When 92-year-old Jack Fleck died March 21 in Fort Smith, Ark., the U.S. Open not only lost its oldest living champion but perhaps its most enigmatic.
It didn’t make sense that Fleck was so cool, calm and
collected during his 1955 U. S. Open playoff against Ben Hogan,
but he was. Lean and loose-jointed, he walked around San
Francisco’s Olympic Club that epic June afternoon as if it
were a casual round back home in his native Iowa.
“He looks like he was strung together like a doll,” a specta-
tor observed, according to Neil Sagebiel in his 2012 book The
Longest Shot. “I never saw anyone so relaxed.”
Often during a playing career that wasn’t amounting to
much, Fleck battled a temper, smoldering when things didn’t
go his way. But at Olympic he was as placid as a foggy beach.
Maybe, as Al Barkow theorized in his 2012 book The Upset,
Fleck’s regular yoga routine calmed him that fateful week.
Fleck claimed, decades later, that as he shaved the morning
of the third and fourth rounds, a voice told him he was going
to win. A day earlier, on the fifth green, something coalesced
with his putting. “I didn’t change my grip or stance,” he told
me in 1995, “it was just a feeling in my hands.”
Whatever the trigger, Fleck’s game was as solid as his
mood was confident in his showdown against Hogan, who
was trying to win a record fifth U. S. Open. Using Hogan
irons—his wedges delivered by Ben in San Francisco—
Fleck played like Hogan,
meticulous and unerring,
in shooting a 69 on the
Lake Course to beat the
icon by three strokes a
day after he birdied the
72nd hole to shoot 67 and
Although Fleck be-
lieved he never got the
credit he deserved, the
man he beat was generous
toward the unproven pro
odds—was the better
player that week. “His was
a marvelous demonstra-
tion of superb golf,” Hogan
said after losing. “It was
guts and fortitude.”
Hogan never won that
fifth Open, while Fleck, 33
at the time, struggled in
the glare of success once the immediate glow of his unex-
pected victory dissipated. The joy of getting to meet President
Dwight D. Eisenhower the day after his historic surprise
turned into tension later when Fleck, inherently shy, had to do
things he wasn’t used to doing such as banquet speeches.
Because Fleck failed, in the eyes of many, to validate his vic-
tory over Hogan with more success—on the PGA Tour, he only
won two events in the early 1960s—detractors characterized
what happened in 1955 as grand theft golf in ways that ama-
teur Francis Ouimet never encountered after beating British
greats Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in the 1913 U.S. Open.
In fact, had Fleck, whose ball-striking could be sublime,
been a better week-to-week putter, he would have achieved
more after his Open triumph. Had he not been shaky on the
greens late in the final round of the 1960 U.S. Open, he might
well have had a second national title.
I visited Fleck in 1995 as the 40th anniversary of his Open
victory approached. He owned a course called Lil’ Bit A
Heaven in rural Arkansas, where he moved after years of
living in California. Not long before, Fleck, in a temporary
financial pinch, had sold his U.S. Open gold medal for $35,200.
But he retrieved the clubs he used at Olympic from their
hiding place. To touch them was to touch history.
A pro since age 17, Fleck was still hitting the ball well when
he was north of 90. He loved the game, even if it didn’t always
love him back. N
B Y BILL FIELDS VOICES
Remembering Jack Fleck
THE SHY PRO FROM IOWA, WHO DIED RECEN TLY, NEVER TRULY ENJOYED
THE FRUI TS OF HIS STUNNING UPSE T OF BEN HOGAN AT THE 1955 U. S. OPEN