Jack Fleck (1921-2014): A visit with '55 U.S. Open champ

Ben Hogan (left) and Jack Fleck shake hands before teeing off at San Francisco's Olympic Club Lakeside course in extra 18-hole match to determine the winner of the 1955 U.S. Open.

Ben Hogan (left) and Jack Fleck shake hands before teeing off at San Francisco's Olympic Club Lakeside course in extra 18-hole match to determine the winner of the 1955 U.S. Open.

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Editor's note: This story ran during the U.S. Open at Olympic Club in 2012. Jack Fleck passed away on Friday at the age of 92. Read the obituary here.

• • •

SAN FRANCISCO – The U.S. Open’s oldest living champion sat near a large picture window in the player hospitality area of the Olympic Club’s massive clubhouse late Wednesday afternoon, his old-style newsboy cap removed and laid upon a table next to him. On a cool and sun-splashed California afternoon, one was left to wonder what emotions stirred inside Fleck as he glanced through the pane of glass out to the expansive hillside golf course and reflected on a place that delivered the greatest moment of his career, perhaps his life.

Jack Fleck, 90, is some 57 years removed from that shocking week at Olympic in 1955 when, as a little-known pro from Iowa, he took down one of the game’s true giants, his idol and friend Ben Hogan. A primitive 1-hour NBC telecast capping the U.S. Open’s 36-hole Saturday finish already had signed off at 9 p.m. in the east, with announcer Gene Sarazen ending the show by congratulating Hogan on his victory. Sarazen even requested Hogan hold up five fingers, signifying his fifth Open title.

He never got it. Fleck, still on the golf course in a group still toiling an hour after Hogan had posted 7-over 287, had other ambitions – even though he stood two strokes down with four to play. The daunting, rugged finish at Olympic’s Lake Course awaited him, but he wasn’t ready to throttle back and play for second place.

Fleck would birdie the par-3 15th hole, parred the next two (back then, 17 played as a par 4) and soon thereafter found himself standing amid 10,000 or so fans who’d lined both sides of the shortish 18th to see if he could pull off the improbable. Fleck feathered a nice approach to 7 feet and faced a career-defining putt that would seal a closing round of 3-under 67, tying the week’s best round. Hogan was in the locker room changing when the Spalding ball vanished and the loud roars around the 18th green would cement the one thing the battered legend wanted least: one more day of competition. An 18-hole playoff against Fleck.

Fleck would prevail the next afternoon, outplaying Hogan by three shots, 69 to 72. The victory paid him $6,000, and earned him about that much in additional endorsements, too.

As a couple modern-day pros labored down below trying to solve out the eighth green, Fleck sharply ticked off details of that ’55 Open as if they happened last weekend. A long day as part of a hectic week was dragging on, and Fleck had yet one more television interview awaiting, though his energy clearly was trailing off. The day had begun at a much different level, with the strapping, 6-foot-2 Fleck feeling spry enough to head over to nearby Lake Merced and hit 6- and 7-irons for a solid hour.

“He was striping them, just hitting them beautifully,” says Ed Tallach, a family friend from Arkansas who often accompanies Fleck to tournaments.

This much is clear: Fleck still loves his golf, and he still loves to hit balls. And weary or not, the movie in his head plays on and the vivid details of ’55 continue to roll off his tongue.

Fleck’s advice to the competitors in the 112th U.S. Open that begins Thursday? Toughen up. The national championship is more a mental test than a physical one, he said. That said, Fleck also outworked all his peers physically in ’55. He wanted to know the golf course better than anyone in the field, and was willing to put forth the work to accomplish that goal. He arrived to San Francisco on a Saturday that year, playing 18 holes in the late afternoon. That was followed by an impressive ironman regimen: 44 holes Sunday; 44 holes Monday; 44 holes Tuesday; and 36 more holes on Wednesday. That’s 186 holes BEFORE he'd play 90 more in the tournament. Why play 44 and not 45? Fleck would play two and a half rounds, choosing to walk up the steep hill to change his shoes after completing his third visit to the par-3 eighth hole, which finished at the clubhouse. Most others back then played 18 holes and called it a day, choosing instead to rest for a grueling week.

“I had such a good mental frame of mind to accomplish my goals that week,” Fleck recalled.

Seated at Fleck's table was Bill McKinney, a Southern California PGA professional who also is a golf performance coach at SwingFitGolf Academy. “Think about what he did,” McKinney said of Fleck. “Who else would prepare so rigorously? What he was doing, in my opinion, was preparing his heart for the week, too. Think about all the walking he did up and down these hills. He had a great putting week, and your heart, especially at a major, has a lot to do with how calm you can stay.”

Asked his favorite memory of '55, Fleck paused and then smiled, as if there were only one answer. “Winning,” he said. “Just winning. You know, they say that Open in 1955 was the toughest one ever played. Hogan (pictured famously in the clubhouse trying to escape wispy knee-high rough) later said that it was the toughest he played, too. The fairways were real narrow, and the rough was so high. But I didn’t mind it. I loved it. I could drive it on a carpet, and hit real good irons, and I could get up and down from the bunkers here.

“Hogan and I tied at (7-over) 287. This year, the winner might shoot, what, 281, maybe 280? The course is different. The rough isn’t near what it was. I guess they don’t want to play real golf . . . I made some good putts for pars and birdies coming in. They actually wrote afterward that Jack Fleck “out-Hoganed” Hogan. I’ll never forget it.”

Nor should he. With that, Fleck was off to fulfill his television obligation. Sadly, for years Fleck was written off as a fluke when his career later spiraled into mediocrity, but he gave a valiant run at winning yet another Open in 1960 at Cherry Hills in Denver. Arnold Palmer won, and Fleck tied for third, two shots back. He said only a balky putter (five late three-putts) kept him from winning that U.S. Open.

That’s OK. That’s Cherry Hills, and that belongs to Palmer. This is Olympic. For Fleck, life's clock is forever frozen, it's 1955, and as he peers out that clubhouse window, he's comforted in knowing he is forever woven into the rich lore of this place, and of U.S. Open history, too.

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