Chasing ben

Chasing Ben

Love, loss and fatbacks on a California road trip like no other

This story is about a sixth-place check for $285. It wasn’t mine. I don’t play for checks anymore. After too many years on that emotional roller coaster, I finally made the call in 2010. I had just tied for 24th in a European Challenge Tour event in Morocco. Standing on the balcony of my hotel room just south of Casablanca, I asked myself, “Why the fuck am I doing this?”

Why did I continue to put myself through this exercise in frustration? When you’re a touring pro, especially on the lower-rung tours, the tantalizing knowledge everyone shares is that you’re only one magical week away from fulfilling a dream. The reality is that, for so many of us, the years of countless putts, zero-dark-thirty rounds, numbing wedge work and 10-hour days in 100-degree heat actually doesn’t pay off like that. It’s a hard lesson. As the warm breezes wafted over the sparkling Atlantic Ocean, I realized I didn’t love the game the way I used to, and that’s when I made the hardest decision of my life. 

Fast-forward to 2018, at 4 a.m. in Costa Mesa, California. On a chilly late-spring morning in this small town just inland from the beach communities of Orange County, Dave Lyons, his brother Brett and I were sipping coffee and loading a 2010 Ford Transit for a road trip north to the Bay Area. More specifically, Sequoyah Country Club.

As it has for many others, golf had brought the three of us together. We had always talked about packing everything into a van one day and setting out all over the country to live some of the more obscure golf stories that caught our fancy, to search for the real versions of these tall tales. 

We finally decided, “Enough!” All these stories were just that until we did something. It was time to go. 

We framed it to friends and family as an adventure, the first of what we hoped would become many more. We were off to chase the Hawk, to walk in the footsteps of the little-known tournament that saved Ben Hogan’s career.

But why the fuck was I really doing this? I was hoping this trip could heal my fractured love for the game. 

In 1938, Ben Hogan embarked on a desperate road trip up the California coast to save his golf career. Eighty years after the 1938 Oakland Open, another road trip retraced his footsteps. The circumstances of the second trip were less financially dire, but the consequences were similar: They were both a final attempt to see if golf could still be a focal point in a man’s life.

Ben Hogan arrived in Oakland in 1938, 24 years old, wife Valerie in tow and struggling to keep his playing career afloat. Varying accounts say the Hogans had anywhere from $8 to $84 left in their pockets. Despite his obvious talent and fervent desire to make it as a professional, his prospects were beyond bleak. A failure in Oakland meant packing up and going back home to Texas—if they had the money to get that far.

 After living out of cheap motels on their West Coast trip, the Hogans checked into the Leamington Hotel because it gave players a nice discount. Hogan parked his car across the street in an empty lot for 15 cents and began preparations for the week of his life, surviving mostly on coffee and oranges. Adding to the somber mood, there were heavy rains and muddy conditions throughout the week. In the Bay Area publication The Forgotten Times, legendary reporter Art Spander recounted a story from 1938 California State Amateur champion Matt Palacio: “There was no driving range at Sequoyah, so people practiced at Oak Knoll at the bottom of the hill. I get a ride from the ferry, and when we drive up, I see Hogan practicing. He’s all dirty, like he’s been working on a car.” 

Upon waking up for the first round, Hogan hit his lowest point yet: He discovered his car jacked up with the tires missing. It was a different time; parking garages were largely nonexistent and breaking into cars was fairly easy. With the U.S. economy still not fully recovered from the Great Depression, Hogan wasn’t the only person with little money doing anything he could to survive.

Sam Snead, who went on to win the first-ever Oakland Open, said in his biography, “I remember Ben standing outside…beating his fists against a brick wall. ‘What happened, boy?’ we other young pros asked. ‘I can’t go another inch,’ groaned Ben. He was as close to tears as that tough little guy can get. ‘I’m finished. Some son of a bitch stole the tires off my car.’”

Byron Nelson, his old friend from Fort Worth, Texas, gave Hogan a ride to the course. One can only imagine what was going through Hogan’s head as they drove through the gloom. The prospect of returning home, tail between his legs, to get a nine-to-five job and moving on with his life without golf never seemed greater.

