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EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT: Fleck, Hogan, and Golf's Greatest Upset at the '55 U.S. Open

The Longest Shot book cover
Thomas Dunne Books / St. Martin’s Press
Neil Sagebiel's new book, The Longest Shot

At the 1955 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club, Ben Hogan was poised to win the tournament for a record fifth time. Jack Fleck, a little-known municipal-course pro from Davenport, Iowa, spoiled the coronation with a dramatic Saturday finish to tie Hogan and a  69 in the Sunday playoff to Hogan's 72. (In those days, the pros played 18 holes on Thursday and Friday and 36 on Saturday.) Neil Sagebiel tells the dramatic story of that Open in his new book, The Longest Shot (buy it now), which is excerpted here.

The Hawk sent his tee shot on the last hole far down the right side of the fairway, leaving himself no more than a pitch up the slope to the 18th green. As a photographer and five others crouched a short distance behind him, Hogan struck his approach shot with a three-quarters swing and short follow-through. The ball cleared the fronting bunker and landed softly to the left of the front-right pin position, drawing back a shade and stopping 15 feet from the cup. It was a safe and well-judged play, exactly what one would expect from a four-time national champion. With an uphill putt that broke slightly from left to right, birdie was a possibility and par was a virtual lock. Hogan took his putting stance. Then, as was his putting ritual and a common routine of the era, he placed his blade directly in front of the ball for a brief moment before returning the putter head to its original position behind the ball. The putt rolled straight for the hole before losing steam and trailing off to the right. There was one last flash from the fierce competitor as he mock-swung his putter in frustration as if to say, “Get it there, Ben!” From about the same spot where his rival Snead had stroked his final putt a half hour earlier, Hogan tapped in for his par and a final-round 70, the first time he matched par on the Lake Course. Of those who had finished, it was the lowest score of the afternoon. He had saved his best for last and was all but assured of winning the title.

Roars, cheers, and applause engulfed Hogan as he removed his white linen cap and strode to the side of the green. He nodded his head in acknowledgment of the gallery’s appreciative outburst. After handing his putter to Zitelli, Ben raised his arms to quiet the boisterous crowd while Bob Harris putted out for his 77. A nearby official also waved his arms to restore a semblance of order to the triumphant scene. Harris finished, and a second wave of cheers cascaded down from the crowded slopes.

“He walked off of the 72nd green,” Herbert Warren Wind wrote in Sports Illustrated, “the apparent victor to one of the greatest and most honestly earned acclamations in the history of a game which will go a long time indeed before it knows another champion of his stature.”

It was a few minutes after 5:00 p.m. NBC had just come on the air for its hour-long live telecast from San Francisco. Millions who had tuned in on their black-and-white television sets saw commentator Gene Sarazen intercept Ben Hogan before he exited the stage.

After congratulating him on winning a record fifth U.S. Open, Sarazen asked, “Ben, would you do everybody a favor and put up five fingers?”

Hogan complied before fully comprehending the request.

“It’s not over yet, Gene,” he said, even though Sarazen and thousands surrounding the finishing hole disagreed.

Hogan then handed his golf ball to USGA executive director Joe Dey, a historic souvenir for the game’s national museum at USGA headquarters.

“This is for Golf House,” Hogan said before disappearing into a sea of people and lumbering up the steep slope to the three-story clubhouse adorned with half-circle strips of red, white, and blue bunting.

• • •

“It’s final,” Tompkins said as Fleck came off the 13th green. “Hogan 287.”

The marshal also reported that Snead had finished at 292, 5 shots back. He was excited about Fleck’s prospects, telling the Iowan all he needed to do was make one more birdie to tie Hogan.

Fleck’s silent playing partner could not resist a comment. “He’ll need a few pars, too,” Littler offered.

