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

Tom Gallery was uneasy. The NBC television sports director approached announcer Lindsey Nelson after Nelson climbed down from the TV platform on the slope behind the 18th green.

“Do you think this fellow Fleck can get that last birdie?” Gallery asked.

“I don’t think so, Tom,” Nelson replied. “There’s too much pressure on him.”

The sportscaster would soon board a plane to New York City to accept an award on The Ed Sullivan Show. The network had declined its option to televise a playoff.

• • •

As he approached the 18th tee, Jack Fleck paused to marvel at the incredible view. He saw as many as ten thousand golf fans, two thick walls of spectators lining the short par 4 from the tee to the green, with six thousand of them jammed on the hillside overlooking the putting surface. The large clubhouse sat atop the slope in the distance, and a few shafts of golden sunlight broke through the clouds above. For a brief moment, Fleck took it all in, and it looked heavenly to him. With the chance to tie Hogan and force an 18-hole playoff — and with the eyes of thousands of spectators fixed on him—Fleck wasn’t nervous. He was keyed up, but he wasn’t scared. It didn’t square with conventional wisdom about pressure situations in major golf championships, especially when faced by an unheralded player.

Herb Graffis noticed an uncommon composure. “I’ve seen Fleck in minor tournaments and on practice tees looking far more concerned than he seemed to be with his dream either just about to come true or turn into a terrible nightmare.”

Meanwhile, Littler left Fleck alone, intent on not being any kind of distraction to the Iowa golfer as the tension escalated. “He didn’t get into the act in any way,” Fleck later said. “He just played.”

The tee shot at 18 was a poke down into a small valley that set up a pitch or short-iron shot up the slope to a small, tilted green protected in front and on both sides by four traps. Stray tee shots found serious trouble, either heavy rough on the left or, to the right, thick trees and trampled rough where the spectators had trod. As was the case throughout the tight Olympic layout, the tee shot set up the hole and was usually an accurate predictor of success or failure. More interested in control than distance on the 337-yard closing hole, Fleck had hit his 3-wood every day and reached for it once again. He teed his ball, waggled the spoon, and let it fly. Countless pairs of eyes strained to follow the flight of the ball as it rose into the sun-streaked sky.

• • •

Sitting alone in the clubhouse, Valerie Hogan waited for her husband. She was ready to start home for Fort Worth. The U.S. Open had strained his body and her nerves to the absolute limit. Moments earlier the building’s public address system had announced a long distance telephone call for Mrs. Ben Hogan. Perhaps it was someone calling to offer congratulations for Ben’s historic victory. She would never know, refusing to take the call. She sat motionless, eyes shut for long stretches, keeping vigil while her husband got dressed in the players’ locker room below.

Hogan slipped on his pants and tasseled leather shoes. He managed a grin as he scanned the locker room. Another messenger burst in. Fleck was in the rough on 18! Everyone turned toward Hogan, who reached into his locker for his silk necktie and began knotting it. A nervous reporter broke the uncomfortable silence, asking if he used his Hogan manufactured clubs in the tournament. “Of course I did!” he snapped. “Are you kidding?”

• • •

Fleck’s tee shot landed on the fairway but trickled into the first cut of rough, a mere 6 inches off the left edge of the fairway. The crowd groaned. What might have seemed to the large gallery like an unfortunate break would instead work to the Iowa pro’s advantage. The hole was cut on the front right of the narrow green, with a large bunker wrapping around the right and front sides of the putting surface. There was little room for error in going directly at the flag, Fleck’s only option since he had to make a birdie. With his ball sitting up nicely in the 2-inch rough, the lie and the angle were ideal for attacking a tight right- hand pin position. The distance—about 125 yards—dictated a club choice of an 8-iron or 9-iron. In fact, neither club was under consideration, for Fleck had a different shot in mind, an easy, towering 7-iron.

“That was my plan,” he later said. “Hit it real high so it comes down dead.”

By “dead,” he meant virtually no spin, the ball dropping straight out of the sky and landing on the green with a soft thud like a small stone. He reasoned that a full 8- or 9-iron shot would create a lot of backspin and be hard to control. The ball could fly the proper distance but spin way back, perhaps off the front of the green that sloped rather severely from back to front. Fleck’s low-spin 7-iron was a shot born from hours of practice with Ted Kroll and others. He would make a big shoulder turn, creating a wide arc and keeping his hands quiet, not flipping them at the ball as one might on a full short-iron shot or wedge. As much as anything, it was a feel shot played with imagination and instinct.

There is scarce film footage of the 1955 U.S. Open. Only a handful of shots would survive through the years, and Fleck’s dramatic approach from the edge of the short rough on the 72nd hole was one of them. “But fate and a cool unheralded professional by the name of Jack Fleck arrive on the scene,” intoned the narrator as the camera showed Fleck from the vantage point of the 18th green. Schroder stood 10 yards away in the fairway as Fleck took his stance. He waggled twice and swung. The backswing was short, the follow-through high and full. The ball climbed high in the air as it flew toward the small target 125 yards up the slope.

