Jack Fleck–“the man who beat Hogan”–died last Friday. He was 92 years old.
Jack Fleck was most known for defeating the indomitable Ben Hogan in a two-man, 18-hole playoff in the 1955 U.S. Open Golf Championship at the storied Olympic Golf Club in San Francisco. I was thirteen years old at the time, and I remember attentively listening to a radio broadcast of the playoff. What made this upset so historic was that Ben Hogan was going for an unprecedented fifth U.S. Open title. Many pros on the American PGA Tour believed that the U.S. Open was always the best test of golf in the world and therefore the most coveted title.
By 1955, Ben Hogan had won the U.S. Open in 1948, 1950, 1951, and 1953. It was being regarded as “Hogan’s tournament” since the fairways were always narrow and the rough was deep no matter where the tournament was played. Ben Hogan drove the ball so straight off the tee that an Indian couldn’t shoot an arrow any straighter. Unlike the Masters, it has always been played at a different venue each year. To this day, four players have the most wins, which are four wins apiece, in the U.S. Open: Willie Anderson, Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, and Jack Nicklaus.
To make this story even more heralded, six years prior, in 1949, while he was just entering the prime of his career, the Texan Ben Hogan was driving his car from the Phoenix Open towards home on a lone, very foggy Texas highway when a Greyhound bus collided into the car of Ben and his petite wife Valeria in a head-on collision that almost killed Hogan. Doctors treating him said he’d never play golf again, let alone on the PGA Tour. He did have a bad left knee the rest of his career due to that car crash.
Well, back to our story, at the end of regulation play, Hogan was leading the tournament by two strokes over Fleck, who had two holes to play. And Fleck was the only player left on the course who could possibly tie or beat Hogan.
In those early days of television, at that moment The Squire, Gene Sarazen, congratulated Hogan while interviewing him on television. It looked like a sure win. But Fleck birdied those last two holes to tie Hogan and force a playoff.
Back then, and for many years thereafter, the last two rounds of the 72-hole U.S. Open were contested over three days–Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, with 36-holes being played on Saturday. So, Hogan and Fleck competed in an 18-hole playoff on Sunday.
The venue itself must have been rather surreal. The Olympic Club is the oldest athletic club in the U.S. The U.S.G.A. says its famous Ocean course is one of the 100 oldest golf courses in the U.S. It lies on the side of a hill overlooking San Francisco Bay and its Golden Gate Bridge, one of the most photographed, man-made structures in the world.
Jack Fleck had a golf swing that was comparable to that of Ben Hogan. Ben’s golf swing has been studied and analyzed by swing purists by far more than any other golf swing in the history of our beloved, but devilish, game. It was because no one ever struck those little white pellets more purely than did Mr. Ben Hogan. He was known for swinging the club back and down in his backswing consistently in the same path, known as “the swing plain.” Ben said it was the secret to his accuracy. But actually, he always said he didn’t want to swing the club in the exact same plain up and down. He wanted the downswing plain to be ever so slightly underneath, or inside, the backswing plain. If you tried to see that difference in his two swing plains, that’s about like Leonardo di Vince explaining the result of his brush stroke to which the rest of us non-connoisseurs are blind as a bat.
I remember one story about Ben Hogan’s prowess for accuracy. He was practicing golf at his constant roost in his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas–Shady Oaks Country Club. He was hitting his driver to a green on the extra, short, nine-hole course where he often practiced. Don January, also a native of the Dallas-Fort Worth area and a young but prominent pro on Tour, arrived on the scene to watch Mr. Hogan hit these practice balls. After he saw Ben hit about half-a-dozen consecutive balls unto that green some 250+ yards away, Don inquired from another member of Ben’s small gallery, “how many balls has he hit on that green?” The fellow answered something like this, “about thirty, and he hasn’t missed yet.”Jack Fleck also swung the club in the plain as well as any other pro I can think of. So, when you cancel out the difference in their heights, the golf swings of Hogan and Fleck were quite similar. Jack stood six feet and one inch tall, whereas Ben was a little over five feet and eight inches tall with long arms. That required Hogan to have the flattest pro swing I’ve ever seen. Fleck was a little flat for his height. But both players swung the club in the plain and they moved similarly through the forward swing, thus amply shifting their weight.
To make matters worse, or better, depending how you look at it, Jack Fleck had just gotten a new set irons from the Ben Hogan golf club company which he used in that tournament.
Back to the playoff, Hogan was one stroke behind when they came to the eighteenth and final hole. They say Hogan’s foot slipped on his drive which sent the ball left into very deep rough. Ben didn’t even get out of the rough on his second shot on this par four hole. He finished the hole with a double bogey six to Jack’s par four. So, Fleck beat Hogan in the playoff by three strokes.
It was one of the biggest upsets in golf history, comparable with the 20-year old American amateur golfer Francis Quimet besting the great pros Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in the 1913 U.S. Open. Jack Fleck had been an absolute nobody. He had been merely a club pro at a municipal golf course in Davenport, Iowa. He decided to try to play some tournaments on the PGA Tour. When he qualified locally for the U.S. Open in 1955, he travelled to the tournament by driving his car from Davenport to San Francisco. After beating Hogan, Fleck won two more times on the American circuit. He played the Senior Tour some, but never won there.
I knew Jack Fleck pretty well. We were friends. We were paired together in several tournaments on the regular PGA Tour and the Senior Tour. Jack was a dark-haired, handsome guy and very health conscious. With a somewhat slender build, he kept himself in good shape. Jack also was a Christian. He sometimes attended the PGA Tour Bible Study and the Senior Tour Chapel.
More than once, Jack Fleck told me privately that he thought it was a curse that he beat the unflappable, stoic Ben Hogan and thereby prevented him from winning that coveted, fifth U.S. Open title. Jack got so much criticism for it, partly from the media but mostly from unruly fans. Golf is known as “the gentleman’s game,” but sometimes sports fans are not so kind, even in golf. It was a heavy load to tote in his bag. Jack’s first wife of twenty years committed suicide, and he blamed it on that heavy bag of criticism he says she couldn’t caddy anymore.
Jack also told me he often questioned if God caused him to win that U.S. Open and why in the world he would do so under those circumstances. Jack Fleck beat one of American’s sports idols who survived a near-fatal car crash to become one of the greatest golfers of all time–Ben Hogan.
May Jack Fleck now rest in peace.