With Hogan finished and Fleck 1 off the lead with 5 holes to play, word raced throughout the grounds that there was one man on the course who had a chance to deny the Texan his fifth U.S. Open. Fleck? The name did not register with many of the assembled masses. While Hogan talked to reporters and sipped a Scotch and water in the locker room, curious golf fans streamed onto Olympic’s back 9 to get a look at the Iowa club pro. Watch him fold like the Sunday newspaper was more like it. No one, it seemed, thought Fleck could catch Hogan, especially on Olympic’s take-no-prisoners finishing stretch. Many accomplished players had failed under similar circumstances. It was the norm when the U.S. Open was on the line. The Chronicle’s Goethals went so far as to list odds, giving Fleck no better than an 8,000 to 1 chance of tying Hogan and forcing a playoff.

Reaching the 14th tee, Fleck decided he would not play for second, not after coming so far.

“I played boldly,” he later told reporters. “There was no other way.”

On the same hole where Hogan launched his decisive 4-wood shot from the rough to secure a crucial par, Fleck, adrenaline pumping through his system, smashed one of his longest drives of the day. He bombed it so far that he could not bring himself to hit a 7-iron, even though he was within range. He instead swung a 6-iron and pulled the shot, his tendency when he eased off a club. The ball landed in the thick collar and hopped into the left-hand bunker. He blasted out nicely but missed the 8-foot par putt, tapping in for bogey. He was now 2 strokes behind with 4 holes to play and noticed that many in the gallery were motionless as he walked off the 14th green. Picking up fifty or so spectators per hole since the 10th, the crowd following Fleck’s twosome had grown to about four hundred. Now they stood their ground, not rushing into position to watch him play the 15th.

“I thought to myself, ‘They think I’m through,’ ” he recalled.

It was a reasonable conclusion. Fleck needed two birdies and two pars on a finishing stretch that had punished every player in the field. There was no evidence or precedent to suggest that he could exploit Olympic’s final gauntlet when so many others had failed to escape with pars.

• • •

Up at the clubhouse, reporters congregated in the men’s locker room as Hogan waited for the championship to conclude. The Hawk took the scribes through a club-by-club recap of his afternoon round. The National Open crown appeared to be a mere formality, but he wasn’t one to take such things for granted. He refused to enter the pressroom until it was official.

“What’s this guy Fleck doing?” he asked.

Hogan was informed that the Iowa pro needed two birdies on the last four holes to tie—and, as Littler was inclined to say, a couple of pars, too.

An early finisher, Rosburg was sitting in the club house having a beer with friends. He was set to leave when Hogan finished but changed his mind since Fleck had a chance. At the time, Fleck was a mystery man to Rossie. “I had met him, but I didn’t really know him,” he said.

Arnold Palmer knew Fleck, having played with him several times prior to the Open. “All of us gave him credit for being a really good player,” Palmer later said. Like other players, though, he hadn’t seen enough of Fleck to consider him a serious Open contender.

The pin was set on the back of the 15th green, so Fleck selected a 6-iron instead of the usual 7-iron for his tee shot on the par 3. He needed the extra distance to maneuver his ball to the rear portion of the green and have a go at what would be his fifth birdie of the round. The putting surface was flanked on three sides by bunkers. Missing long would put him in a bunker. This time his 6-iron shot, a full swing rather than the easy one he attempted at 14, was on the mark. His ball touched down on the narrow green and skidded to a stop 8 feet from the flag. With the long 16th and 17th ahead—where the field would only manage 36 birdies in four rounds—it was, for all practical purposes, a must-make situation. He sank it. The gallery erupted. Now hundreds of spectators were running ahead to find a spot behind the ropes as Fleck walked to the 16th tee. He was 1 shot behind with 3 holes to play.

• • •

Seated on the bench in front of his locker, a spent Hogan told those within earshot that he was all but through with tournament golf. The preparation was too hard on the fierce old competitor. “This one doggone near killed me.” Asked about his leg, he said only his left knee bothered him. At the end of the row of lockers, an attendant shouted an update: Jack Fleck is on 16 and needs one birdie to tie.

