The spirit of Ben Hogan

The Dunlop 1-iron sat forlornly in the long wooden cabinet displaying used clubs for sale. Every other day, Moni, the barman-cum-supervisor, would place some item or the other there for sale and sales were usually steady. But even the most disinterested observer would have noticed that the long iron remained unnoticed and untouched. Many young aspiring Tiger Woods would firstly go for the drivers, and then the utility woods; the fives, sevens and no one it seemed had any use for the solitary long iron.


The display cabinets were located almost parallel to the bar in the old extension of the still older club house which had been newly renovated courtesy of a government grant made possible by a golf playing bureaucrat who had taken up golf. This very bureaucrat, Mr Arvan Lang was enjoying a bottle of Budweiser beer with his colleague in the civil service, Mr Ashok Capur a fellow golfing enthusiast from the Rajasthan Cadre and posted in the Ministry of Rural Development at New Delhi. Capur had come ostensibly on tour to the state to inspect centrally sponsored schemes but in actual fact just wanted to beat the heat. It was the middle of June, the pre-monsoon time and whilst searing heat and acute water shortages was affecting the majority of the population, the good citizens of Shillong town luxuriated in their sylvan surroundings.


Amidst the inevitable post mortem and the ‘ifs’ that followed the conclusion of every keenly contested round, Capur’s attention was drawn to the old 1-iron and soon, he and his companion began talking about the singular recovery shots executed with long irons and which had become a part of golf folklore. In particular they recalled the incredible 3rd shot the great Ben Hogan executed on the 18th fairway at Merion Golf Club. Pennsylvania. It was the 72nd hole of the 1950 US Open and Hogan, the eventual winner with legs still bandaged from the near fatal car crash needed to make ‘par’ to make it to the playoff the next day. Ahead of Hogan was an unbelievably narrow fairway of almost 250 yards in length terminating in a tiny green made lethally fast with four days of bright sun and protected by a monstrous bunker to the front right of the green. Hogan extracted his 1-iron and summoning his last ounces of energy, struck the ball into the heart of the green and made ‘par’! The three way playoff was easily won by Hogan. The rest is history.


“You will not believe me, Capur,” said Lang, ‘but that 1-iron out there played a similarly significant part though not of the Logan magnitude in the life of one of our fellow golfers here. This fellow whom I will not name (Let us call him Mr Roy) was in fact a member of our sister service who has since resigned and now he is making ludicrous amounts of money on the professional Asian Golf circuit. But till about 5 years ago, he was on the verge of penury. He had deserted his wife and his meager pension was used to pay off the alimony. The only thing he had going was his golf and he was simply going nowhere. He tried to qualify several times for the Asian Tour from the Qualifying (Q) School usually held in Jaipur but failed in all his attempts. One couldn’t blame him of course. You of all people will know that the Jaipur golf course resembles a desert in summer! Our friend stagnated in Shillong and his games were now confined to betting with whoever came along. At one point he even took up coaching but the universal belief as you yourself have once told me is that a good player does not make a good coach. And he was very good’.


Capur signaled for another beer. He reserved his comments as he replenished his friend’s glass an act which had briefly interrupted the anecdote. Lang continued on. ‘I was friendly with Mr. Roy and could understand his compulsions for taking premature retirement. He was of the belief that he had another option in life. I am sure you of all people will understand why’.


Capur did understand. When they joined the IAS, they believed they were like the philosopher knights of Aristotelian Greece; motivated to serve society with compassion and objectivity. They would change the system and make a tangible difference. Before they could realize it, all their plans came to naught. The nexus between some unscrupulous and self-aggrandizing members of their service with businessmen and politicians existed before their entry into the government and would continue after their exit. Both the friends would discuss about unfulfilled potential and the frustration of being sidelined by a system that favored mostly cronyism and corruption.


Their golf fortunately provided an escape route from this frustration of not being able to generate tangible outcomes and being stymied by hidden agenda and minefields of bad governance. The game provided a dimension of their life which rewarded skills and industry and commitment and contrasted sharply with the culture prevalent in their workplace. It provided a cathartic outlet but only on weekends. They often discussed the option of quitting but they lacked the skills and courage to quit and consoled themselves with the thought that they could be given an assignment which would prove their true potential. Capur said that he admired the courage of the man who could take golf up as a full time profession and give up all the perks and privileges of government service.


