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Reliving pro golf’s greatest upset

Posted May 27, 2012 by Bob D'Angelo

Updated May 27, 2012 at 11:23 PM

There is nothing more delicious in sports than a stunning upset

Sports fans love an underdog; it’s comforting to know that even favorites can be humbled.

Examples abound: the New York Jets upsetting the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III; the Amazin’ Mets beating the Baltimore Orioles in the 1969 World Series; the 1980 “Miracle on Ice,” when the U.S. Olympic hockey team shocked the Soviet Union in the semifinals at Lake Placid; or Buster Douglas’ shocking heavyweight title victory against the “invincible”  Mike Tyson in Tokyo.

Put Jack Fleck’s victory in the 1955 U.S. Open in that category. Fleck, an Iowa club pro who had never been a factor in a PGA Tour event, trailed Tommy Bolt by nine shots at one point at San Francisco’s Olympic Club. But Bolt faded, and Fleck rallied to tie his idol — and the tournament’s sentimental favorite — Ben Hogan with a birdie on the 72nd hole to complete a round of 3-under-par 67 and force a playoff. He would defeat Hogan by three shots in an 18-hole playoff the next day to complete a jaw-dropping victory.

As Arnold Palmer would observe years later, “It took courage, great intelligence, and superb shotmaking for Jack Fleck to win the U.S. Open, knowing that virtually everybody watching was rooting against him.”

Fleck’s upset win has received only passing mention in books devoted to golf; its biggest play came in James Dodson’s 2004 biography about Hogan.
Enter Neil Sagebiel, who gives Fleck his due in “The Longest Shot: Jack Fleck, Ben Hogan, and Pro Golf’s Greatest Upset at the 1955 U.S. Open.” (Thomas Dunne Books; $25.99, hardback, 326 pages).

Sagebiel, a freelance writer from Floyd, Va., has a presence on the Internet with his Armchair Golf Blog (http://armchairgolfblog.blogspot.com). His book is timely because it hits the shelves less than a month before the U.S. Open returns to the Olympic Club.  It’s relevant because it gives some needed insight on how the PGA Tour worked during the 1950s, when purses were small and golfers drove across the country (as opposed to flying) to compete. It wasn’t for love of money; at some events, finishing in 15th place only meant a check of $250. Love of the game and competition spurred these players.

For years, Fleck’s critics have argued that he didn’t win the Open, that Hogan handed it to him.

“It was Hogan’s loss, not Fleck’s win, regarded by some as a fluke,” Sagebiel writes. “It would dog Fleck for years to come.”

Sagebiel, through research that enabled him to piece the tournament together shot by shot, shows that Fleck earned his victory. He met Fleck, now 90, and established a rapport. He then attended several Champions Tour events and picked the brains of Fleck’s contemporaries. He caddied for players, did interviews in locker rooms and ate lunch with the aging pros as he learned about golf’s greatest upset.

That enabled Sagebiel to write a compelling narrative about the tournament. The par-70 golf course was set up with an unforgiving, thick rough, and only a handful of players would break par. Hogan and Fleck both finished at 7-over-par 287; while Hogan shot even par in the fourth round, Fleck carded a 3-under 67.

Hogan played well, but Fleck played better. Pure and simple.

The irony of Fleck’s victory is that he did it with clubs manufactured by Hogan’s fledgling golf equipment company. Several months earlier, Fleck had written a letter to Hogan in which he wanted to buy a custom set.

When the two men met in Fort Worth, Texas — two months before the U.S. Open — Hogan gave Fleck the clubs and refused payment. For some reason, Hogan took a liking to Fleck. Perhaps it was because Fleck had the same work ethic and approach to the game as the player known as “the Hawk.” Fleck watched what he ate, did not drink, and practiced yoga. He would stay in his room and listen to Mario Lanza records.

On the morning of the final 36 holes (the third and fourth rounds of the U.S. Open were played on Saturday during the 1950s), Fleck stepped to his bathroom mirror to shave. A religious man, even Fleck was startled by what happened next; so unsettled, he did not speak about it until he was interviewed on the Golf Channel by Peter Kessler 44 years later.

“A voice came out of the mirror saying, ‘Jack, you are going to win the Open,’ ” Sagebiel quotes Fleck as saying.

“Startled, Fleck glanced around the room,” Sagebiel writes. “He was alone. Or was he? Mario Lanza was singing ‘I’ll Walk With God’ on the phonograph, but that wasn’t what he had heard. There were no lyrics about anyone winning a golf tournament. In the few moments that he tried to comprehend what had happened, he again heard the voice as clear as anything.

“Jack, you are going to win the Open.”

Strange stuff.

While the 1955 U.S. Open is the main focus, Sagebiel does a nice job filling in the gaps leading up to the tournament, with detailed narratives about some of the men who would play a part in the event — legendary Sam Snead and contending amateur Harvie Ward, plus Dow Finsterwald, Gene Littler, Walker Inman, Bob Rosburg and Ed Furgol, among others. It’s a golf history buff’s dream.

Sagebiel even references golf’s version of “Dewey Beats Truman.” When Hogan finished his fourth round, golf great and NBC-TV announcer Gene Sarazen declared Hogan the winner and congratulated him on being the first five-time winner of the U.S. Open.

“It’s not over yet, Gene,” Hogan said prophetically.

And it wasn’t.

“The Iowa club pro had crossed the wide chasm from obscurity to fame in four days,” Sagebiel writes. “(Fleck’s) life would never be the same.”

Sagebiel’s writing is simple and clear, rarely resorting to hyperbole. He writes respectfully about the players and the game, but allows himself some fun with phrases, like this passage describing Hogan’s second shot at No. 12 during the playoff:

“The Hawk slashed a long iron out of the tree line that landed far short of the green and darted like a gray squirrel through the opening between the two giant flanking bunkers.”

In “The Longest Shot,” Sagebiel has added a new dimension to professional golf from the 1950s. In the process, he has given golf fans a deeper, fuller look at Jack Fleck. And perhaps a better appreciation of the man.

 

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