From the Golf Journal Archives - A Figure from History

Apr 27, 2012

Ben Hogan came to San Francisco with an awesome record; Jack Fleck was all but unknown. The ingredients were so mixed for a memorable U.S. Open, in 1955.

By Robert Sommers

(Note: This article originally appeared in the May/June 1985 issue of Golf Journal.)

ALTHOUGH he was approaching 43, in June of 1955, as the National Open drew near, Ben Hogan was still the most dangerous player of the age. He was perhaps the best striker of the ball who ever lived, at least as fierce a competitor as Bob Jones, and no one ever prepared for a tournament with more intelligence or insight. He had the uncanny ability to analyze a course and determine what shots he would have to play, and then work on them endlessly, and also anticipate the winning score. He had one other knack that transcended the others; he could hit the ball to where he wanted it to go.

Since 1940, he had played in 10 Opens, won four, finished third twice, fourth and fifth once each, and sixth twice. He was fourth in 1946 when he three-putted the last green and missed a playoff by one stroke, and in 1948 he set the Open record, shooting 276 at the Riviera Country Club, in Los Angeles, Calif. Over the same period, he won two Masters Tournaments and lost another in a playoff with Byron Nelson, won the PGA twice, and in his only attempt, won the British Open.

In 1953, he had the greatest year any man had had since Bob Jones won the Grand Slam, in 1930. In his greatest year, Hogan won the Masters, setting the record at 274; the Open; and the British Open. He probably would have won the PGA if he had played, but it conflicted with the British Open. Not since the end of the war had he gone two years without a national title, and he had not won in 1954.

Nobody had heard of Jack Fleck.

THE 1955 OPEN was played over the Lakeside Course of the Olympic Club, in San Francisco, a few hundred yards from the Pacific Ocean. While this was to be Olympic’s introduction to national competition, it had been the site of the San Francisco Open, last played in 1946, when Byron Nelson shot 283 and won by nine strokes.

The Open hadn’t been played on the West Coast since Hogan set the record, and remembering how Riviera had been battered, Olympic’s members looked around them, saw a 6,430-yard course that was perfectly respectable and adequate in 1921, when it was opened, but now could stand to be strengthened.

After visiting Baltusrol during the 1954 Open, a committee of Olympic members laid out some preliminary changes they would like to see, and then called in Robert Trent Jones, the golf course architect, to work with them. The majority of members who thought they had a pretty tough course were to spend seven months with higher rough, narrower fairways, and extra bunkers, for Jones and the small cadre of members turned Olympic into a test of golf only slightly less severe than Oakland Hills Country Club, in Birmingham, Mich., the site of the 1951 Open, which many believed was the Open’s toughest course.

In Olympic, Jones had an interesting course to work with. Originally the land was a treeless expanse of sand dunes between the Pacific Ocean and Lake Merced, but after the course was constructed, the club planted 43,000 eucalyptus, pine, and cypress trees, 30,000 of them on the Lakeside course, the rest on the less ambitious Ocean course. By the time of the 1955 Open, they averaged about 60 feet in height, and some reached 100 feet. They bordered every fairway, creating avenues 75 to 80 yards wide. The visual effect was striking, and on some holes the trees formed funnels to direct the tee shot. The treelines determined the shape of the holes and the line of play. They were a good starting point.

Jones began his toughening project by increasing the length to 6,700 yards. Rough lines were drawn in from 25 to 40 yards, and the rough was allowed to grow to 8 inches in some places. Jones altered two holes dramatically. The 14th had been a 410-yard par 4 that bent left. It had a broad fairway with a wide sweep to the right and a bunker at the left front of the green. At the extreme range of the drive zone, the fairway pitches downward; a tee shot that reached the slope had only a pitch to the green, and if the drive were played into the wide sweep to the right, the approach avoided the bunker. Jones strengthened the hole by pulling the rough line in from the right, filled in the left greenside bunker, and swung another bunker diagonally across the right front so that the opening was from the left. The tee shot now should be played down the left side closer to the treeline with the constant risk of a hooked shot soaring into the trees, or possibly rolling down the slope and into an ugly gully.

