Forty years ago at the 1955 U.S. Open, Ben Hogan finished playing his 72nd hole at the Olympic Club in San Francisco and Gene Sarazen offered him congratulations. Sarazen then told a national TV audience that Hogan had just won another Open title.
He was wrong.
Still out on the course, back at the 14th hole, 33-year-old Jack Fleck held a golf club and destiny in his hands. Although he didn’t know it, all that stood between Fleck and his unique place in golf history were five holes, two birdies, one playoff and a victory absolutely no one expected.
Well, there was one person who thought this virtually unknown municipal course pro from Davenport, Iowa, had a chance. It was Fleck, and he even put it in writing.
“I wrote a letter back to the late John O’Donnell of the Davenport Democrat and told him, I says, ‘John, you had better get the editor to get you out here,’ ” Fleck said. “ ‘There are only so many that are going to be in the running and yours truly is going to sneak in there.’ ”
And so he did. Playing 36 holes on Saturday in the next-to-last twosome, Fleck began with a 75, then caught Hogan, who had shot 72 and 70, with a seven-foot birdie putt for a closing 67 and forced an 18-hole playoff in what most golf experts viewed as one of the greatest mismatches of all time.
They were wrong.
Fleck, who had never won a PGA event or finished higher than eighth, outplayed the legendary Hogan, who had won the U.S. Open four times, the Masters twice, the PGA twice and the British Open once. As the gallery watched the Sunday playoff in disbelief, Fleck beat Hogan by three shots with a 69.
Fleck’s professional career concluded with two more victories, the 1960 Phoenix Open and the 1961 Bakersfield Open. He retired to Arkansas and Hogan went on to the Hall of Fame.
Four decades have passed since his moment of glory, but it doesn’t seem that long to Fleck, who lives about 4 1/2 miles from Magazine, Ark. He still remembers just how he felt as he held the U.S. Open trophy.
“The satisfaction of accomplishment you get,” Fleck said. “And ‘It’s all over! It’s all over!’ Team sports are a little different, but when you are out there all alone, what can anyone else do for you?”
Fleck, now 73, went it alone for a while after his wife died in 1975. Jack and Lynn Fleck had moved to rural Arkansas for her health. He remarried in 1980. Fleck still plays some senior tournaments on occasion, but he also wonders what might have happened if he had come up with another major championship, something that would have transformed his 1955 triumph from a footnote to a full chapter.
Actually, he had one more chance. In the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills Country Club in Denver, Fleck finished tied for third, three shots behind Arnold Palmer.
“Had I won that, it might have been a little better,” Fleck said. “It might have been a little worse. We never know. We can’t tell the future.”
As for the past, Fleck isn’t going to quarrel with winning a U.S. Open. If that was his fate, it was not such a bad one.
“Think I would have been better off by not winning?” Fleck said. “As a matter of fact, I said something to my wife beforehand, that I just hoped to play halfway decent golf to see what I could do before [Sam] Snead and Hogan retired.
“There I was. I beat Ben Hogan and Snead was five shots back. Does that say anything? I don’t know. There may be something way back there in the mental.”
For the 1955 U.S. Open on the Olympic Club’s Lake Course, Hogan, Snead, Julius Boros and Tommy Bolt were among the favorites. The little-known pro from Iowa received scant attention.
Joe Dey of the United States Golf Assn. had let the rough grow tall. Some say it was to combat the recurrence of something like Hogan’s score of 276 when he won the 1948 U.S Open at Riviera. Whatever the reason, the rough was so punitive, Edward (Porky) Oliver lost his ball after being given a free drop.
Fleck had done little to distinguish himself, although he was respected by his peers.
“Ol’ Jack was pretty tough,” Snead said. “He hung in there pretty good. He didn’t get too excited. He kept the ball in play. That was the important thing.”
Fleck had competed in 41 tournaments, most of them on the winter tour, before the 1955 Open and had won just under $7,500. He didn’t break 80 in his practice rounds at the Olympic Club, but he was breaking in a new set of clubs--a new Ben Hogan signature series.
After shooting 76 in the first round, Fleck was not discouraged. He said it was because of his mental toughness.
“I was trying to compose myself and not get irritated and upset at my putting,” he said. “I always called it self-composure. There were some psychologists from L.A. watching me and they said I had self-hypnosis. They were probably true. Maybe a trance is that way, I don’t know.”
Trance or not, Fleck’s second-round 69 kept him in the hunt and set the stage for the 36-hole finale on Saturday. Paired with Gene Littler, Fleck had no problem knowing that Hogan had finished.
“I could hear the roar,” Fleck said.
By the time he was at the 14th green, Fleck knew that Hogan was in at 287 and that Snead and Bolt had finished at 292. All Fleck needed was one birdie coming in to tie. Fans began joining his gallery, but Fleck immediately bogeyed No. 14 and trailed Hogan by two shots. There was no sound from the gallery.
“I remember thinking, ‘Goodness sakes, they must think I’m all through,’ ” Fleck said.
They were wrong.
Fleck birdied the par-three 15th, parred the next two holes and, with the U.S. Open hanging in the balance, birdied the 337-yard, par-four 18th to tie Hogan. Fleck used a seven-iron for his second shot on No. 18 and lofted the ball high into the air, stopping it seven feet from the hole, then sank the putt.
Jim Murray, who was sitting in the locker room with Hogan to interview him, heard voices through a transom excitedly passing the news that Fleck had forced a playoff. Hogan didn’t like playoffs, but he accepted the prospect without anger.
If Hogan had no reaction to Fleck’s success, reporters were dumbfounded.
“None of us had ever heard of Jack Fleck,” Murray said.
In Sunday’s playoff, Fleck had a one-stroke lead going to the 18th hole, where he made par. Hogan took a double-bogey after hitting a snap hook into the left rough and taking three shots to get out.
Fleck’s victory was worth $6,000. What it cost him isn’t as clear. He received a 10-year exemption to play in the U.S. Open, but when the Open returned to the Olympic Club in 1966, the year after Fleck’s exemption had run out, he had to qualify to play. Hogan received an invitation.
“The USGA has sort of pooh-poohed my win anyway,” Fleck said. “They wanted Hogan to win. He was a big drawing card. In 1966, when I had to qualify and they exempted Hogan, reporters wanted me to say something derogatory about it. A lot of them are looking for these things, you see. I wouldn’t do it.
“That’s life. Nobody said life is fair. Had I won in ’60, maybe things would have been different. Maybe I couldn’t have handled it. Maybe I would have been a sarcastic character, like so many people that let it go to their noggin.”
Fleck hasn’t been to a U.S. Open since he played his last one, in 1967 at Baltusrol in Springfield, N.J. It was there that he crossed paths again with Hogan. Fleck was standing on the practice range, his back toward the tee in a group that included Ted Kroll.
Fleck heard someone call his name.
“Hi, there, Fleck,” Hogan said.
Fleck said Kroll couldn’t believe his ears.
“He said, ‘I’ve never seen Ben Hogan address anybody’s back in my entire life,’ ” Fleck said. “I’ve always thought that Ben Hogan was very nice.”
Maybe, but 40 years ago, Jack Fleck wasn’t very nice to Ben Hogan, the player most everyone thought had won the U.S. Open.
They were wrong.