equipment setup.
Identifying the visual specifics of Hogan’s secret becomes more challenging when factoring in his horrific auto accident which took place in February 1949. His post-accident swing was undeniably different from his early days on tour; how are we to differentiate the intentional changes of the secret vs. the necessitated changes due to the accident? To answer this question we have to look at the timing of the events in questions. Popular opinion, based primarily on the widely known Life Magazine article, dates Hogan’s discovery of the secret to 1946. This date is supported by a Herbert Warren Wind 1955 Sports Illustrated article. Both claim that Hogan was suffering through a period of frustrating and ineffective golf in which his standard right-to-left shot had evolved into a full blown duck hook. Here are the passages in question dating the discovery of the secret to 1946:
1955 Life Magazine Article:
“A hook is hard to judge. Maybe one week you will be able to judge it adequately, but then the next week you aim a little farther over to the right to compensate. Sometimes a hook gets so exaggerated that you don’t know where to aim, or have room to aim it. I was in that predicament in 1946, although it was more of a crisis than a predicament. I was having trouble getting the ball in the air. I had a low, ducking, agonizing hook, the kind you hang your coat on…
I practiced six or eight hours and couldn’t wait to come back the next day. It worked even better then and for a week after that. But I had to put it to a test. Sometimes things tried in practice fall apart when tension is put on. I went to Chicago for the Tam O’Shanter and it worked under all the stresses. I won the tournament. It was like learning to play golf all over again.”
Ever since Ben Hogan announced two springs ago that his majestic successes as a tournament golfer were yoked hand in hand with a discovery he had made in 1946 and mastered in 1948, one of America’s favorite outdoor and indoor pastimes has been trying to guess “Hogan’s Secret.” Most professionals and technique-wise amateurs knew the general area in which to look: Hogan’s Secret clearly had something to do with the adjustments Ben had made which had transformed him—on those occasions when he failed to meet the ball just right—from the anguished captive of a hook (in which the ball moves in an often disastrous right-to-left parabola) into the proud and happy owner of a cultivated, controllable fade (in which the ball moves in a gentle left-to-right parabola and usually expires only a few yards off the desired line). The guesses included just about all of the age-old, stand-by remedies of the Ancient and Honorable Society for the Prevention of the Hook. Some were obviously “warm” but there was no knowing exactly how warm, for Hogan had no intention of making his personal formula known to his rivals as long as he remained a full-fledged competitive golfer.
But is a 1946 discovery of the secret consistent with the record of Hogan’s play? Hogan complained about playing poorly before finding the secret, yet he had 11 individual wins in 1946. In 1947 he slumped, winning only 5 times individually. Additionally, there are several sources that date the discovery of Hogan’s secret to the 1947. This date seems much more reasonable considering that even the Life Magazine excerpt above describes Hogan winning the Tam O’Shanter shortly after refining “the secret”. Hogan won the Tam O’Shanter in late 1947, not 1946. Here are the sources supporting a 1947 discovery of the secret:
1949 Time Article:
“I’ve learned how.” In a quarter-century of the game, Ben Hogan had probably hit more golf balls than any man alive. Then one day in 1947 while he was walking out to a practice tee in Fort Worth, a brand new idea occurred to him. He hit a few shots in what was for Ben a slight change of style. He had lost the hook (which golfers say always rolls till it reaches trouble) and found a fade (a slight drift to the right) which he could control with great accuracy.
Then, Ben Hogan began to ease up on his solitary practice lessons. Said he: “I’ve learned how to play golf.” His recent book, Power Golf (A.S. Barnes, $3) tells most of the golf tactics he knows – but not the one he discovered that day in Fort Worth. Of that one he says: “I won’t even tell my wife.”
LA Times Article, June 1948 (credit to Drewspin for this one)
Never satisfied (“I need more daylight”) with his game, Hogan changed his style at the start of the ’48 campaign. The new look, or style, is designed to reduce tension and fatigue, says the 138-pound belter.
“I have adopted a swing which causes the ball to ‘fade’ slightly to the right as compared to the bothersome hook that used to haunt me,” said Hogan. “I find it less exhausting. I first used it in winning the world championship tourney sponsored by George May in Chicago last September, and I’m satisfied I made a wise move.”
Dr. Cary Middlecoff’s Book, “The Golf Swing“:
The statement [that he had discovered 'the secret'] was especially startling in one respect, as it put Hogan so squarely on the spot. He clearly must have known that he would consistently have to produce some outstanding golf or suffer considerable embarrassment. He surely knew that all serious golfers are prone to come up with what they think ‘the secret’ but which usually turns out to be a snare and a delusion. I know that I have had many of them, some of which I briefly thought were so valuable that I would keep them strictly to myself until I had won all the tournaments and money I wanted. But none ever impressed me sufficiently or worked for a long enough trial period to tempt me to announce that ‘now I’ve got it.’ Hogan’s did…
Hogan…hit upon the method approximately between the seasons of 1947 and 1948. … I played with Hogan many times that year,  and while he won the U.S. Open and several other tournaments, he did not seem to me to be hitting the ball with anything like the authority that characterized his play in later years. … According to my memory, it was in 1950, after the accident, that he began showing the kind of precision golf that set him apart.
Confused? Here is a little figure I put together to sum up the sequence of events according to the various sources.
So, it seems much more likely that the secret was discovered in the summer of 1947. This has some important implications because many who accept the 1946 date consider the swings recorded in the book Power Golf to be pre-accident but post-secret. Since those swings were actually captured in early 1947 that appears not to be the case. This makes sense when one examines the details of those Power Golf swings. Jeff Martin does a great job of comparing the Power Golf swings to post-accident post-secret swings from the early 50′s. The differences are noticeable.
Martin characterizes the secret to be (paraphrasing): an opening of the clubface at the top of the backswing (as described in the Life Magazine article) followed by an early bowing of the left hand/wrist on the downswing. Comparing the swings above, it does indeed appear that in the post-secret swings, the left wrist is more bowed and working “closed-to-open” through impact, rather than “open-to-closed” as shown in the Power Golf swings.
Post-impact looked a little different as well (credit again to Jeff):
But the above comparison still doesn’t tell us which of the swing changes are due to the secret and which are do to the accident. For that, we need evidence from that brief period post-secret and pre-accident i.e. the 1948 season. Does such a video exist? Of course it does! The internet has everything! But I believe this is the only swing video post-secret/pre-accident:
We can see in this video that even before the accident, the clubface appears more open at the top and the left wrist more bowed into impact. We have therefore verified that this swing change was secret-related and not accident-related.
So what have we learned?
A) The Power Golf swings were pre-secret despite being published two years after the alleged date of Hogan’s secret per the famous Life Magazine article.
B) Some changes in hand/wrist conditions at the top of the swing and approaching impact are observable immediately after the more reliable date of Hogan’s secret. They show up in the only available 1948 swing and in all the swings post-accident.
C) In terms of overall swing length, the post-accident swings may be slightly more restricted but they still go past parallel with the driver. See below, with pre-accident on the left and post-accident on the right:
Mystery solved? Nah… where’s the fun in that?