THE LONGEST SHOT: Jack Fleck, Ben Hogan, and Pro Golf’s Greatest Upset at the 1955 U.S. Open (published May 22 by St. Martin’s Press) is the inspirational story about how a virtual unknown player beat his idol in one of golf’s greatest championships.
A reader of my Armchair Golf Blog who shared my interest in golf history and was a big Ben Hogan fan passed along the tip. You might want to talk to Jack Fleck, he said in an email. That sounded fun to me, so I called Jack one day in the spring of 2007. That first phone conversation led to many more. Not long after I drove to Savannah, Georgia, to meet Jack while he was playing in the Legends of Golf. He was 85 at the time and could drive the golf ball 260 yards. He was flexible. His swing was fluid. I was amazed.
How did the book come about?
I wasn’t planning it, I can tell you that. But the more I dug into Jack’s story and the ’55 U.S. Open, the more fascinated I became. I had known about the upset for years, seeing it written up from time to time in newspapers and magazines. I realised from my early research that this wasn’t just one of golf’s greatest upsets; it was one of the biggest upsets in all of sports. I was surprised there was no book. So, knowing it would not be easy, I decided to give it a try.
What drew you to the story? Were there any big surprises?
Through the years as I’d hear about it, I always wondered how Fleck did it. That is, how did an unheralded club pro from Iowa beat a legend, a four-time U.S. Open champion? It was kind of unfathomable. My research and now my book reveals how it happened, including who Fleck was and what his aspirations were in the spring of 1955. It also tells about Hogan, of course, but a lot of people already know a little or a lot about him. And yes, there are plenty of surprises, but I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. The biggest, obviously, is that the unproven Fleck managed to beat the great Hogan in an 18-hole playoff for the U.S. Open title when nobody thought Fleck had a prayer.
What makes this pro golf's greatest upset?
Fleck was called “Jack the Giant Killer” in Sports Illustrated after he beat Hogan. It was front-page news around the country. Sportswriters at the time hailed it as the greatest upset since amateur Francis Ouimet beat Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in a playoff to win the 1913 U.S. Open. And, in my opinion, nothing since 1955 has eclipsed it.
What was tour golf like in the 1950s?
A whole lot different than today. It was competitive like it is today, but there wasn’t any money to speak of. Tournament purses ranged from about $10,000 to $30,000. (Jack Fleck received $6,000 for winning the 1955 U.S. Open.) The golf courses were not lush and perfectly groomed. Grass could be scarce and the greens all different. There were no yardage markers. They played by sight and intuition. Travel was so much harder, all by car. Players stuck together to save on expenses and make it from town to town. Jack’s wife once said that he spent $8 for every dollar he earned on the circuit. It was tough out there.
Did you have any interesting experiences while writing this book?
Yes! I got to talk to and hang out with golf legends—Tommy Bolt, Arnold Palmer, Billy Casper, Doug Ford, Errie Ball and many others. As I developed a relationship with Jack, I attended Champions Tour events where Jack and other old-timers played. I caddied, entered locker rooms, ate in player dining rooms and otherwise kept company with players as they swapped stories and talked about the old days on the PGA Tour.
Does Jack Fleck still play golf?
He does. He’s 90, and still plays almost every day. He hits practice balls. Then he goes out in a cart and plays 9 holes. A few weeks before the U.S. Open, he got a new set of irons. The first day he used them he made a hole-in-one at his home club in Fort Smith, Arkansas. I’m pretty certain Jack will never stop playing unless he’s physically unable to. He’s been a golf pro for 73 years.
With the overlooked Iowa club pro Jack Fleck still playing the course, NBC-TV proclaimed that the legendary Ben Hogan had won his record fifth U.S. Open and signed off from San Francisco. Undaunted, the Iowan rallied to overcome a nine-shot deficit over the last three rounds—still a U.S. Open record—and made a pressure-packed birdie putt to tie Hogan on the final hole of regulation play. The two men then squared off in a tense 18-hole playoff from which Fleck emerged victorious in one of the most startling upsets in sports history.
New York Times Review of THE LONGEST SHOT
Exclusive Excerpt at Golf.com/Sports Illustrated
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