Lang continued with his narration about how the subject of his story had almost become a derelict person avoided by all his friends that is until fate dealt him an ace of spades! ‘Due to the unrelenting heat in other parts of India’ he said ‘some five years ago the Indian Golf Association temporarily shifted the venue of the Q School to this very course. Almost immediately thereafter, Mr. Roy began to practice without even taking a break for meals. He would even practice in the dark by lighting candles around the practice green and work on his putting and chipping.


The big day came and about four score aspirants teed off. The qualifying was over 18 holes and the qualifying cut was set at one under the course par of 70. In layman terms, a player would need to achieve a score of ‘69’, which was quite difficult considering the topography of the Shillong Golf course with its angled fairways and small greens. Our friend was now confident of qualifying. After all, it was his home course and one of his friends Brigadier Singh often remarked that Roy recognized every blade of grass on the course.


Mr. Roy shot a one over par on the first nine holes, but was still confident in making the cut, as it was his home course. And in any case, he always carded a three under round or better on the comparatively easier back nine. Till the 16th hole the going was good. His game was holding up as expected and his card read at two under par with three birdies made on three successive holes. The other three players were reconciled to missing the cut. But on the very next hole that is the 17th hole, which was a par four, Lady Luck deserted him.


The irony of it all was that he crunched a booming almost 300-yard drive. But his second shot bounced off the green and onto the adjacent road, which was out of bounds. He dropped three strokes on what was supposed to be a routinely easy hole. His score now stood at one under! Mr. Roy stood on the eighteen hole tee box, knowing that all he needed was a ‘par’! Any onlooker could sense the tension surrounding the man but no one would imagine the turbulence in his mind.


Capur’s level of interest increased. He could visualize the thoughts of Lang’s unnamed friend. ‘A par’; in itself an ordinarily meaning and simple sounding three letter adjective. But in the context of the contest, this target, this ‘par’ if achieved would open the windows of opportunity into a brave new and certainly a better world. He glanced out of the window and took in the contours of the 18th fairway. It looked relatively simple. And he had made a par on this par-4 hole. But hang on, he thought. Come to think of it, he saw that not only was the fairway narrow, but it sloped steeply to the right and was bounded on the left by a public road linking the Golf Links market place and the junction of the roads leading to Police Training Centre and the other carrying on to Mawpat village. He had been informed that balls landing on this road are declared as out of bounds (O.B.). And he noticed that on the right of the fairway, there was a line of old pine trees solid and rugged in their permanence. Even a novice golfer could discern that a ball striking or landing at the foot of these sentinels spelt trouble for the player as they would obscure his sight of the green and literally obstruct the line of the ball.


Lang again invigorated by another swig of Budweiser beer came to the conclusion of the episode. He said, ‘I could feel for Mr. Roy as he took his stance behind the ball on the tee box and wiggled the club head of his 1 wood. I could see the tension oozing out of every pore of his body. I could read his mind as he mentally visualized his shot, the arc of the ball and the landing safely past the trees. I could physically feel the tightness of his muscles and the turmoil of his mind. I could see that he wanted to play a safety shot and avoid going O.B. That was his undoing, I think. In going too far right, his ball struck one of the pine trees and the ball ricocheted back behind one of the pine trees onto the adjacent first fairway. After his second recovery shot onto the 18th fairway, he was left with a 200 yard plus recovery shot onto the 18th green guarded by giant sand traps on both the front sides of the green.. He had to make sure that his third shot would enable him to putt for a par. I could see the man virtually at the end of his tether! His caddy handed him a three wood club. But no! A visibly swaying Mr. Roy spurned the outstretched hand and plucked out the 1-iron, which you see now displayed in front of you. His ball landed a good two feet from the cup. But he did make his ‘par’!



P S Thangkhiew is currently posted as 'Principal Secretary' in the Government of Meghalaya and is a career bureaucrat with almost 30 years service. He plays golf on weekends with more enthusiasm than skill and with the focus being on the exercise and the company of other golfers rather than the technical aspects which kills all the joy in the game.