• • •

Hogan sat in front of his locker with his head down and arms resting on his knees. He hoped Fleck took a 2 or a 4 at the last. An 18-hole playoff was the last thing he wanted. He lit a cigarette and exchanged forced banter with players as they arrived, waited, and departed. Burke reported that he had driven in the rough all day. Bolt came in and gave Hogan the business, as he was prone to do. Tommy was the rare person who could good naturedly swear at Ben and produce a smile and a chuckle.

“I said, you little SOB,” Bolt recalled a few months before his death in 2008. “We always cussed one another out and were jabbering all over the place.”

On his way out of the locker room, Cary Middlecoff approached the legend with typical deference and extended his right hand, offering congratulations. Fred Hawkins was also there, waiting those interminable final minutes.

Hogan slipped into his sport coat and pulled his clubs from his locker. A head cover fell to the floor, and he jokingly asked if anyone wanted it. A blast of cheers from the direction of the 18th green drowned out the nervous chatter in the locker room. The guy holed out from the rough, reacted the tightly wound Bolt. A reliable update from a courier followed seconds later: Fleck had a 7-foot putt to tie.

• • •

Fleck’s ball cleared the fronting bunker and floated lazily to earth, landing softly between the flagstick and the right-hand edge of the green. He had taken dead aim and struck the ball a shade right of his target— a makeable birdie distance.

“Never have I seen a finer shot under such tremendous mental pressure,” wrote a British correspondent.

Only 7 feet of grainy Poa annua stood between Fleck and a head-to-head duel with his idol. With Schroder leading the way, he walked up the slope between the fronting bunkers and onto the final green. Littler and his caddie followed. Fleck’s demeanor betrayed nothing that indicated the moment had arrived, the biggest opportunity of his professional life, a pressure situation on golf’s foremost stage that few face, much less overcome. His dream and future were riding on a 7-foot putt to tie Ben Hogan, although those thoughts never entered his mind. He simply knew he had a chance to win— if he could sink that putt. More than a half century later, Fleck insisted he felt no added pressure.

“I wasn’t nervous,” he said. “How or why? Ask the Lord.”

In fact, it was a monumental putt for two men: Fleck and the weary champion in the players’ locker room who could do nothing but wait and listen.

Littler putted out for his 78 to clear the way for the Iowa club pro, a disappointing finish to a week that had begun with so much promise. All eyes were on Fleck as he crouched behind the ball off the edge of the green to get a line on his birdie putt. He would not take long. Graffis later reported that Fleck took only twenty-four seconds to line up and stroke the putt. There wasn’t much to see. The slightly downhill putt would break perhaps an inch from right to left. Littler was crouching on the back of the green like a baseball catcher. His caddie was kneeling at the front of the green, the closest person to Fleck as he prepared to putt. Schroder was sitting in a reclined posture at the side of the green as if enjoying an evening picnic. Packing the hillside and slopes that surrounded the green area, the thousands of spectators were deathly still and quiet as Fleck took his stance. Bill Callan, the scorecard runner, was there. Recalling the scene de cades later, the incredible silence of the moment stood out in Callan’s mind. An adventurous few stood motionless on low-hanging limbs of large trees.

Fleck took two practice strokes. Then he placed the Bulls Eye blade in front and behind the ball, glanced twice at the hole, and stroked the putt. It came off the putter dead on line and at a perfect pace. His head was still down as the ball dropped into the left-center portion of the cup.

• • •

Topics of conversation and patience were wearing thin in the locker room. A man asked another question about Hogan’s golf club company. Hogan said his company could make 460 sets of golf clubs in a month’s time. When asked if he scrapped $100,000 worth of clubs, Hogan nodded. He again took a seat in front of his locker. “Nobody stirred,” noted the Chronicle’s Goethals, who was there with Sports Illustrated’s Wind, the Times’s Werden, Stan Wood of the Los Angeles Daily Mirror-News, and several other reporters. The silence didn’t last long. A thunderous roar penetrated the clubhouse walls. “The kid’s sunk it!” exclaimed a reporter. Hogan’s head dropped and he cursed under his breath.

The news soon reached Mrs. Hogan in the club house. It was not a surprise. She had heard the roar and knew what it meant. There was no visible reaction. She remained silent and frozen as she stared out the club house window at the evening sky. It was a crushing blow. Hogan later said he had been watching the scoreboards all day and was sure he had won by at least 2 shots when he finished. He hadn’t accounted for Jack Fleck. No one had.

Playing in the last pairing on the course, Doug Ford was on the 17th hole when he heard an incredible roar up ahead. Someone must have holed out, Ford remarked to playing partner Chick Harbert. No, Harbert replied, somebody must have made a putt to tie.

• • •

The sound that arose when Fleck’s ball fell into the cup was like a small, rumbling earthquake.

