From the Golf Journal Archives - Instant Fame: Fleck at Olympic

Apr 20, 2012

By Art Rosenbaum

(Note: This article originally appeared in the April 1966 issue of Golf Journal.)

It is eleven years later, a time span in these cluttered days that should dim the memory of a single weekend of golf.

Yet, now, as the 66th United States Open prepares to revisit the Olympic Country Club’s Lakeside course in San Francisco June 16-19, the mind’s lens quickly brings into focus those unbelievably clutching events that surrounded the victory of a gaunt and “touched” golfer named Jack Fleck over the living immortal, Ben Hogan.

Undoubtedly there have been more skillful finishes to a golf tournament – Arnold Palmer’s two closing birdies in the 1960 Masters to overtake Ken Venturi by a stroke rates up there – but for improbable casting that developed into gripping drama with simply super golf … well, for me this WAS the weekend that was.

The Olympic’s Lakeside course is a majestic spread. Its fairways are lined by huge eucalyptus, dark green cedars and pines. It tilts gently toward Lake Merced, which may be seen through the trees on the back nine. That the USGA selected it as an Open site attests to its golfability, but the USGA could not rule on the “feel” of the fairways that seem narrower than their actual measurements because of the trees. Nor could the USGA have overseen the planting, 44 years ago, of an Italian rye grass that is usually mispronounced “wire” grass. Its single stalks measured three-eighths of an inch in width, and when allowed to grow from two inches to five inches high, created an extremely thick, matty resistance. To use a wood from this was next to impossible; to control a hard-hit wedge’s overspin out of that grass was indeed a neat trick.

A Spot Above Jones

Except for a gimpy knee that pained constantly, Ben Hogan had recovered from the terrible auto accident of 1949. He was “right,” and he was shooting for an unprecedented fifth U.S. Open Championship that would place his name above the great Bob Jones.

Hogan finished with a final round 70, even par, and was “in.” Television was still fairly new in those days. They had yet to experience the embarrassment of scheduling a program to finish on the hour, only to learn that the winner was still back there on the 16th or 17th hole.

Gene Sarazen was the commentator. As the hour and minute hands closed, he said, “Ben Hogan has won his fifth Open ... no one out there can catch him … ” Sarazen could be forgiven the hasty judgment. Possibly only two people on the course would have bet a ball marker on Jack Fleck’s chances. One was the Lincolnesque Fleck himself, who was in a trance. The other was a new-found friend, airline executive George Tompkins, who had picked up Fleck in a practice round and had somehow decided this handsome 32-year-old municipal course pro from Iowa, not long out of the Navy, would win the Open.

How Tompkins made this decision, slogging along in wet, heavy rough with Fleck through a practice round of 87 shots, was a reigning mystery.

“Not so,” said Tompkins. “I went over to the course Tuesday and I saw this young fellow, all alone, hitting irons toward the roughs. We exchanged pleasantries. He explained that the high grass would cost many strokes and he wanted to be ready. I liked his attitude. In his practice round, he deliberately looked for trouble. We spent half our time looking for lost balls. The press wasn’t interested in his score, anyway.”

The Miracle Finish

Fleck had a 76 in his opening round and went unnoticed except in the agate type. A 21-foot putt, his longest in the first 72 holes, had helped him to a 69 on the second day. Gradually Hogan emerged and the entire field – except Fleck – faded.

Tompkins gave Fleck the “word” on the back nine of the fourth round. “Listen, Jack, all you need is only one birdie on the next five holes to tie Hogan!” Then Tompkins rushed over to Fleck’s playing partner, Gene Littler, and fairly shouted, “Jack needs only one birdie in the next five holes to tie Hogan!” Littler remarked, rather dryly, “You know, he’ll also have to get a few pars.”

Fleck promptly went for a bogey. Tompkins later wrote Fleck a letter, saying, “I was ready to cut my tongue out.”

Fleck had four holes to play, needing two birdies to tie, when Sarazen told the world Hogan had won. Hogan himself was in the locker room, surrounded by reporters who had followed him through his final round. They were attempting to conduct a victory interview (“Which hole did you win it on, Ben?”) but Hogan was reluctant.

Fleck birdied 15. He parred 16. He parred 17. In the clubhouse Hogan heard the news and he excused himself from the group to take a shower. When he returned, the word had filtered in. Fleck, carefully placing a 3-wood down the 18th fairway, was lying in very light rough, and had then hit a crisp 7-iron only 7 feet from the hole.

As Fleck holed it for the birdie and the tie, the shout of the gallery reached Hogan through the open window. He dropped his head, then called the attendant.

“Put these sticks back in the locker. Looks like I’ll be playing tomorrow.”

Fleck vs. Hogan? It seemed a mismatch. But Fleck had prepared well and the adrenalin was up. To his own surprise his drives were sailing 20 to 30 yards beyond his norm, and well ahead of Hogan. On an early hole he used a 6-iron for an approach and sailed it over the green simply because he couldn’t realize he was that far on a drive.

At the third hole Fleck remembers seeing a little white rabbit scurry across the tee. He holed a 16-footer for a bird, and Hogan then missed a 4-footer. Fleck said later, “I thought to myself, that was my lucky hole.”

On the sixth Fleck sank a 25-footer after recovering from a bunker – his longest putt of the playoff – for a saving par. When Hogan rolled in a 50-footer on the eighth for a birdie 2, Fleck sent his own 8-footer down for the equalizer. Fleck then knocked in a 22-footer on the ninth and an 18-footer on the tenth.

They came to the 18th with Hogan one stroke back. As usual, Fleck played a careful spoon off the tee. Hogan, intent on applying the pressure, chose a driver. The hole was short, 335 yards, but the grass on the jutting rough to the left was deep. Hogan slipped on the sandy tee. He pulled his drive into foot high grass. His first swing there did not touch the ball but did cut the grass. His second moved the ball 3 feet. His third put the ball on the fairway. Later Hogan sank a 30-footer for a double-bogey 6, but Fleck’s par was good for a 69 – against Hogan’s 72 – and the Open title.

Fleck – a modern-day Francis Ouimet

He had hit shots heard ‘round the world, but in this communications-conscious era the word got around faster. Instant fame rocked him more than Hogan did. He had never, ever been asked to make a speech anywhere, not even in Iowa, and all of a sudden he was surrounded by microphones, bantying with reporters, receiving wires and phone calls. He had never, ever received one cent from any club, angel, sponsor or manufacturer. The Hogan clubs he used in the tournament were from his own shelf, bought at standard wholesale.

New faces swam before his eyes. People asked questions and he couldn’t separate the people or the words – were they just offhand remarks or quotes for publication? Suddenly his statements were important. The President of the United States was in town and “ordered” him to lunch.

It was a world Jack Fleck had never known. He may never know it again. But for that one whirling weekend, Jack Fleck was untouchable. THE CHAMP.

(USGA Museum)

(USGA Museum)

(USGA Museum)