Wednesday, April 11

Uncovering Jack Fleck and an Upset for the Ages

(Editor’s note: Part 3 of an ongoing series about how I got to know Jack Fleck and wrote THE LONGEST SHOT: Jack Fleck, Ben Hogan, and Pro Golf’s Greatest Upset at the 1955 U.S. Open. Read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 4.)

WHO WAS JACK FLECK? NOT THE CARICATURE of an underdog or answer to a sports trivia question, but rather the three-dimensional struggling golf pro from the Hawkeye state. And how in the world did Fleck take down Ben Hogan, a stoic, steel-willed man who thoroughly dominated major championship golf for a decade and is considered one of the all-time greats along with Harry Vardon, Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods?

Jack Fleck featured by Golf Digest.
These were the questions I began to ponder after I received an early 2007 email from a Hogan disciple named George McDowell. I had been writing my ARMCHAIR GOLF BLOG for more than a year, and would occasionally mention Hogan because of my acute interest in golf history. I found that my blog, which covered professional golf and was growing in popularity, was a magnet for like-minded golf enthusiasts, including Hogan fans who would surface to write a comment or send an email.

I’m sure you know of Jack Fleck, McDowell wrote. You should give him a call; he lives in Arkansas. He likes to talk about golf and 1955. Maybe there’s a story for you.

Not long after, this odd golf pro from yesteryear, a subject of ancient magazine features and golf folklore, emerged in living form—first, in his plainspoken, Middle-American voice in a series of long telephone conversations, and then in person as I journeyed to Savannah and later to other Champions Tour events in Hickory and Raleigh, North Carolina, and Baltimore, Maryland.

I came to know Jack and what had been written about him, some of which he vehemently disagreed with. One thing Jack Fleck and Ben Hogan had in common: They didn’t have much use for the press. They both had an underlying belief that the scribes got it wrong more often than they got it right. More than 50 years later, he was still intent on explaining his monumental upset over Hogan, an unpopular win in his judgment.

Now hooked, I dug through magazine articles, golf books and newspaper archives. I visited the USGA in Far Hills, New Jersey, and combed the world’s largest golf archive. I talked to Fleck contemporaries who played at Olympic in ’55 and were the scrappy pro golf nomads of the 1940s and 1950s, an era when prize money was miniscule compared to today’s lucrative PGA Tour and during which players often ate in cafeterias and sometimes slept in their automobiles.

Jack’s extraordinary achievement—and the circumstances surrounding it—came into sharper focus. Sportswriters of the day hailed it as the greatest golf upset since amateur Francis Ouimet beat British professionals Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in the 1913 U.S. Open at Brookline, Massachusetts, which is the subject of Mark Frost’s excellent book The Greatest Game Ever Played that became a popular Disney feature film.

Jack even eclipsed President Dwight Eisenhower, an avid golfer himself, who happened to be in San Francisco for a United Nations meeting when Jack stunned Hogan. The Fleck headline leapfrogged the “Ike” headline atop the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, and Jack was summoned by the Secret Service for a rendezvous and photographs with the Leader of the Free World.

More recently, in 2006, ESPN ranked Jack’s win as one of the top 10 upsets in the history of sports. Remove the team sport upsets and Fleck rises near the top of the list, alongside stunners such as Buster Douglas’s 1990 knockout of Mike Tyson for the heavyweight championship and thoroughbred Man O’ War’s only career loss to a 100-1 shot aptly named “Upset” in 1919.

TO BE CONTINUED.

Read an excerpt: Chapter 1 of THE LONGEST SHOT
Take a look inside THE LONGEST SHOT

Neil Sagebiel (aka The Armchair Golfer) is the author of THE LONGEST SHOT: Jack Fleck, Ben Hogan, and Pro Golf’s Greatest Upset at the 1955 U.S. Open, from St. Martin’s Press (Thomas Dunne Books). Learn more at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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