“It was just deafening,” recalled Wood, one of the reporters with Hogan in the locker room. “The building practically shook.”

Excitement rippled from the 18th green: Spectators jumped to their feet and cheered wildly, punched the air with their fists, waved their arms, and applauded with abandon. A most unexpected result had elicited pandemonium.

When the ball disappeared into the hole, Fleck slowly raised his arms, his putter extending from his gloved left hand and pointing skyward. He removed his flat cap as he stepped to the hole to retrieve his ball. It was long before the days of fist pumps, leaps, hugs, and other player celebrations. His reaction was subdued and in keeping with the times. If anything, Fleck, managing a slight grin, appeared to be dazed by his accomplishment. Littler strolled up and was the first to offer his hand in congratulations. Schroder hovered nearby to replace the flagstick. Three more groups had yet to finish. An excited, arm-waving official swept in and patted Fleck four times on the left shoulder before ushering him from the green to sign his scorecard.

Hogan’s 70 was the best score of the final round until Fleck walked off the 72nd green. The Iowa club pro had caught the Hawk by shooting a 3-under 67, tying the lowest score of the tournament carded by just two other men, Bolt and Rosburg. Fleck’s rally and victory from a 9-shot deficit still stands as a U.S. Open record.

There would be an 18-hole playoff on Sunday at 2:00 p.m. to decide the winner of the U.S. Open. The 18-hole playoff was the norm for breaking tournament ties on the 1950s PGA Tour. Later on, television coverage dictated shorter sudden-death playoffs, although the U.S. Open still employs an 18-hole playoff, if necessary, to determine its champion.

With grim faces surrounding him, Hogan turned to caddie Tony Zitelli and asked him to unpack his gear. Then he stood up and walked out to join his wife upstairs. “See you fellows tomorrow.” Mr. and Mrs. Hogan left the Olympic Club arm in arm. All were quiet in the locker room, except for Burke, who deemed the ending “the unluckiest thing I’ve ever heard of.” It was 6:23 p.m.

• • •

Ed Furgol, who had just finished with Shelley Mayfield, graciously stepped in to help Fleck navigate the postround bedlam. It was foreign territory for the shy Iowan. Furgol, the surprise winner the year before at Baltusrol, had recent experience with being thrust into the national spotlight. Furgol walked with Fleck to the pressroom and stood by his side while fifty-plus reporters and photographers heaped attention on the man from Davenport.

The press hardly knew him, so they asked all sorts of questions, some of them silly. No, Fleck had never been a farmer, only a golfer. He had served in the navy. He had a wife and four-year-old son at home in Davenport. Some details of his biography would be misreported and become a part of golf lore. One was that he registered for the National Open from a driving range—he would be known as a driving-range pro for years to come—even though both of the municipal courses he oversaw had 18 holes, and Duck Creek didn’t even have a driving range. Excitement about the unknown Iowa pro spawned exaggeration. One example that appeared in the next day’s wire-service report: Fleck had skipped lunch, pulling off golf’s biggest surprise in decades on an empty stomach. (He had soup and a half sandwich between rounds.) Another: Fleck had collected a little more than $2,700 on the circuit in the ’55 season, not enough to cover caddie fees. (Although he wasn’t flush with money, Fleck’s consistent midteen finishes on tour had earned him enough purse money to cover his caddie fees and other modest expenses on the road.) The questions kept coming for well over an hour. Fleck thought of Dr. and Mrs. Barton as they waited patiently for him to complete his postround odyssey.

The man of the hour finally broke free of the press corps and entered the locker room to change his shoes. He also made arrangements with Inman to drive his Buick to Portland for the Western Open. Doug Ford and Dow Finsterwald would ride along. Inman would leave on Sunday morning and use Fleck’s car for the next few tournaments. Win or lose, Fleck was going to fly home to Iowa after Sunday’s playoff with Hogan.

By 7:00 p.m., the slope surrounding the 18th green where six thousand astonished fans had cheered wildly forty-five minutes earlier was deserted. The ground was trampled, and the matted grass was strewn with nearly a solid layer of newspapers used to protect the seated masses from dew and grass stains. Many of the animated spectators who streamed out of the gates on Saturday evening would return the next day for the playoff. Elmer Border and his grounds crew would again hustle to clean up the debris and prepare the Lake Course for one more round.

Sarazen had a different kind of mess on his hands. At the Fairmont Hotel that evening, the new TV commentator was inundated with telegrams from Iowans chastising him for prematurely calling Hogan the winner. So had NBC-TV, for that matter. It was golf’s version of DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN, the famous incorrect headline on the front page of the Chicago Tribune the morning after President Harry Truman won reelection in November 1948.

Sarazen didn’t let it bother him much, saying that he was merely twenty-four hours early. Hogan would win on Sunday. It was the prevailing view, according to Sarazen’s roommate that week, PGA promotions director Fred Corcoran. The steel-willed four-time champion was the clear-cut favorite. How could anyone imagine a different result?

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