by Jim Corbett

We live in a time of great concern about people’s character. And the concern seems to become greater and greater as we observe less and less character demonstrated in our society. The character issue looms large in Presidential politics, many news and popular magazines have run cover stories on the lack of character exhibited by Americans (we lie, we cheat, we steal) and we are constantly confronted in our daily lives by situations that underscore the fact that true character appears to be in diminishing supply.Some acts are done out of greed due to poor budgeting of finances which lead to embezzlement from the company they work for.

Our fascination with character should not be seen as unusual though, character has been analyzed and probed throughout the ages. Aristotle studied the human character as did Shakespeare, Emerson and many others across the span of time. But what exactly is character? Fortunately, character is not like pornography (something we can only recognize when we see it). Definitions and descriptions of character are easily located in dictionaries and throughout great literature, in treatises on morals and ethics, and in term papers in schools across America.

But I believe Ben Hogan captured it quite well when he described character as, “… a set of fundamentals that appeared to me to be right because they accomplished a very definite purpose, a set of fundamentals that proved to me they were right because they stood up and produced under all kinds of pressure.”

Ben Hogan, not known for his sparkling personality, was well known for the character he exhibited on and off the golf course. His character was clearly demonstrated in the latter years of his career when he played under tremendous pressure from the pain he experienced due to injuries received in a tragic car accident. Every painful step he took down the fairways bore witness to the inner strength that drove the man.

But actually, the comment above by Ben Hogan is not really about character, it is a quote from his book, published in 1957, Five Lessons, The Modern Fundamentals of Golf. And the comment referred to developing a good golf swing — “a set of fundamentals that proved they were right because they stood up and produced under all kinds of pressure.” It is interesting to note, however, that there are quite a few similarities between developing a good golf swing and developing a good character.

If you were taking an SAT exam and the analogy was: Your character is to your life as your (BLANK) is to your golf game, the right answer would definitely be “your swing.” Not your score, not your handicap, not your clubs — definitely “your swing.” Your character is the quality that makes up who you are as a person just as your swing will determine what kind of golfer you are. If your swing is flawed, everything else in your game will suffer and if your character is flawed, everything else in your life will cause you problems too. Some problems in life you may solve with budgeting, others you may have to solve with patience.

And, like your swing, your character is something you must develop over your whole lifetime. Perfection (which we know to be unattainable) is not the goal; the goal is constant improvement. The good news for those who are struggling in either area (swing or character), is that with proper guidance and focused efforts, improvement is possible. When you read Hogan’s book, you will see that the man, whom many believe to have had the greatest golf swing of all time, also had a great many things of value to say about developing one’s character.

In his book, Hogan talks briefly about the “miracle shot” he took at Merion in 1950 — a 2-iron played to, “a well-trapped, slightly plateaued green from about 200 yards out.” By hitting that shot perfectly, and two-putting, he forced a play off in the U.S. Open — which he won the following day.

His perspective on that shot differs from that of many spectators who witnessed the event. Whereas the spectators viewed that shot as a glamorous moment, unique and isolated, Hogan doesn’t see it that way at all. “I didn’t hit that shot then — that late afternoon at Merion. I’d been practicing that shot since I was 12 years old. After all, the point of tournament golf is to get command of a swing which, the more pressure you put on it, the better it works.” Isn’t that the same challenge for character — the more pressure you put on it the better it works?

Hogan’s observation reminds us why, like the golf swing, character is something that is best developed from the time a person is very young. That way, when a politician or a business leader is faced with a difficult ethical dilemma (i.e., “Should I accept a questionable campaign donation?” “Should I vigorously enforce our company’s anti-discrimination policy?”) no one will be surprised when the correct choice is made. Since that person has been practicing “doing the right thing” since childhood, it comes naturally as an adult. The fact that the circumstances occur in a pressure-filled situation makes success no less likely.

Practice Makes Perfect

Hogan talks passionately about practicing the right things. “I realize that in some ways I can be a demanding man and that some things are harder for certain people to do than I may appreciate,” (Thanks, Ben.) “but it really cuts me up to watch some golfer sweating over his shots on the practice tee, throwing away his energy to no constructive purpose, nine times out of ten doing the same thing wrong he did years and years back when he first took up golf.”

This is the kind of sensitivity that earned Ben Hogan the “Mr. Congenialty” award at many tour events over the years. Let’s face it, though, we’ve all been to the practice range and seen those people (in fact, we may BE those people!). But hey, haven’t we also seen many people who are practicing the wrong things over and over in their lives as well? And haven’t some of those people been doing those same things wrong for years and years without ever changing or ever realizing what they are doing? Wait a minute! Is it possible that WE are THOSE people too? Actually … it is possible. You see, in both the golf swing and in life, it is much easier to see the mistakes that other people are making than to see the ones that we are making ourselves.

