My Shot: Jack Fleck
Why was Ben Hogan forever drawn to the man who denied him a record fifth U.S. Open? Fifty years later, it's a question Jack Fleck is still trying to figure out.
Editor's Note: Jack Fleck died on March 21, 2014 at age 92.
Age 83 • 1955 U.S. Open champion • Fort Smith, Arkansas
I knew Ben Hogan in the years previous to the '55 Open, but he didn't know me. He was my secret idol. In 1947 I stayed in the background and watched him in practice rounds. He would hit a couple of shots into each green and then look to each side of the fairway, memorizing the clubs he hit and the location of trees, bunkers and whatnot. I copied him and actually did him one better: I began pacing off yardage, which nobody else had done to that point. I knew exactly how far I could hit each club. Several years later, an amateur, Gene Andrews, was recognized as inventing the idea because he passed it along to Jack Nicklaus and Deane Beman. But I was the first. I was just too unknown to be given credit for it.
I had failed to qualify for the Los Angeles and Phoenix Opens in 1949 and chose to bypass Tucson. I headed to San Antonio, and about 100 miles out of El Paso, two motorcycles and an ambulance sped past me coming in the other direction. I turned south and stopped for the night in Langtry, Tex. The next morning, over breakfast and a newspaper, I read what had happened: Ben and his wife, Valerie, had run head-on into a bus in a fog east of the town of Van Horn.
At St. Petersburg in the spring of 1955, I heard there was a box of new irons in Skip Alexander's pro shop. They were made by the Ben Hogan Golf Company, which was brand new. Skip let me open the box, and after looking at the irons I asked some other pros if they thought Ben Hogan would make me a set of clubs if I asked, and they said don't bother; Mr. Hogan would never approve it. I wrote anyway, and the general manager wrote back telling me that Ben said to send in my specs. I also received word that I was one of two "likely prospective pros"—Dow Finsterwald was the other player—who were invited to play at Colonial, which was Ben's tournament. Why he chose me, I had no idea. I still don't know why.
When I got to Colonial I went to Ben's office and factory on Pafford Street to see how my clubs were coming along, and after his secretary announced me, here came Ben with a very hearty greeting and an invitation to go to his plant. When I got out to Colonial, word spread that I had observed the manufacturing area. Lloyd Mangrum, Jimmy Demaret, Jackie Burke, Cary Middlecoff and others were shocked by that. They all said they had never gotten past the front office. Why did he like me? I'll never figure it out, unless it was that I had grown up poor and worked hard like he had.
Just before setting out on the drive to San Francisco for the U.S. Open, I packed my Motorola record player and Mario Lanza records. Nothing was more soothing to me than hearing him sing "I'll Walk With God." At the end of each day at Olympic, I would return to my hotel room alone, do my hatha yoga and listen to Mario Lanza. His singing put me in a wonderful frame of mind.
Immediately upon arriving at Olympic the Saturday before championship week, I was assigned a caddie. I took one look at him and thought, Oh, no. He was an older man who didn't appear capable of handling my 44-hole practice rounds—the eighth hole at Olympic goes up to the clubhouse. I felt I had to handle the situation right away. I told him if he was late, or if I detected any presence of alcohol, he was finished. He not only was on time every day and sober, he did a wonderful job.
Hogan had arrived before me. When I got there he hand-delivered to me two wedges he had made up in addition to the irons and woods he'd already given me. It was just unbelievable, the kindness he continued to show me. In a sense it's a shame that I used those very clubs to defeat him.
On Saturday morning before the final rounds, while I was shaving and listening to Mario Lanza singing "I'll Walk With God," a voice came out of the mirror and said very audibly, "Jack, you are going to win the Open." I was startled and looked around the room. While I was looking away, the voice came out of the mirror again: "Jack, you are going to win the Open!" I got goose bumps, and it was as if electricity was going through my body. It was all I could do to calm down and do my stretching and breathing exercises.
They say too much sugar is bad for you, but at the time I didn't believe it. All five rounds at Olympic, my good friend Dr. Paul Barton fed me cubes of sugar. He would give me a handful of them every four or five holes with the directive that I eat three cubes per hole. I did, and it seemed to get the adrenaline flowing. I never came close to getting tired.
This was when the U.S. Open concluded with 36 holes on Saturday. Coming off the 13th green of the final round, the roving marshal told me where I stood. Hogan had finished and stood at 287. The marshal was sort of excited and told me in a voice loud enough for my playing partner, Gene Littler, to overhear, "All you need to do is make one more birdie to tie Hogan." I'm told Gene had an interesting response: "He also has to make a few pars."