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AUGUSTA, Ga. – The yearly stop at Augusta National Golf Club allows many to take a stroll down memory lane. One man took that to extremes on Wednesday. Jack Fleck, the 1955 U.S. Open champion who will turn 90 later this year, was on the grounds at the Masters for the first time in 45 years.
Fleck, who played in 10 Masters tournaments from 1956 to ’65, competed in the Masters Par 3 Contest alongside former PGA champion Wayne Grady and 2010 British Amateur champion Jin Jeong. That’s the beauty of Augusta – in addition to those who will play in the tournament proper, invitations are extended to former major winners (and a handful of former amateur champions) who attend as honorary non-competing invitees.
Fleck, who took down Ben Hogan at Olympic Club at the 1955 Open and will turn 90 in November, was giving a clinic at the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach when the seed was planted for a possible return to the Masters this spring. With the help of Gaylord Sports player/manager Bobby Schaeffer, who served as his caddie, Fleck and his wife Carmen traveled to Augusta from their home in Fort Smith, Ark., and have been on the grounds since Monday.
When he looked at the crowd assembled at the golf course at 9 a.m. Monday, Fleck could not believe his eyes.
“Bigger,” he said. “Everything about this place is bigger.”
Having rehabbed from a bad left ankle, sore hip and cataract surgery in the past two and a half years, Fleck seemed to enjoy the opportunity to play in front of the massive crowds that envelope the manicured Par 3 course that sits off in a valley behind Butler and Eisenhower cabins. Whereas most players carry only a handful of short irons, Fleck’s carry bag was armed with a white TaylorMade R11 driver, a Scotty Cameron putter and, of course, his old trusty Hogan Apex blades.
Fleck’s approach at the second hole hit the flagstick and caromed to the back of the green. After finishing nine holes, Fleck, who wore a Hoganesque tam-o-shanter cap and played in black wingtipped street shoes with rubber soles, stepped into the clubhouse for a lemonade and then took a seat outside the professional shop that sits right of the first hole. There he shook hands and said hello to another U.S. Open champ, 2003 winner Jim Furyk, who stopped by with his family.
“I wish I’d played better out there, but they clapped me all the way around,” Fleck said of the massive crowds. “I probably hit about three good shots. I don’t care how old I am, I shouldn’t swing the club like that.
“But at least I came,” he said with a smile. “I’ll never quit.”
Fleck said he plans to be at Olympic in June 2012 when the U.S. Open returns on the 57th anniversary of his shocking 18-hole playoff triumph over Hogan.
“It’s going to be quite a celebration,” Schaeffer said. “Jack is really an inspiring man.”