The Grip

“Good golf begins with a good grip.” So says Ben Hogan in Chapter One. He observes that many golfers overlook the importance of the grip because, “…the grip is the drabbest part of the swing. There’s no glamour to it. They see it accomplishing nothing active, nothing decisive.” But Hogan sees it differently, recognizing the grip as being, “…far from a static, “still life” sort of thing, the grip is the heartbeat of the action of the golf swing.”

To Hogan, the golf grip would be equivalent to a person’s principles — those fundamentals that are at the heart of a person’s character, though they may appear, on the surface, to be of little outward consequence. In Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Covey advocates the “principle-centered life.” He says that, “By centering our lives on correct principles, we create a solid foundation for development.” (So whether you choose Covey’s “7 Habits,” or Hogan’s “5 Lessons,” the conclusion is the same — strong fundamentals provide the foundation for greater development.) According to Hogan, “In golf there are certain things you must do quite precisely, where being approximately right is not right enough. The grip is one of these areas where being half right accomplishes nothing.” Principles is another one of those areas.

I am sure that Ben Hogan is not impressed with the fact that many of today’s golfers seem more inclined toward the “grip it and rip it” school of the golf swing, giving little, if any, thought to the meticulous application of Hogan’s grip fundamentals. Is it any surprise that this “grip it and rip it” approach comes at a time when our approach to life’s principles appears to be from the same school? Is it just a coincidence that throughout our society we observe a sad dissatisfaction with the decline in our basic values?

“Grip it and rip it” has one thing in its favor — it requires very little of us. The average golfer, however, gets very little in return, except lost balls and extra penalty strokes. But Hogan says, “Being painstaking about learning to grip rewards you a thousand times over.” That sounds better than penalty strokes, in golf and in life!

The Greatest Pleasure

Hogan refers to, “One of the greatest pleasures in golf — I can think of nothing that truly compares with it unless it is watching a well-played shot streak for the flag — is the sensation a golfer experiences at the instant he contacts the ball flush and correctly. He always knows when he does, for then and only then does a distinctive “sweet feeling” sweep straight up the shaft from the clubhead and surge through his arms and his whole frame.”

That is the same feeling we all experience and that we long to experience over and over when we realize we have done the right thing for the simple sake of doing the right thing — the tremendous feeling of pride and satisfaction that surges through one’s whole frame! When we are presented with the opportunities to “do the right thing,” then as Hogan says, “This is where everything a player does from the moment he takes his club from the bag either pays off or doesn’t.”

For Ben Hogan, personally, developing his golf swing was a lifelong pursuit. He started out as a left-handed golfer, evolved to a righty, he used a cross-handed grip, experimented with the interlocking grip and finally adopted the overlapping grip. He used many different finger placements, used a variety of stances, evolved through a number of backswings and tinkered with the shift of his weight. It is with a great depth of experience and wisdom, then, that he says, “All of us, quite like detectives, set off on our own separate paths. We develop a clue here, put it to the test to see if it holds up, develop another lead there, … .Today’s brilliant deduction often folds under deeper examination and becomes tomorrow’s dead end. And more than that, with no trouble at all you can get off on the wrong track, increase your error by studiously taking the wrong turn at another crucial fork in the road, and before you know it you are lost in a labyrinth of your own making.”

Could Ben Hogan really have said all of that about something as elementary as the golf swing? I think what he meant was: disregarding your grip, your swing plane and your follow through will lead you down the road to a poor golf swing, just as abandoning a few basic principles such as honesty, courage and integrity will lead you down the road to a poor character.

If you are interested in improving your golf swing, you should read Ben Hogan’s book. In it, Hogan has shared the insights he developed over the course of a spectacular career. And, if you read between the lines, you will see that Mr. Hogan has revealed the quality of his own character by sharing his insights into the thing he knows best.

So too, if you are interested in developing a character that will stand up to the pressures of life, remember what Ben Hogan says about the golf swing, “Frequently, you know, what looks like a fairly good golf swing falls apart in competition. …the harsh light of competition reveals that a swing is only superficially correct … It can’t stand up day after day. A correct swing will. In fact, the greater the pressure you put on it, the better your swing should function, if it is honestly sound.” The same is true of your character.

Character, The Golf Swing and Ben Hogan