The seventh had always been weak, a 266-yard par 4. The green was open and vulnerable, and even though the ground ran uphill, the green could be driven. Jones had an ingenious solution. A small bunker was drawn all the way across the front of the green so that a ball couldn’t roll on, the green was contoured severely, and the fairway was practically eliminated. The drive now had to be hit to what Jones called a dewdrop fairway, 27 yards long, 25 yards wide, beginning 210 yards from the tee and running to the cross-bunker. It was a radical but effective solution, and while the seventh still wasn’t the strongest hole at Olympic, it no longer gave up birdies quite so easily.

THE ALTERATIONS brought about a remarkable change in the course. It was brutally hard – not as punishing as Oakland Hills, but rugged nonetheless. Complaints from the players were common. Nearly everyone claimed Olympic was unplayable and that the rough that crowded practically to the edge of the green prevented recovery for a shot that ran just a little off the putting surface. The rough was a perennial ryegrass that the players had not encountered before, and that turned out to be far tougher and more punishing than anyone expected. Furthermore, it was allowed to grow too long. The targets seemed unusually small, and the players were asked to hit them from too great a distance.

There was only one way to play Olympic: hit the fairways and hit the greens. No one did this better than Hogan. Throughout the warmup rounds he laid his plans, and even though his swing looked a bit choppy and flat, not the usual free-flowing motion with the high, sweeping finish, he gave the distinct impression that he knew how the Open would develop and how to adjust to it. His plans finished, Hogan didn’t play the course at all the two days before the Open began; instead he and Claude Harmon went over to the Ocean course and practiced the shots they’d need.

Fleck was making his plans, too. He arrived at Olympic the Friday before the opening round and began a strenuous practice schedule, pacing off the yardage of every hole and working on a finesse shot from the rough around the greens. Because the eighth hole ended at the clubhouse, Fleck played 44 holes every day – two complete rounds and an additional eight holes. He devoted all his time to his preparations; his wife and young son were home in Davenport, Iowa, and he was staying at the El Camino Real, a small motel, and taking his meals at a nearby cafeteria. He was not among the Tour’s leading money-winners. He had, in fact, won only a little under $7,400 in 41 tournaments, dating back to the St. Paul Open of 1952.

Tournament golf, however, was secondary to his principal interest; his primary income came from the two public golf courses he ran in Davenport.

Like Hogan, Fleck started as a caddie and then became a shop assistant, which meant he cleaned clubs. Golf ambitions were delayed by the Second World War, but when he returned home he was given the appointment as professional at the two municipal courses, 8 miles apart. Again like Hogan, Fleck had very little success when he began.

WHILE the similarities ended there, Fleck did, however, use Hogan clubs. Hogan had left MacGregor and had begun his own company not long before this. Fleck heard about the new clubs while he was playing in Florida early in the year, and sent his specifications to the factory and asked if Hogan would have a set made for him. By the time Fleck arrived in San Francisco, he had his woods and irons, and Hogan himself delivered two wedges. Now Fleck was set.

He was also confident. Shortly before the Open began, he wrote to a friend that he included himself among the 10 men most likely to win. He was alone; hardly anyone else knew he was in the field. Those favored to win, aside from Hogan, of course, were Cary Middlecoff, a former Open champion; Sam Snead, an Open favorite since 1937 but still without a victory; Ed Furgol, the defending champion; Julius Boros, the 1952 champion who always placed high; and among the younger players, Gene Littler, Bob Rosburg and Peter Thomson, a very stylish player from Australia who had won the 1954 British Open Championship.

Harvie Ward also drew support, which was unusual since he was an amateur and had yet to win the first of his two consecutive Amateur Championships (1955, 1956).

THE MORNING of the first round brought the promise of a lovely day. The sun was warm and bright, the chill mist that usually cloaks the coastline had flown, and the air was light with just a touch of a breeze; altogether fine weather for scoring. What actually happened is difficult to explain. Of the 162 starters, 82 – more than half the field – failed to break 80. The scorecard blossomed with 7s and 8s. Only one man, Al Besselink, birdied the 17th, an uphill, 461-yard par-4, and in seven rounds – six in practice – Hogan hadn’t yet hit that green.

Only Tommy Bolt broke par. An eccentric man with vile temper, Bolt nevertheless was a fine striker of the ball. He cruised around Olympic in 67, but that was mainly because of superb chipping and putting. He had 11 one-putt greens and only 25 putts in all.

When the day of carnage ended, Bolt led Walker Inman, a young Air Force veteran making his second start in the Open. Inman was the only man in the field to match par 70. Hogan, meanwhile, shot 72 (“Par is 72, isn’t it?” he asked through clenched teeth grinding against his cigarette holder), and Fleck shot 76.