Steely nerves are earned, not given. Hogan, who had already worked in oil fields, garages, a bank, a hotel and as a gambling house’s dealer and croupier while trying to make golf his full-time life, had more than paid his dues. In a rock-solid performance that would foreshadow his many later triumphs, Hogan did battle with the conditions, his emotions and a strong field to grab that sixth-place finish and, more importantly, that $285 check. It was enough to keep going. 

The Lyons brothers and I were fascinated with this moment in Hogan’s career. For a man whose life has been exhaustively chronicled, we were shocked at what little reporting existed about his 1938 Oakland Open. It made our desire to retrace his footsteps that much more powerful. We pointed the van in the direction of the Leamington Hotel. 

The drive up the California coast is one of the most serene, exciting, beautiful and still-dangerous drives in the country. After veering in and out of hellish L.A. traffic, we hit the postcard section of the drive, passing through Santa Barbara, bowing to the Queen of the Coast (Rincon, arguably California’s best surf break) and gawking at the majesty of Big Sur. We decided at certain moments to travel in silence. In a world full of constant distraction, we let Mother Nature simply engulf us, allowing for the kind of personal reflection seldom found on the bullet train of life. When we did open up, we made a game of pointing out locations where we could build little par 3s, even nine-hole layouts. The drive didn’t lack for inspiration.

We did lack a big budget. Home-made sandwiches, instant coffee, directions to a campground, sleeping bags and tents were in the back of our van. We traded modern luxuries for bonding over golf stories by a crackling campfire while sipping on whiskey. It’s a form of detachment the human spirit craves and the biggest reason we made this trip in the first place.

When we arrived in Oakland, we couldn’t get to the Leamington Hotel fast enough. It was considered an architectural masterpiece when it opened its doors in 1926, a Spanish-style building with a $30,000 pipe organ designed by W.H. Weeks and made famous by Amelia Earhart when she kept an office there while planning for her fateful journey in 1937. As we made a right on Franklin Street, we hoped for an opulent facade, stained-glass windows and original elevators built with Industrial Revolution materials. Dave and Brett began shuffling their cameras to get the perfect shot when, to our disappointment, we arrived to boarded-up windows, construction equipment, rental trucks and a demolition crew.

We parked the van and walked over to inspect the site. Gone were the stained-glass windows, replaced with modern energy-efficient ones. Gone were the original marble floors, now laid with tile. The exterior appeared to be preserved, but the charming interior was no more; the Leamington Hotel was a literal shell of its former self. Our goal was to see what Hogan had seen, to place ourselves in the moment and try to feel his burn as he walked out of the hotel to face his moment. Instead we were confronted with a swirl of our own emotions.

We snuck past a security gate and scampered up to the roof of a closed parking garage directly across from the Leamington. We sat there in the warming Bay Area sun, snapping photos through the lens of an original Canon AE-1. We were hoping for a beautiful old gray lady to hold her own against a fast-changing world. But the future waits for no one and the Leamington was not exempt.

We departed for Sequoyah, our expectations fully in check.

“Hey, guys! Take a look at this!”

John Gourhan, a longtime member and Sequoyah Country Club’s resident historian, held open a door to a storage closet. After some digging, he produced a framed image that the club had stumbled upon. It was a routing plan that had spent years in an abandoned boardroom. For three amateur golf historians, it was pure gold. 

The plan was created by H. Chandler Egan, the two-time U.S. Amateur champion and 1904 Olympic gold medalist. After his playing career, Egan became an accomplished West Coast golf-course architect and formed a partnership with Alister MacKenzie. Their most notable work was the renovation of Pebble Beach for the 1929 U.S. Amateur. In 1930, Egan submitted bold new plans to renovate Sequoyah, but they were never implemented. While Gourhan suggested it was the churn of a tumultuous decade—the Depression and, later, ominous talk of a world war—no concrete reason was found. It’s a shame. In Egan’s routing, you see the similarities of a channel hole, a short hole and a Biarritz, designs and strategy so important during the late stage of hickory, when the ground game was the preferred method of play.

That’s not to say the current course is not outstanding. Sequoyah is built on the side of a hill in the Oak Knoll region just southeast of Oakland. Sitting just below the top of Anthony Chabot Regional Park, the grounds offer panoramic views of Oakland, San Francisco and the Bay Bridge. When the course opened in 1914, the Oakland Tribune trumpeted its arrival: “Unsurpassed for impressive beauty is the panorama which spreads athwart the West—a foreground of Sylvan dells and grassy slopes, the city clustering far below in the middle distance about the towering monolith of the City Hall and in the background the gleaming waters of the bay, the terraced hills of San Francisco and the purple profile of Tamalpais against the arching blue. No other country club in the West can boast of the prospect so wonderful and varied.”

