Fleck's Open win deserves its due
FORT SMITH, Ark. -- Jack Fleck is 90. His satellite radio is tuned to the 1940s. And the speedometer of his Buick seems stuck at 30 miles per hour.
But listen hard -- above Fleck's anti-Obama rant, above the Big Band sounds from the car radio, above an engine hoping someday to stretch its legs -- and you can hear them rattling gently on the beige backseat.
A 6-iron. A 3-wood. And not just any 6-iron and 3-wood, but two of the clubs Fleck used 57 years ago to beat the great Ben Hogan in a U.S. Open playoff.
It wasn't an upset as much as it was a miracle. It was Ouimet over Vardon and Ray. USA over the USSR in Lake Placid. Douglas over Tyson. Three 6 Mafia over Dolly Parton. The only thing missing that June day in 1955 at the Olympic Club was Al Michaels.
"No. 1: That was not on my mind that way," says Fleck, a grin forming as he slowly shakes his head. "[I'm] not thinking I was gonna win the Open that 1955 when I entered. No. No way."
But he did. And he won with a set of clubs bearing Hogan's signature, made by Hogan's company and provided to Fleck, an absolute unknown, free of charge and with Hogan's blessings. Hogan, who had never met Fleck before Olympic Club, even hand-delivered a pair of wedges the week of the Open.
It was a lovely gesture. A man who had won nine majors befriended an obscure touring pro who had never finished higher than seventh in any tournament. Or as Hall of Fame golf writer Dan Jenkins, who has covered 212 majors, including that 1955 Open, said: "Well, we didn't know who Jack Fleck was until he won. ... It sounded like a name you would make up."
Fleck, the oldest living U.S. Open champion, still has the entire set. The clubs are kept in a very safe and very undisclosed location. Leila Dunbar, an appraiser who does consulting work for the USGA, set the opening auction estimate between $50,000-$75,000 and as much as $100,000 if his Bulls Eye putter was added.
His check for winning the Open: $6,000.
So if Fleck decides to sell them, those clubs could bring six figures. They've already brought him lasting fame. Tragedy, too.
Hogan's clubs helped Fleck pull off one of the greatest upsets in U.S. Open history. He was an absolute nobody who, in four days' time at Olympic Club, became a national somebody. He heard voices. He beat his idol Hogan. He raised a trophy. He met President Dwight Eisenhower.
But it all came at a cost. The Open victory against Hogan, the pre-eminent player of his era, was mocked and dismissed. Fleck, as in fluke.
"Maybe in terms of sports results, it's one of the greatest upsets ever," said Jenkins, who covered the '55 Open for Hogan's hometown newspaper, the Fort Worth Press. "For me, it's one of the greatest unjust results ever because Hogan was so much a better player than Jack Fleck."
Not that week, he wasn't. Fleck's win was unbelievable, unexpected and unexplainable. It was also soaked in weirdness and irony. But the best golfer during those 90 holes (72 regulation, 18 playoff) won the Open.
On the Saturday morning of the Open, when the final two rounds of regulation would be played, Fleck stood in front of the bathroom mirror of his modest El Camino Real Motel room in Daly City, Calif. (Hogan was staying at the luxurious St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco), and began shaving. A Mario Lanza album played on the record player Fleck had brought with him on the cross-country drive from Davenport, Iowa. The car, by the way, was a Buick.
That's when he heard someone else in the room.
"Well, a voice came out of the mirror, and it was loud enough and clear enough, and it just says, 'Jack, you're gonna win the Open,'" Fleck said. "See, he didn't say, U.S. Open. But then after four, five minutes or something, it came again. 'Jack, you're gonna win the Open.' Well, I just had goose pimples and I quivered, and I look around and there's nobody around."
Fleck sank putt after putt -- an "Open coma," Jenkins called it. He mostly stayed out of Olympic's brutal shin-deep rough, which swallowed up errant shots as if they were malt balls. His iron play was, well, Hoganesque. The 33-year-old Fleck was unflappable.
But he still trailed Hogan, winner of four Opens, by 2 shots as he stepped to the No. 15 tee box. So sure was NBC of the outcome that commentator Gene Sarazen signed off by declaring Hogan the champion.
I'm sure glad that you won. But I sure feel bad that Hogan lost.” -- Jack Fleck's young son, Craig, who was conflicted after his father defeated Ben Hogan in the 1955 U.S. Open.
Jenkins was with Hogan in the locker room when a tournament official informed him that Fleck needed to birdie two of the last four holes to force a tie. Said Hogan, fresh from his impressive even-par 70 and 287 total: "I hope he either makes three or one because I don't want a playoff."
Fleck birdied No. 15 and parred Nos. 16 and 17. Jenkins made a beeline for the 18th hole, in time to see Fleck sink a downhill, right-to-left, 7-foot birdie putt for the unthinkable tie and a round of 67.
"And I still didn't give it much thought because a guy named Jack Fleck, who I've never heard of, is not going to beat Ben Hogan in an 18-hole playoff," Jenkins said. "And of course, he did."
He did it by holing every crucial putt, building a 3-stroke lead, withstanding a late charge by Hogan and then calmly parring the 18th, as Hogan flailed out of the rough for an eventual double-bogey. Fleck shot 69 to Hogan's 72. An upset for the ages was complete.
Fifty-seven years later, on a windless, 90-degree day, Fleck stands on the driving range at Hardscrabble Country Club in Fort Smith with two of those Hogan clubs. They are making a rare cameo appearance.
