HERSHEY, PENNSYLVANIA — While Hershey, Pa., is known worldwide for its iconic chocolate bar, Milton S. Hershey’s model town has attracted attention for many other reasons and at one point served as a symbolic and metaphoric center of the golf universe.
Hershey Country Club was established in 1930 and quickly garnered national recognition for its choice of golf professionals. Shortly after the club opened, Henry Picard, one of the game’s best players at that time, was hired as golf professional.
Nicknamed the “Hershey Hurricane” and “Chocolate Soldier,” Picard possessed enviable on-course skills that led to 26 wins on the PGA Tour, including the 1936-1937 Hershey Open, 1938 Masters, and 1939 PGA Championship.
As numerous golf historians have pointed out through the years, Ben Hogan subsequently became the grateful recipient of both Picard’s guidance and generosity. Hogan and his wife, Val, had nearly run out of money and were ready to quit professional golf by September 1938, when Picard surprised Hogan by inviting him to team up with Tommy Armour in the Hershey Round Robin Four Ball, a weeklong event in which eight teams consisting of the Tour’s top 16 players competed to split $2,000 — a tidy sum in those days. Armour had to withdraw from the tournament at the last minute, so Hogan was paired with a late fill-in from New Jersey named Vic Ghezzi. The tournament oddsmakers had the team of virtual unknowns listed dead last, at 200 to 1.
After 126 holes of golf at storied Hershey Country Club, Hogan and Ghezzi were 53 strokes under par, largely on the strength of 31 birdies by Hogan, six more than anyone else in the field. They prevailed over Sam Snead and short-game wizard Paul Runyon, earning $1,000 each and an extra $100 for the aggregate low-ball total. Hogan would go on to describe the Hershey Four Ball as the turning point of his career.
A few years later, Hogan confided in Picard that his untimely hooks were not only costing him valuable strokes, but also challenging his sanity. Picard took Hogan to the range and used a 5-iron to teach Hogan how to hit a slice. The nuggets of wisdom provided to Hogan by his quiet benefactor provided the first step toward solving his problem with the hook and led to his uncanny accuracy off the tee.
By the spring of 1941, an aging Picard was advised to live in a different climate for health reasons, so he resigned from his position and moved to Oklahoma. In conversations with Mr. Hershey, Picard recommended his young friend Hogan to fill his position at Hershey Country Club. Hogan received a call while he was at the Thomasville Open, and he became Hershey’s new golf professional over the phone.
He was still an up-and-coming professional when he accepted the job. Unlike Picard, who also served as a teaching pro in Hershey, Hogan’s career focused on competition. His subsequent success brought even greater prestige to his employer. It was while he was representing Hershey that Hogan experienced his most successful season: in 1946 he won 13 events on the PGA Tour.
But at the height of his career, Hogan suffered a terrible accident. On February 2, 1949 his car collided head-on with a Greyhound bus on a highway in Texas. He suffered a crushed pelvis, fractured left leg, crushed shoulder and broken ankle. He spent the next two months in the hospital. Barely more than 14 months later, at age 37, he won the 1950 PGA U.S. Open at the Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pennsylvania.
Hogan continued to serve as the Hershey club professional until 1951. Today, those playing the Hershey Golf Collection should know they are walking in the footsteps of greatness.