“Good for him,” Hogan replied with a thin smile.

• • •

The back 9’s only par 5, the 16th was unreachable in 2 shots. A sweeping curve to the left, Olympic’s beast of a par 5 had surrendered few birdies and was no cinch par. With adrenaline and the doc’s sugar cubes flowing through his bloodstream, Fleck swung his Tommy Armour driver with added force. His rocketing golf ball flew slightly left and appeared as if it might catch the thick rough at the corner of the dogleg. “Oh, no,” he cried, but the ball remained airborne until it reached the distant fairway.

He then ripped a solid 3-wood up the fairway, leaving himself a short iron shot to the green. Fleck was astonished by how far he had struck his two woods, making it difficult to comprehend his remaining yardage. He settled on a 9-iron and arched his third shot high and left of the flag, landing on the collar of the green 25 feet from the hole. That was fortunate—he could putt the ball from the apron. Had his golf ball hopped into the wiry rough edging the green, he would have needed to finesse a chip shot from the long grass and sink a par-saving putt. As the gallery held its collective breath, Fleck nearly holed the 25-foot birdie putt and tapped in for his par. He was still 1 behind.

The Hawk scowled when a reporter asked on which hole he won the championship. It wasn’t quite over. “You don’t win tournaments on just one hole,” Hogan said. “There’s 72 holes.”

Fleck arrived at the 71st hole, the hardest one of the bunch. After a par in the first round, he had made two bogeys on the 17th. Now he needed at least a par. He also needed a birdie, but that seemed too much to ask on a stingy par 4 that would give up only five birdies for the entire championship. In addition to its upward slant, the 17th fairway tilted from left to right in the landing area. Guarded right and left by bunkers, the green was large by Lake Course standards. The air was cool, and a course that had never dried out on the overcast day was getting damper in the late afternoon. It made the 17th play even longer. Fleck cracked another big drive that flew down the left center of the fairway. Although he was in ideal position, he would need to wring every last yard out of his Ben Hogan 3-wood to reach the green in two shots on the converted par 5. He slammed into his Spalding Dot with the spoon and followed the flight of the golf ball as it screamed up the slope toward the green.

Perched on a platform on the hillside behind and to the left of the 17th green, announcer Harry von Zell and U.S. Open champion Lawson Little were calling the action for a national radio audience. The two men watched Fleck’s second shot touch down on the putting surface and roll to a stop 20 feet wide of the hole. Few players had reached the 17th in two swings. About an hour earlier, Hogan had performed the feat for the first time in nine tries. An excited Little blurted that Fleck’s long second shot “was the greatest 3-wood on the 71st hole in an Open championship when it was needed!”

The hole was cut toward the left-center section of the green. Fleck, whose ball was long and right of the flag, had a downhill putt that would break sharply from right to left. It was a speed putt with 3 or 4 feet of break, depending on how hard he hit it. He judged it well. The ball started out far to the right as it worked its way toward the hole. As the putt lost momentum, it took a final dive left toward the cup. Those in the greenside gallery with the best vantage point watched in anticipation, expecting it to drop. The ball hit the hole and rimmed out, a near birdie on a nearly impossible birdie hole. The crowd exhaled a mixture of groans and cheers. Fleck tapped in for his par. To tie Hogan, he would have to birdie the final hole.

• • •

It was 9:00 p.m. in the East—6:00 p.m. at Olympic—and NBC’s allotted hour of TV coverage of the National Open was over. As the network switched to other programming, millions of viewers across the country assumed Ben Hogan was the winner and new record holder, the only man to win five U.S. Opens.

“Actually, they kind of gave the trophy to Hogan before they went off the air,” Rosburg later said.

Hogan handed out souvenirs in the locker room: practice balls, two books of food and drink tickets, and his white flat cap. Another messenger arrived and announced that Fleck parred 17 and needed a birdie at the last to tie. Hogan stood up, removed his trousers, and headed to the shower. Small talk faded into silence.

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