08/11/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT
FOR YEARS, GOLFERS AT THE Shady Oaks Country Club in Fort Worth routinely fell apart on the 9th and 18th holes. According to club lore, it wasn't the difficult terrain that did them in. It was the knowledge that Ben Hogan, perhaps the greatest player ever to swing a club, was watching from his favorite table in the clubhouse.
Last Friday night, July 25, the table bore a hand-lettered place card that read: "In Honor of Mr. Hogan, This Table Is Reserved." Hogan, 84, fighting Alzheimer's and cancer, had died that morning. He hadn't played competitively since 1971, but he was far from forgotten. "Golf," says Jack Nicklaus, "has lost the best shotmaker the game has ever seen."
And perhaps the most courageous. In 1949, after a near-fatal automobile collision, doctors told him he'd be lucky to walk again. After the accident, Hogan played just a few tournaments a year. But, in what a golf correspondent for The New York Times called "one of the most outstanding feats in the annals of sports," he won the 1950 U.S. Open. His 63 victories—including the Masters, the U.S. Open, the PGA Championship and the British Open—rank him third all-time behind Sam Snead and Nicklaus. "He asked no quarter and he gave none," says Byron Nelson, 85, another links legend.
Hogan was born in Stephenville, Texas, the son of a blacksmith who committed suicide when Ben was 9. He learned to play while caddying for 65 cents a round. Perhaps because of his hapless childhood, he grew into a famously private and taciturn man. When Nick Faldo, a three-time Masters champion, flew to Fort Worth a few years back to ask the master for insight on how to win the U.S. Open, Hogan reportedly advised: "Shoot the lowest score."