Uncovering Jack Fleck and an Upset for the Ages

(Editor’s note: Part 3 of an ongoing 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 and Part 2.)

WHO WAS JACK FLECK? NOT THE CARICATURE of an underdog or answer to a sports trivia question, but rather the three-dimensional struggling golf pro from the Hawkeye state. And how in the world did Fleck take down Ben Hogan, a stoic, steel-willed man who thoroughly dominated major championship golf for a decade and is considered one of the all-time greats along with Harry Vardon, Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods?

These were the questions I began to ponder after I received an early 2007 email from a Hogan disciple named George McDowell. I had been writing my ARMCHAIR GOLF BLOG for more than a year, and would occasionally mention Hogan because of my acute interest in golf history. I found that my blog, which covered professional golf and was growing in popularity, was a magnet for like-minded golf enthusiasts, including Hogan fans who would surface to write a comment or send an email.

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My First Encounter With Jack Fleck in Savannah

(Editor’s note: Part 2 of an ongoing 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.

Dressed in a sport coat, golf shirt, dark slacks and polished loafers—normal attire for a 1950s era tour golf professional—Jack Fleck strolls into the sunlit concourse of the Savannah Hilton Head International Airport. A shade over six feet tall and still at his slender playing weight of 164 lbs., the 85-year-old Fleck does not look like a “giant killer.” But, as the saying goes, looks can be deceiving.

It’s April 2007, and I’ve driven 400 miles to coastal Georgia to meet “Jack the Giant Killer,” the title of a feature article penned by famed golf writer Herbert Warren Wind in the June 27, 1955, issue of Sports Illustrated. Jack earned the ominous title by defeating Ben Hogan, the Tiger Woods of his era, in the 1955 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. It was a classic David vs. Goliath battle: Fleck, the unknown municipal pro from Davenport, Iowa, pitted against the legendary Hogan, the four-time U.S. Open champion and nine-time major winner who had miraculously returned to golf after a near-fatal auto accident in one of sports’ greatest comebacks.

Like many golf fans, I knew that Fleck beat Hogan long before my six-hour car trip down I-95 to Savannah. It was a part of golf and sports lore, for Jack Fleck had been a poster boy for sports underdogs ever since he toppled the great Hogan at Olympic in a dramatic 18-hole playoff on June 19, 1955.

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Reliving Jack Fleck, Ben Hogan and the 1955 U.S. Open

Neil Sagebiel and 1955 U.S. Open champion Jack Fleck.

Last Tuesday the United States Golf Association (USGA) published a story at its website about that amazing first U.S. Open played at San Francisco’s Olympic Club in 1955. (As you may know, the U.S. Open returns to the Olympic Club this June for the fifth time.) The USGA article made me realize that it’s time to tell you more about my somewhat accidental project. More on that in a moment, but first a quick review of one of the greatest upsets in sports history.

Jack Fleck, an unheralded club pro from Davenport, Iowa, beat Ben Hogan, a four-time U.S. Open champion and nine-time major winner, in a dramatic 18-hole playoff to win the 1955 U.S. Open. It was a stunning result, the greatest upset since amateur Francis Ouimet defeated British greats Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in an 18-hole playoff to win the 1913 U.S. Open. At the end of regulation play, Hogan was sitting in the players’ locker room—his record fifth Open all but assured—when the Iowan rallied with two birdies on the final four holes. Fleck sank a clutch birdie putt on the 18th green to tie Hogan and force a playoff the following day. The near-unanimous view was that Fleck had no chance in a head-to-head duel against the great Ben Hogan.

Jack Fleck is still around, still playing golf, and still talking about 1955. Now 90, Jack is the oldest living major champion. But I’ve known him since he was a younger man of 85.

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