Golf: Hillbilly inspires Olympic fashion

Golf: The US Open returns this week to a course that has a reputation for putting the game's elite in their place
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The Independent Online
THESE DAYS Jack Fleck, a golf club pro for almost all his 76 years, tends the course he built in an out of the way place called Magazine in rural Arkansas. It is called Lil' Bit A Heaven, a name that makes all the more sense for knowing that Fleck's career as a tournament player, otherwise entirely undistinguished and financially unrewarding, includes a victory in the US Open.

But not only did Fleck emerge from obscurity to win his national championship, he defeated Ben Hogan, too. This was at the Olympic Club in San Francisco in 1955 and deemed one of the greatest upsets in American sport. It also set a trend for the Lake course, which stages the US Open for the fourth time this week.

As well as Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson, also legends of the game, have been vanquished by lesser known foes in Billy Casper and Scott Simpson. The US Golf Association prides itself in setting up brutally tough courses in order to identify, in the words of a past president, "the best player in the game". Well, almost. Hogan, four times, Palmer and Watson had all won the US Open before but would not do so again. Indeed, another major title eluded them all, although Watson may yet break the spell.

Everyone assumed Hogan, just short of his 43rd birthday, had collected a record fifth victory when he completed a final round 70 for a total of 287. He received a tumultuous reception as he walked off the 18th green, the clubhouse leader by five strokes, and Gene Sarazen, then a TV commentator, offered his congratulations live on air. Hogan was not convinced but tossed his ball to an official and said: "This is for Golf House", referring to the museum at the USGA's headquarters.

But this was in the days when two rounds were played on the final day and before the leaders went off last. Nobody seemed to be able to catch Hogan and the television broadcast ended before a nobody did indeed tie the winner-designate. Fleck was the manager of two municipal courses in Davenport, Iowa - Duck Island and Credit Creek. He had drawn a sizeable gallery after Hogan had finished but they started to drift away after Fleck bogeyed the 14th to fall two behind.

"They think I'm through," Fleck thought to himself before hitting a six- iron to eight feet at the short 15th. He holed the putt for a birdie and parred the next two. Then he produced an equally magical shot, his seven- iron at the last to seven feet. The birdie putt went in and he and Hogan returned the next day for an 18-hole play-off. "That most of the gallery expected a runaway didn't seem to bother Fleck," wrote Robert Sommers in his definitive history of the US Open. "He was inside a special serene world.

"Fleck, taller and more slender, had a loose-jointed walk, his arms and legs flapping about as if with no plan, his longer stride eating up the yards more easily than Hogan's shorter choppier steps. Their swings resembled their strides, Hogan's faster, more compact, Fleck's longer, more slowly paced."

Fleck went to the turn in 33 to be two ahead. He went further in front at the 10th, but bogeys at the 14th and 17th left Hogan just one behind. Would normal service be resumed? No. Hogan hooked his drive into long rough, took two to get back to the fairway and had to hole a 30-footer for a six. Fleck 69, Hogan 72.

Eleven years later, another playoff at Olympic ended with almost the same score: Casper 69, Palmer 73. Casper, in fact, was no unknown. He had won the US Open seven years earlier and would win the US Masters four years later. But when Palmer, after going to the turn in 32, was seven ahead with nine to play the result seemed conclusive. Palmer needed only to par in to set a tournament record by two shots.

But he bogeyed the 10th when he hooked his drive into the rough and also bogeyed the 13th and 15th. Since Casper birdied the 15th, the lead was now down to three. The 16th is a par-five and Palmer drove into the trees, put his fourth in a bunker and took a six. Casper holed from 13 feet for a birdie to be one behind and then pulled level when Palmer also bogeyed the 17th.

Casper did not miss a fairway and missed only one green on the back nine. His steadier play also held him in good stead the following day when Palmer led by two at the turn. From the 14th, Casper went 4, 3, 6 to Palmer's 5, 5, 7. "I'm sorry, Arnie," Casper said as he put his arm round Palmer's shoulders.

Much the same story recurred 11 years ago when Watson led Simpson by one with five to play. But Simpson, who earlier this year added his seventh win in 20 years on the US tour, made three birdies in a row from the 14th as well as making two brave pars at the last two holes.

Watson has never had a better chance to join Hogan and Gary Player on nine major titles, while Simpson lost a play-off for the US Open to Payne Stewart in '91. Fleck played in 10 more US Opens, finishing third in '60 but missing the cut six times. He won pounds 6,000 for his victory in '55 but three decades later sold his gold medal when trying to gain funds to build his course, which finally opened in 1992.

When Hogan died last summer, Fleck sent a note of condolence to his widow, Valerie, but did not attend the funeral. "I didn't want to get any attention from the man at the funeral," he said. "Other pros told me Hogan hated me for beating him but I don't believe that. He was always very cordial and nice to me."

But he could not stop what other people thought at the time. "I was supposed to miss from seven feet [at the 72nd hole] because of all the pressure on an Iowa hillbilly. Other pros said it was a big fluke and I don't think the USGA was very happy with me winning. They would've liked Hogan to win."