The blade of the 6-iron is clean enough to serve finger sandwiches. Compared to today's metal woods, the clubhead of the persimmon 3-wood is smaller than an infant's clenched fist. The grips are wrapped leather, and the steel shafts are stiffer than he's played in decades.
"A little thin," he said, as his first shot flies long and straight. "But I'll take it."
There is nothing complicated about Fleck's swing. Turn away. Turn back.
"Course, I've been trying for a long, long time, you know," he said.
He plays nine or 18 holes almost every day, usually by himself, and shoots in the mid-to-upper 70s. In late March he recorded a hole-in-one on Hardscrabble's par-3 17th.
Fleck stripes a half-dozen more iron shots and then switches to the 3-wood. He stumbles forward as he stands over the ball.
"See?" he said. "That's my balance."
And then he settles himself and hits a Sofia Vergara-gorgeous draw.
Ask him whether during those solitary rounds at Hardscrabble he ever thinks about the '55 Open, and Fleck doesn't hesitate.
"Nope," he said, "that was back then."
The memories are wonderful. The memories are painful.
Fleck is a child of the Depression. His father lost the family farm. There was no money for nonessentials. His clothes were held together by patches. His shoes were stuffed with cardboard to cover the holes in the soles.
He slept overnight in the sand bunkers of the local country club so he'd be first in line to caddie. Forty-five cents for 18 holes. He joined the Navy out of high school. He served on a British ship that fired rockets off the mine-infested shores of Utah Beach on D-Day. He returned home alive but with nothing more than a dream to become a touring pro.
So you'd think his victory at Olympic would have been embraced nationwide. How could you not love a headline that read: Blue-collar War Veteran Wins Open?
Here's why: because he beat Hogan to do it. The Wee Ice Mon. The Hawk. The guy whose life story -- and the near-fatal car crash that almost ended it -- became a 1951 movie.
Hogan was admired, respected, beloved. Fleck drew a mustache and eye patch on Hogan's U.S. Open ending.
Even Fleck's young son, Craig, was conflicted. After the victory, the boy told his father, "I'm sure glad that you won. But I sure feel bad that Hogan lost."
He wasn't alone.
"[The fans] wanted a bigger name just like the press tent wanted Hogan," Jenkins said. "Nobody wanted to write about Jack Fleck. You kidding? They wanted to write, Ben Hogan wins another Open. You know they love dynasties. Sports writers love dynasties. They get bigger play."
Fleck wasn't a dynasty. He won at Olympic and twice more on tour during the remainder of his career. He was considered a one-hit wonder.
"But I wasn't," he said. "See, everybody don't realize how much I won after that, and I threw away a lot of tournaments. The only U.S. Open that Arnold Palmer ever won, I threw it away and gave it to him."
That would be the 1960 Open at Cherry Hills. Fleck tied for third, 2 shots behind Palmer.
Fleck smiles when he says this, but there is an edge to his voice. He leans forward. The emotional pain has no expiration date.
"I don't think that most people have been really nice to me and everything else," he said. "I don't know. I don't have any resentment against anybody or anything."
But he does have scar tissue. To this day he thinks the public and media reaction from the win against Hogan contributed to the suicide nearly 20 years later of his first wife, Lynn.
"... I, for a long time, just wandered around the country when Craig's mother took her life because it really hurt me," Fleck said. "And the reason -- you know why she took her life? All the sports writers calling from New York or different areas and knocking me up, see, and she thought that was terrible.
"I knew [the win] was big because it aroused everybody worldwide. I know because it was not easy going that first few years after my win. 'Cause, boy, it was a lot of remarks that were not good."
What people didn't know then is that Fleck and Hogan were alike in so many ways. They grew up poor. They were grinders. They were self-made. They were loners. They would deal with the shock of suicide. (Hogan's father killed himself.)
And they could each call themselves U.S. Open champions.
Hogan befriended Fleck with the gift of those clubs. And with respect. Hogan never referred to the results of the '55 Open as a fluke. He would later tell Jenkins, "Jack played very good. He deserved to win. I don't care who he was or if anybody heard of him or not, he played better than I did that day."
Jenkins' 2012 take: "Of course, he putted better is what he did. But that's part of golf, too, isn't it?"
Fleck, whose home sits on a gentle slope leading to a backyard creek, is happily married to his wife, Carmen. They'll return to Olympic Club for this week's Open.
The great fallacy is that time heals all wounds. In Fleck's case, it hides them more than heals them.
He beat the greatest player of his time by 3 strokes. On a brutally difficult course. In a playoff. Over 90 grueling holes. In front of galleries that were overwhelmingly pro-Hogan.
For this he is remembered as a golf accident, an unworthy long shot who heard voices while dragging a razor across his morning stubble. He finished ahead of Hogan on the leaderboard but not in the hearts of those who still can't believe the final results.
Hogan understood. They remain forever bonded by that '55 Open and by those clubs Fleck carefully packs in a cardboard box before storing them in a secure area. And according to a 1955 Tuscaloosa News story, Fleck wanted his newborn son to be named Snead Hogan Fleck. Lynn overruled him.
"It's been a good life for me, you know, and all the parts that are not good," Fleck said, pausing for a long time. "I went through it. It was a tough time for me when Craig's mother took her life. It was a long time I didn't play hardly at all. And then I came back, did pretty good, and I think I should have won a few. I was right up there. But that's history, I guess."
History hasn't been kind to Fleck. But it's not too late to start.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.
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2012 U.S. OPEN
2012 course: The Olympic Club
Yardage, par: 7,170 yards, par-70
2012 champion: Webb Simpson
Past champions: Complete list
Olympic Club hole flyovers: Front 9 | Back 9
Topics: The U.S. Open