On another sparkling day, Bolt shot 77 in the second round but still held a share of the lead, at 144, with Ward, 74-70. With 73 to go with his opening 72, Hogan was next, at 145, tied with, among others, Fleck, who responded to his disappointing 76 start by shooting a 69.

Hogan gave some evidence in this round of why he was so dangerous. On the 16th, the 603-yard par-5 that is a continuous right-to-left curve from tee to green, Hogan’s tee shot hit a tree branch 175 yards from the tee and dropped straight down. Hogan then played a magnificent fairway wood and a glorious 2-iron that bored through the light air and braked to a stop 25 feet from the hole. He holed the putt for a birdie 4.

ON A TYPICALLY foggy morning, Hogan shot another 72 in the third round and moved into the 54-hole lead, at 217- Fleck shot 75 and fell three strokes behind, with 220. Bolt was in position to share the lead, but he lost two strokes on the 18th when his tee shot struck a woman spectator. The ball dropped into an unplayable lie. He came in with 75 and 219. Snead was second, at 218, after shooting 70.

Off early in the afternoon, Hogan was out in 35 and apparently heading for his fifth Open. No one else could keep up, and when Hogan came in with 70, for 287, he seemed absolutely safe. Television was in its early stages of covering golf, and even though the Open had been shown on a local station in St. Louis, in 1947, the 1955 Open was only the second broadcast on a national hookup. Gene Sarazen was doing the television commentary, and as Hogan strode from the final green, smiling at the thunderous roar rising from the 6,000 fans gathered on the hillside, Sarazen rushed up with his microphone and congratulated Hogan on winning his fifth Open. Hogan demurred, reminding Sarazen that some others were still within range of him, but then Hogan went to Joe Dey, the USGA's Executive Director, and handed him his ball, saying, “This is for Golf House.”

Meantime, something wonderful had happened to Jack Fleck. Always reliable from tee to green, he often said he couldn’t putt the ball into a tub. Standing over his ball on the fifth green during the second round, though, his putter suddenly felt good in his hands, and from that point on, he hadn’t taken three putts on any hole so far.

Fleck stood on the 10th tee during the final round when the roar went up as Hogan finished, and soon he saw a throng streaming through the trees headed out to watch him. He had been playing wonderful golf through the first nine and had picked up two strokes on Hogan, with 33. To catch up, Fleck would have to play the second nine in 34 – one under par. He played the first four holes of the home nine in even par, but then make a mistake on 14th, After a big drive, he couldn’t believe he had only a 7-iron left, and so played an easy 6-iron. He pulled the ball into the greenside bunker, came out eight to 10 feet short, and missed. A bogey 5; two behind now.

THE GALLERY was hushed as Fleck moved toward the 15th tee, and some quietly began the long climb up the hill toward the clubhouse. Fleck saw them leaving. “They think I’m through,” he said softly to himself.

Most of the deserters hadn’t crossed one fairway when Fleck played his tee shot to the 15th, a little par 3 of 144 yards with a small, island green protected by deep bunkers and bordered by eucalyptus trees. Drawing on an inner peace, Fleck was playing now like a man in a trance. He hit a nerveless 6-iron that split the flag and skidded dead eight feet from the cup. He holed it.

As the cheers from his gallery rose through the woods, those who left after the 14th turned back and began crashing through the trees, hoping to see the finish. Fleck was only one stroke behind now, but he had three hard holes to play.

He ripped into his drive on the 16th, but it started off too far left.

“Oh, no,” he cried. “I’m in the rough.”

He wasn’t; he hit the ball with so much force it carried over the corner of the rough where it turns left and reached the fairway. Safe. Another wood and then a wedge. He pulled it; the ball sailed left of the pin, but Fleck got a break when it stopped on the collar of the green, 25 feet from the cup. Taking his putter, he gave the ball a firm rap, and almost holed it. A safe par 5. Now for the 17th, the toughest hole on the course.

Everybody had been playing two woods to this hole, and very few had been on in two. Fleck tore into his driver again and drilled the ball up the left side. He was still a long way from the hole, but he was getting great distance with his shots now. He took a 3-wood and once again covered the flags tick. His ball stopped 20 feet past the hole and left him a putt with a big right-to-left break. Once again he nearly holed it; his ball caught a piece of the rim but wouldn't fall. Still a stroke behind, but now he had only one hole left, the 18th, a short par 4 of 337 yards, through a chute of trees to a narrow fairway below the level of the tee, and with a small, narrow, heavily bunkered green above fairway level. Fleck must make a 3 here.

