When he arrived in San Francisco to play in the 1955 US Open, Jack Fleck was giving golf one last try. He was 33 and had never finished higher than eighth. Fleck worked at two municipal courses in his native Iowa and barely qualified for the US Open. He had little going for him but hope, faith and a new set of golf clubs designed by Ben Hogan, the best golfer in the world. By the end of the week, Fleck and Hogan would be side by side in one of golf’s most memorable moments.
Self-taught, Fleck had an easy, natural swing but struggled with his putting. The night before the tournament at the Olympic Club, Hogan presented Fleck with two new clubs to complete his set. In the first round, Fleck shot 76, followed by a sparkling 69 the next day. The final two rounds, 36 holes in all, were both played on the Saturday.
Fleck was one of the first athletes to use yoga, saying it gave him self-composure. He did not drink, smoke or eat red meat. He was religious, but refused to pray for victory, only for the power and strength to compete. But on the morning of the final two rounds he had an experience in his hotel room that he would not speak of for decades.
“I was shaving, and suddenly a voice came out of the glass, clear as a bell. It said, ‘Jack, you are going to win the Open.’ At first I thought I’d imagined it or maybe somebody was in the room with me. I looked around, then went back to shaving. By golly, if it didn’t come a second time straight out of the mirror. Clear as day. ‘Jack, you are going to win the Open!’ I had goose bumps on me, as if electricity was going through my body.”
He shot 75 in the third round, leaving him tied for sixth place, three strokes behind Hogan. In the final round, Hogan shot a 70 and seemed to have an insurmountable lead. He was congratulated on what would have been a record fifth US Open title. But Fleck was inspired. He hit a birdie on the 15th hole and, after pars on 16 and 17 needed a birdie on the par-4 18th to finish in a tie. On his second shot, Fleck used the Hogan-designed 7-iron to loft the ball firmly on to the green, seven feet from the cup. He calmly sank the tricky downhill putt to finish at 67, tying Hogan’s four-round total of 287.
The next day the two met for an 18-hole play-off. The 42-year-old Hogan, limping from injuries sustained in a near-fatal car crash in 1949, sank a 50-foot putt at the eighth but Fleck dropped in a 25-footer for a birdie on the ninth. With Fleck leading by three shots, Hogan fought back with birdies on 14 and 17. By the time they reached the final hole, Fleck led by a single stroke. Hogan’s foot slipped slightly on his drive, hooked left and ended up with a double-bogey 6. Fleck finished with a par 4 to win by three strokes.
The upset resounded throughout golf and beyond. President Eisenhower asked to meet Fleck, and he was asked to endorse products. He won two later tournaments and tied for third at the 1960 US Open, but never had another moment like his duel with Hogan. He later played on the senior tour while teaching at rural golf courses in Arkansas.
Jack Donald Fleck, golfer: born Bettendorf, Iowa 8 November 1921; twice married (one son); died Fort Smith, Arkansas 21 March 2014.
© The Washington Post