Terry Koehler frequently asks this question: “What would Mr. Hogan do?” As president and CEO of the new Ben Hogan Golf Equipment Co., Koehler is trying to revive an iconic brand associated with tradition and excellence. To succeed, Koehler believes, he has to be authentic. So he set up shop in Fort Worth, where for 40 years the Ben Hogan Co. turned out high-quality golf clubs under the watchful eye of the golfing legend. He hired people who worked directly with Mr. Hogan at his factory and he reached out to local investors and the pro at Hogan’s old home course, Shady Oaks Country Club.
In January, the company debuted its first product at the PGA Merchandise Show in Florida, the Fort Worth 15, a set of irons that sport the classic look of old Hogans as well as an innovative approach. Instead of the traditional set of 2 through 9 plus wedges, the Fort Worth 15 will offer golfers a choice of 44 irons numbered by loft, from 20 to 63 degrees.
The response, Koehler says, was overwhelming. “I don’t know how many people came up and said, ‘Thank you for bringing the Ben Hogan brand back.’”
To understand the attachment to a golfing name from the 1950s, you need to understand the man. Before Tiger Woods, before Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, Ben Hogan dominated the sport. From his humble start as a caddie at Fort Worth’s Glen Garden Country Club, where he learned the game alongside Byron Nelson, Hogan went on to win nine major championships and build a successful business after famously surviving a near-fatal auto accident in 1949.
Together, Hogan and Nelson put Dallas-Fort Worth on the modern golf map, their names permanently attached to PGA Tour stops each spring at the Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, which Hogan won five times at a course now dubbed Hogan’s Alley, and the Nelson in Las Colinas.
On the golf course and in the business world, Ben Hogan was known for his work ethic and a relentless pursuit of perfection. When he launched his business in 1953, he boasted that he wanted to build “the best golf clubs in the world,” and Hogans would indeed become a preferred choice for top players. At its peak, Ben Hogan Co. employed more than 400 people in Fort Worth.
But a series of owners eventually disrupted the business, and Hogan clubs disappeared from the market. Koehler was director of marketing for the Ben Hogan Co. in the early 1990s, when one owner decided to uproot the company from its Fort Worth home and move it to Virginia. It turned out to be a terrible business decision that crushed the company’s founder, who died in 1997. “You could see the pain on his face of the whole thing being shut down and moved out,” Koehler says. “This was his life’s work.”
Last year, Koehler, who owned a business making wedges in Victoria, struck a licensing deal with Perry Ellis International, maker of Hogan apparel, to put the name back on golf clubs. For the industry veteran, 63, it was like getting a mulligan.
Market research shows a lasting reverence for the Hogan brand. “The overall brand perception relates Hogan to quality, to accuracy and precision,” Koehler says. “People can’t separate Ben Hogan the man from the company, because they were so consistent.”
Mike Wright, director of golf at Shady Oaks, says Ben Hogan would be proud to have his name on the new unconventional clubs. “Mr. Hogan was certainly an innovator,” he says. “He was always thinking of something new.”
Aimed at the high end of the $8.7 billion golf equipment market, the new Hogans will be sold only through golf professionals, priced at $149 apiece with steel shafts, $165 with graphite.
I have my own reasons to cheer these guys on. Like Ben Hogan, I, too, was a golf caddie as a kid and found solace in the wide green spaces of a golf course. Years later, after moving to Fort Worth, I was surprised to learn that Ben Hogan once won a national tournament in 1941 on the very Chicago course where I carried bags.
Now the Hogan name has landed at another place dear to my heart. The company has moved into the old Star-Telegram printing plant in Fort Worth. Personally, I can’t think of a better use for the space.