Even late in the day, as we gathered on the 10th tee next to the clubhouse, we immediately understood why at no point during a round will a player have an approach from an even lie or face a level 10-footer. It sounds short at 6,200 yards, but its nuances are what make the course unique, and even though my tee time was for the following morning, the anticipation already sent needling shrieks through my body. The property bleeds down from the hills above, and holes delicately meander their way in and out of trees, with veins of arroyos and barrancas awaiting misplayed shots. After spying several greens perched on ledges carved out from severe slopes, my mind raced, prompting a nervous reevaluation of my short-iron accuracy. 

I thought of Hogan. In a week that seemed preordained with awful luck, he did catch one huge break: This place was built for a player of his precision and dogged determination. Lesser competitors would be cowed by some of these shots. Hogan, starting with the 1938 Oakland Open, turned them into opportunities.

To us, it made sense to camp in the same park as the golf course. In typical Bay Area fashion, the 80-degree day quickly turned into a frigid night under the stars.

The morning broke with a startling realization that snapped the spell of the campground: “Oh shit, we’re late!” We threw the tent and sleeping bags into the van, and just as we were about to hop in, it occurred to us that we needed to change clothes. I couldn’t play 18 holes at a prestigious private country club in sweats. The quick wardrobe change in the 40-degree weather wasn’t fun, but we were damn sure awake.

To add to the authenticity of the Sequoyah experience, I played with a set of refinished Hogan Speed-Slot fairway woods, and a handmade driver filled with lead and nearly impossible to draw, much like Hogan’s beloved driver he played for the majority of his career. (Specs: 43 inches, D-2, extra-stiff Apex 5 shaft, tipped. Zero bulge and roll.) Rounding out the set were irons from the vision of Patrick Boyd of National Custom Golf, handmade by Don White to match Hogan’s famous ’53 fatbacks.

For years, Boyd (whom many know as the previous general manager and current part-owner of Sweetens Cove Golf Course in Tennessee) and I had conversations late into the evening about leading-edge relief, tapered hosels, square toes, on-set versus offset looks—conversations sane people would likely find excruciating. We talked about what golf was like during an era when distance wasn’t the answer to winning—when it was the combination of accuracy, precision, touch and the unteachable skill of getting the stomach butterflies to fly in formation in the heat of competition. We dreamed up scenarios of how the PGA Tour would look today if players like Dustin Johnson had to hit a ball that likely wasn’t perfectly round with a steel-shafted persimmon wood. Who would win that U.S. Open? We marveled at how the players back in the day didn’t have up-to-date weather apps, Gore-Tex, on-site physios or private jets. They certainly didn’t have equipment deals and marketing money to buoy them if they had a bad week or two. Hogan and his contemporaries played for their actual livelihoods.

I teed off with Doug Sager, one of the better players from the club. He pointed out all the changes that had taken place during the last restoration, performed by Doug Nickels with assistance from Tommy Naccarato. Many of the earlier views that had been swallowed by growing sequoias had been cleared and opened up, allowing the vastness of the property to reveal itself.

As we slalomed through the fairways, my mind jumped to Steinbeck. No wonder he was inspired to write: Northern California’s natural beauty has a way of opening up one’s heart, mind and emotions. But every time my thoughts wandered, I was quickly snapped back to the task at hand by yet another dicey lie.

Hogan starter set in hand, I attempted to tap into what made him great. I tried, foolishly, to find that rhythmic flash that made his move so iconic, to master the dance that the golf swing requires when playing with Hogan-era equipment. But there were high points. Standing on the ninth tee—a boomerang of a dogleg right—I cracked a low, cutting fade with my persimmon, a ball flight almost impossible to conjure up today. No TrackMan numbers here, no MORAD system—I enjoyed the simple poetry of trying to control my ball and mindfully navigating the course.

Sitting on the patio post-round, the sun warmed us, but we all knew it was fleeting; the weather is fickle in these parts. It has a way of pushing you to the next moment. Hogan battled the game more than any of us, perhaps, and did so better than most others have. Unlike him, I never had my magical week, but I left Sequoyah looking forward to what the game would bring me next.