Jack Fleck on the importance of yoga, bombing the Nazis and beating Hogan in '55

Jack Fleck on the importance of yoga, bombing the Nazis and beating Hogan in ’55

WINNING SMILE: Nearly six decades after outdueling Hogan at the ’55 U.S. Open, Fleck is still happily immersed in the game.
Scogin Mayo

My secret to good health has been hatha yoga. I stretch and exercise. I eat well. A big thing is my mind. The mind controls the body.

We grew up poor on the "east coast" of Iowa, right on the Mississippi. The Depression was rough on my mother and father. They lost their little farm. We all pitched in. We picked apples, shoveled snow, cleaned houses, caught cabbage butterflies, worked in an onion valley. We did it for 5, 10, 15 cents at a time to bring home to Mother. It taught me not to fear work. You have to work to get along. Today, people feel the world owes them a living. I never thought the world owed me a thing.

I was 16 and playing in a caddie tournament. I was 4 down. Got back to even through 11. In the 12th fairway, I start thinking about things. I take a wood, hit behind the ball and hit it five yards! I said, "Jack, that's the last time you're ever gonna be afraid on a golf course."

I served in the Navy in World War II. On D-Day, I was on a British landing craft off of Utah Beach. We fired 1,150 rockets over the heads of our boys to hit the Germans. How do you get through that kind of fear? You do your duty. You do what you have to. We shot our rockets and got the heck out. We had guys with machine guns shooting at anything in the water, like mines, that might blow us up. There was a sea of blood. The British said, "It was a bloody affair out there."

War gives perspective. Maybe it made me a better golfer, because I never really got scared or nervous on the course. Why didn't I win more? I was never a great putter.

I called myself a psychological golf specialist long before there were mental teachers. I never felt much pressure. There's nothing wrong with golf lessons to help your swing, but once you have it, you learn by doing, not taking more lessons. When we were babies crawling around on the floor, we got up on our haunches and started walking. We fall. We get up. We fall. We get up. Did we take walking lessons? No! Golf is the same way. It's instinct and trial and error.

At the 1955 U.S. Open, it was Saturday morning, before the [36-hole] final day. I was tied for third. I was shaving when it happened. I heard a voice. Now, I don't mean a voice in my head that seemed real. I mean an actual voice. It was audible. It came from the mirror. It said twice: "Jack, you're gonna win the Open." I got goose pimples. Electricity went through my body. I looked around. I was alone.

I don't know what it was. Just that I heard it, clear as a bell. I never heard that voice again. Not once. And I've had two wives who died.

In the last round, I had to birdie two of the last four holes to get into an 18-hole playoff. [Hogan had the clubhouse lead]. NBC said Hogan was the winner and signed off! Everybody assumed he had his fifth Open. I birdied 15. Parred 16 and 17. Birdied 18. This Iowa country boy was in a playoff with Ben Hogan.

I later read that in the clubhouse Hogan's legs were killing him. I made my birdie 3. He wasn't happy. He wanted me to make a 2 or a 4. He wanted it over.

There wasn't much talking in the playoff, besides "You're away." But in the locker room beforehand, we were putting on our shoes. I walked over to him. I told him I had prayed for him when he had his car accident. Then I said, "I want to wish you well today, so no matter what the outcome is, you'll know what I mean." That statement just came out: You'll know what I mean. I've analyzed it. I'm still not sure why I said it. We shook hands. Like in the war, I felt nerves, but you do what you have to do.

How did I win? I worked hard, day in and day out, for years. I shot 69, Hogan shot 72. There was something about my nervous system that day. A spectator said, "He's more Hogan than Hogan is." I'd be lying if I said I knew exactly how I beat Hogan. We just played. And I won.

Over the years, guys said to me, "Hogan must hate your guts for depriving him of his fifth U.S. Open." But he was always nice to me. At the U.S. Open at Baltusrol [in 1967] I was talking to some pros when we hear from behind, "Hi, Jack!" It's Ben Hogan. A guy I was with said, "I've never seen Ben Hogan address anybody else's back."

Years later, we had a course in Iowa that flooded. I don't like debt, so I sold my U.S. Open gold medal for $35,000. No, I don't regret it. I don't need medals to remind me what I accomplished.

I can't imagine winning a million and a half dollars like they do today. Would I get a private jet, like today's players? I don't think so.

Okay, if I won a million, I guess I'd fly first class. I'm a U.S. Open champion, after all.

Golf is the greatest foundation. It teaches you hard work, resilience. If you have kids, get them into golf. When your child beats you for the first time, it's the greatest day of your life.

I became the man who beat Hogan. I became a villain. Because of that, people rooted against me. But I'm glad I did it. It's better to be somebody, even if it's only once in your life.