(Editor’s note: This is the final installment of a four-part series about how I got to know Jack Fleck and wrote THE LONGEST SHOT: Jack Fleck, Ben Hogan, and Pro Golf’s Greatest Upset at the 1955 U.S. Open. Read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.)
WHAT SURPRISED ME EARLY ON ABOUT Jack Fleck beating Ben Hogan at the 1955 U.S. Open, one of sports’ greatest upsets, is that it seemed to be missing from the pantheon of golf and sports literature. There was no book, save the one Jack Fleck himself penned, a 2002 self-published memoir.
The fullest treatment of Fleck’s upset in a book from a major publisher was contained in Ben Hogan: An American Life, a 2004 biography by James Dodson. Dodson devotes a chapter to Hogan’s crushing loss to Fleck, one of the major disappointments of Hogan’s career, for it denied the Texas pro a record fifth U.S. Open title. (To this day, Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Bobby Jones and Willie Anderson are tied in the record books with four U.S. Open wins. Tiger Woods has won three.)
My book, THE LONGEST SHOT: Jack Fleck, Ben Hogan and Pro Golf’s Greatest Upset at the 1955 U.S. Open, fills this surprising gap, tracing the implausible journey of the unheralded Iowa pro who, in his first of two make-or-break seasons, out-dueled the mighty Hogan on golf’s biggest stage. Readers will get a complete picture of Jack Fleck, everyman’s underdog, including his early struggles, personal demons and the surprising run-up to the titanic upset that sent shock waves through the sports world. Hogan had won four of the previous six U.S. Opens he had entered. Fleck’s best finish in two U.S. Opens was a tie for 52nd at Oakmont in 1953. Hogan wanted to make history. Fleck simply wanted to make it on the PGA Tour.
As I mentioned in Part 2, NBC-TV announced Hogan as the winner and first five-time U.S. Open champion when the network went off the air. But Fleck was still on the course, and the Iowa pro staged an astounding late charge on the brutal Olympic layout, recording birdies on two of the final four holes to tie Hogan and force a playoff. The following day Fleck shocked the world by beating the seemingly invincible Hogan in an 18-hole playoff, 69 to 72.
One man’s greatest triumph was the other man’s greatest tragedy. Hogan’s U.S. Open playoff loss to Fleck in June 1955 marked the end of what famed golf writer Herbert Warren Wind called “The Age of Hogan.” Although he contended on a few more occasions, Hogan never won another major golf championship.
THE LONGEST SHOT reveals the unusual connection between the two men—Hogan was Fleck’s idol—and how just weeks before the ‘55 Open Fleck met Hogan for the first time in Fort Worth at Hogan’s fledgling golf equipment company. That May Fleck became the first tour pro besides Hogan to play Hogan clubs. Then in an ironic twist the following month at Olympic, Fleck beat his idol to become the first pro to win with Hogan clubs.
THE LONGEST SHOT is also a story about the early PGA Tour—its meager purses, grass-challenged golf courses, Spartan facilities, rudimentary golf equipment, endless road trips, cafeterias and chuck wagons, and colorful and monochrome golf characters—a far cry from today’s lavish tour venues, multimillion-dollar purses and pampered, homogenous pros. It illuminates an era of pro golfers who competed for the love of the game and were friends off the course, traveling and caravanning together from tournament to tournament like circus performers.
As I considered books to emulate, Jeremy Schaap’s Cinderella Man: James Braddock, Max Baer, and the Greatest Upset in Boxing History came to mind, the Great Depression-era tale about Braddock’s improbable comeback and rise from the Hoboken, New Jersey, docks and government relief to a heavyweight title fight with the gargantuan Baer, a 10-to-1 favorite who had killed two men in the ring.
Braddock, like Fleck, was a historic “giant killer.” But whereas Braddock died more than 35 years ago and has been the subject of multiple books, pro golf’s “Cinderella Man,” Jack Fleck, was alive and still swinging, his full story still waiting to be told. And now it has been. I hope you’ll read it.
Neil Sagebiel (aka The Armchair Golfer) is the author of THE LONGEST SHOT: Jack Fleck, Ben Hogan, and Pro Golf’s Greatest Upset at the 1955 U.S. Open, which publishes on May 22 from St. Martin’s Press (Thomas Dunne Books). Learn more and order at book page, Amazon and Barnes & Noble.