HOGAN, meanwhile, had showered, dressed, and packed his gear, and he sat in the locker room in an uneasy semi-silence, answering the occasional nervous question from reporters keeping the vigil and casting a periodic glance out the window at the scene below.

After a momentary pause on the 18th tee, Fleck played a 3-wood, and as the ball sailed off line to the left, the mighty crowd groaned. They had acclaimed Hogan a short time ago, and now they yearned to acclaim this man, who had shown so much courage.

Fleck’s ball rolled off the fairway and into the short rough. He had a slightly uphill lie, and the ball was sitting up nicely. It lay about 130 yards from the pin and Fleck debated whether to hit an 8-iron or a 7-iron. He chose to play the 7-iron and hit it high. Once again the crowd hushed as he stood over his ball. Then he moved into the shot. The ball rose from the grass, arched high against the lead-gray sky, smacked into the green and stopped 7 or 8 feet right of the hole – a perfectly played shot.

Now for the putt, one of the most critical putts a man ever had to play. Some had taken four putts on this green and a few had putted entirely off. Fleck surveyed the line and figured the ball would break about an inch from right to left. He took one practice stroke, set the putter in front of the ball, then behind it, and then tapped it. The ball began moving down the incline, took the break just right, then tumbled into the hole. The putt had been perfectly read and perfectly struck.

As the ball disappeared into the hole, another cheer ripped the air, as the gallery leaped to its feet and acclaimed the unknown young man who had tied the great Ben Hogan by shooting a 67.

Hearing the cheer upstairs in the clubhouse, Hogan dropped his head, then called to the attendant:

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

THE PLAYOFF was set for 2 o’clock. To most, that meant that Hogan would have to wait one more day for his fifth Open, for Fleck would have no chance. He had played four rounds over his head; certainly he couldn’t play another.

They were a contrasting pair as they started out that Sunday afternoon, Hogan the shorter of the two, his bulging forearms covered by a dark sweater. Hogan walked with a slight limp, the legacy of the injuries he sustained in his automobile accident six years earlier. Fleck, taller and more slender, had a loose-jointed walk, his arms and legs flapping about as if with no plan, his longer stride eating up the yards more easily than Hogan's shorter, choppier steps. Their swings resembled their strides, Hogan’s faster, more compact, Fleck’s longer, more slowly paced.

That most of the gallery expected a runaway didn’t seem to bother Fleck; he was still inside his special serene world.

Hogan seemed to be trying to put the pressure on Fleck at the start. Fleck semi-skied his drive and Hogan outdrove him by 15 yards on the first hole, a 530-yard par 5, and then went for the green with a 3-wood. His ball, however, fell into a greenside bunker about 30 yards short of the green and his recovery stopped 15 feet from the hole. Fleck, meanwhile, pitched from the rough to 12 feet, and his putt stopped four inches short of the hole. Obviously, he would not crack just yet.

When the break came, it was Hogan who faltered, not Fleck. As Hogan prepared to play his tee shot to the third, the 220-yard par 3, a frightened rabbit skittered through the crowd and across the tee. It looked like a good omen for Hogan when he played his 2-iron 4 feet from the hole. Fleck’s shot, also played with a 2-iron, hit the top of a bunker and bounced onto the green, and he made his par.

Now, with a chance to begin the expected rout, Hogan lipped out his putt. The rabbit, it seemed, was a good omen for Fleck, not Hogan.

Both men made their pars on the fourth, and then Hogan made a mistake. He pushed his tee shot on the fifth into the line of tall eucalyptus and pine that borders the fairway, and he had no chance to reach the green with his second. He played a safe shot back to the fairway, hit his third shot on, and his putt, from 25 feet, grazed the edge of the cup but missed. Fleck, meanwhile, got down in two from 30 feet and went ahead by a stroke.

Hogan looked as if he might catch up on each of the next three holes, but Fleck holed an 18-foot putt to save par on the sixth, Hogan’s 35-footer on the seventh hung on the lip of the hole, and after Hogan holed a 40-foot putt for a birdie 2 on the eighth, Fleck rolled one in from 4 feet. Fleck then effectively settled the outcome by holing from 20 feet for a birdie on the ninth against Hogan’s par. Fleck was out in 33, Hogan in 35, and with Fleck playing as he was, Hogan would have to make some birdies to catch up.

