This is the first in a series of articles looking back at the USGA championships conducted at The Olympic Club in San Francisco, site of this year’s U.S. Open Championship. Note: Jack Fleck, 90, is the oldest living U.S. Open champion.
The world of sports has seen its share of remarkable upsets.
- The 1980 USA hockey team stunning the Russian juggernaut at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics.
- Villanova taking down Georgetown in the 1985 NCAA basketball final.
- Joe Namath’s New York Jets beating the heavily favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III
- Buster Douglas somehow battering the seemingly invincible Mike Tyson
When it comes to golf, some would argue that Francis Ouimet’s 1913 U.S. Open playoff victory at The Country Club over British stalwarts Ted Ray and Harry Vardon is the greatest upset the game has seen. After all, Ouimet was just a 20-year-old amateur, while Vardon and Ray were established pros.
It was a tremendous upset and a seminal moment in the game’s history, especially as it relates to golf in America.
But what unheralded Jack Fleck achieved in 1955 at The Olympic Club definitely should be part of the conversation.
Just how remarkable was Fleck’s triumph?
NBC, which that year had the first contracted television coverage of a U.S. Open, declared Ben Hogan the champion when it signed off after its one-hour show on that final Saturday.
Fleck, who had never won a professional event and was still relatively unknown on the PGA Tour, was on the 71st hole when NBC went off the air. Before 1965, the final day consisted of 36 holes and rarely did the leaders end up paired together.
Nobody expected this 33-year-old Iowan to catch the game’s dominant figure of the era. Instead, Fleck was the first in what would become an Olympic U.S. Open trend, where the fan favorite somehow lost out to the less heralded challenger; Billy Casper rallying to beat Arnold Palmer in 1966, Scott Simpson outlasting Tom Watson in 1987 and Lee Janzen edging Payne Stewart in 1998.
In 1955, Hogan, gunning for a record fifth Open, had posted a solid even-par 70 for a 72-hole total of 287. As the round and the championship moved toward its conclusion, everyone, including the media, seemingly was handing the stoic Texan the trophy. Except Hogan wasn’t ready to uncork champagne bottles; not until all the scorecards were officially signed.
Good thing he didn’t.
Prior to leaving for The Olympic Club and that Saturday 36-hole marathon, Fleck was shaving and listening to Mario Lanza singing “I’ll Walk With God,” when he heard a voice from behind the mirror. “You are going to win the Open.”
Fleck suddenly had goose bumps. Was he dreaming?
Was his mind delusional from all the sugar he was digesting?
That week, Dr. Paul Barton, an Iowa dentist who Fleck had caddied for as a youth, provided him with four or five cubes of sugar per round. Much like caffeine, the extra glucose acted as a stimulant. That entire week, Fleck never felt fatigued, even though he struggled out of the gate with an opening-round 79 that left him nine back of first-round leader Tommy Bolt.
A 69 on Friday put Fleck in position to play the last 36 holes, but his name didn’t appear among those who could win. His cause wasn’t helped by a 75 on Saturday morning, either. But his putter heated up during that afternoon’s final 18.
When Fleck departed the 13th green, a marshal yelled loud enough for fellow competitor Gene Littler to hear, “All you need is one more birdie over the final five holes to tie Hogan.”
Fleck made a bogey at 14, but a birdie at the par-3 15th hole gave him some hope. Pars on 16 and 17 left Fleck one shot off Hogan’s clubhouse lead, with the short par-4 18th hole left to be played. His 7-iron approach stopped 7 feet away and he calmly converted the birdie to force an improbable tie.
“I just loved that golf course,” Fleck told Golfweek’s Jeff Rude during a video interview two years ago at Pebble Beach. “I slept very well that night. I slept 9½ hours. I could really sleep … and I’m fortunate that I did.”
Although the two playoff combatants were on entirely different career paths at the time, Hogan and Fleck came from similar backgrounds. Both were ex-caddies – Hogan in Texas and Fleck in Davenport, Iowa – who grew up with minimal means.
Fleck’s parents were farmers who had lost their land in the 1920s. He turned professional in 1939 and worked as an assistant pro before World War II. He served in the Navy during the war and was involved in the D-Day invasion of Normandy from a British rocket-firing vessel off Utah Beach.
Two weeks after leaving the Navy, Fleck was back trying to earn a living through golf.
The irony of it all was that Fleck idolized Hogan from the time he began playing PGA Tour events in 1947. He studied his practice habits and mannerisms. When Hogan and his wife, Valerie, were involved in a horrific car accident on a Texas highway in 1949, Fleck actually passed two motorcycles and an ambulance going in the opposite direction responding to the crash as Fleck headed toward San Antonio. The next morning he read about the collision with the Greyhound bus.
In the spring of 1955, Fleck had inspected a set of new irons in St. Petersburg, Fla., manufactured by the Ben Hogan Golf Company. Fleck talked with several pros about writing to Hogan to request a set for himself. The pros told him not to bother. He sent the letter anyway and Hogan surprised him by asking for his specs.
A few months later, their careers would collide at The Olympic Club. During the playoff, little banter was exchanged between the two. But after Fleck, using the irons Hogan’s company had made for him, won by three strokes, 69-72, the four-time U.S. Open champion congratulated the Iowan on his victory.
From that moment on, despite the fact that Fleck had denied him a piece of golf history, Hogan always treated Fleck with complete respect. Hogan certainly must have appreciated that, like him, Fleck had come up from the caddie ranks to become a USGA champion.
Immediately after his Open triumph, Fleck was treated to all the spoils of victory. He met President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He went on “The Today Show.” He was toasted at the airport in his hometown of Davenport.
It would be Fleck’s shining moment. While he did hold the first-round lead at the 1960 U.S. Open, where Hogan again unsuccessfully challenged for a record fifth title, Fleck only won twice more on the PGA Tour after his ’55 Open victory.
But at least he had a major championship, and he was grateful for it.
“I held my son, Craig, and thanked God, my family and the people for being so nice to me,” Fleck wrote in Golf Digest about his triumphant return to Davenport.”When I came off the platform, my father looked at me and said, ‘I thought you forgot about me.’ When I said, ‘I love you’ and gave him a big hug, his eyes filled with tears.”
One of America’s great upsets was complete.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer/content manager for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.