Instead, Fleck birdied the 10th, and now Hogan had to pick up three strokes in eight holes.

CAUGHT UP in the dramatics, the crowd had become increasingly unruly. Fairways by then were lined from tee to green, but the gallery broke through the ropes and romped about the course, generally disturbing the players and disrupting play. It had become so bad that Fleck and Hogan were told to wait while the 11th fairway was cleared.

Hogan picked up one stroke on the 11th, but lost it on the 12th when he missed a putt from 3 feet. He was obviously off his game, his normally efficient swing not functioning as it should. He was three strokes back again, and now had only six holes to catch up. For a while it looked as if he might make it, as hole by agonizing hole he fought back. A par 4 on the 14th cut his deficit to two when Fleck made 5. His putt for a birdie on the 16th rolled four inches past the hole, and his 14-footer on the 17th grazed the hole. He nearly pulled even there, for Fleck took another bogey 5.

BEHIND BY ONLY one stroke now, Hogan had to birdie the 18th. The soil on the 18th tee was a bit loose, and a player had to be careful of his foothold. For whatever reason, Hogan’s right foot slipped as he moved into the shot, and the ball veered sharply left into the knee-high rough. There was no hope. Hogan slashed at it once and moved the ball a foot. He hit it again and moved it three feet. His fourth shot reached the fairway, his fifth flew to the back of the green, 30 feet above the hole, and he holed the putt for a 6. Fleck, meanwhile, was on with his second and played a safe first putt. His par 4 gave him 69 for the round; Hogan shot 72.

This was quite possibly the biggest upset the Open has ever known, and Fleck’s victory took newspaper headlines away from much more important events.

President Eisenhower was in San Francisco at the time for a meeting of the United Nations, and Fleck was invited to the Mark Hopkins Hotel to meet the President the next morning. Fleck moved out of the Camino Real that night and into the Fairmont Hotel, which, like the Mark Hopkins, perches atop Nob Hill. Life seemed full of success.

FLECK NEVER reached those heights again. His putting, which had been stunning on those very difficult greens, left him. With more reliable putting, he could have won the Open in 1960 (for that matter, so might have Hogan). In the excitement of Palmer’s six birdies on the first seven holes of the final round in 1960, at the Cherry Hills Country Club, in the Denver suburb of Englewood, Colo., hardly anyone noticed that Fleck birdied five of the first six. He faded on the second nine, though, and finished with an even-par 71, for a total of 283, three strokes behind Palmer, tied with five others for third place.

Thirty years have passed since Fleck’s great moment. Hogan never did win a fifth Open, and he played very seldom after 1955. He appeared in his last Open in 1967, and his last tournament of any kind in 1971. When he played in the Westchester Classic in 1970 and was sent off the tee at 7:30 in the morning, a number of Tour players followed him around. Earlier that year, in the Houston Open, R. H. Sikes asked a friend to check Hogan’s progress around the course so he could study his round. A year later, Hogan withdrew from the Houston Open because his knee hurt too badly for him to continue.

Fleck still plays. He is 63 now, and follows the Senior Tour, still tall and slender, almost gaunt, his long, loose gait eating up the yards, his shots still true, a figure from history.

Meantime, something wonderful had happened to Jack Fleck. Always reliable from tee to green, he often said he couldn’t putt the ball into a tub. Standing over his ball on the fifth green during the second round, though, his putter suddenly felt good in his hands, and from that point on, he hadn’t taken three putts on any hole so far. (USGA Museum)

A newspaper caption from a local report following the 1955 championship read: “Love That Lovin’ Cup - Jack Fleck, unknown young pro from Davenport, Iowa, cuddles the trophy emblematic of the U.S. Open golf championship after beating Ben Hogan, right, by three strokes in an 18-hole playoff here today. Never showing a trace of nervousness, Fleck carved out a one-under-par 69 to become the darkest dark horse to win the championship since Sam Parks did it 20 years ago at Oakmont, Pa.” (USGA Museum)

Attendances at earlier Opens were considerably smaller than those in more recent years, yet the gallery gathered at the eighth green, in 1955, was large. It was a favorite vantage point because it was close to the clubhouse of the Olympic Club. (USGA Museum)