July 7, 2007

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.

Jack Fleck, photographed March 22, 2005, at Hardscrabble Country Club in Fort Smith, Arkansas (and with Ben Hogan after winning the 1955 U.S. Open).

Jack Fleck, photographed March 22, 2005, at Hardscrabble Country Club in Fort Smith, Arkansas (and with Ben Hogan after winning the 1955 U.S. Open).

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."

After a bogey at the 14th, I knew I needed to birdie two of the last four holes. Much of the gallery didn't follow me to the 15th hole. I thought to myself, They think I'm all through. Even after I'd birdied No. 15, NBC, which devoted only one hour to live coverage on Saturday, announced that Ben Hogan was the winner and signed off. After I made a very good par at the 17th, I hit my Ben Hogan 3-wood off the tee at No. 18. I had only a 7-iron left from the fringe rough, and after hitting that to six or seven feet I took very little time over the putt. I had that good feeling in my hands and put it in the middle of the hole for the tie.

My friend Bob Hamilton, who won the PGA Championship, told me some time later about an incident the night before the playoff. He was in Indiana playing poker at 1 a.m. when he got a phone call from Dan Topping, the owner of the New York Yankees, and a guy named Mike McLaney. They explained they had an opportunity to make a bet on me at huge odds and asked Bob if he knew me. Bob said he did, at which point McLaney said, "Hogan is the ice man and doesn't talk." Bob replied, "I'm not telling you how to bet, but I will say this: Hogan will talk more than Fleck." I guess that was good enough for them, because after the playoff, word got around that they won $89,000 betting on me. Word also came from Dutch Harrison, the pro at Old Warson in St. Louis, that some of his members had lost a lot of money betting on Hogan. These stories had a strong ring of truth, because when I met Dan Topping in New York, he said a lot of the money he put up had been laid off in St. Louis.

There has long been a rumor that after I blasted from a bunker on the third hole of the playoff, I apologized to Ben for slowing us up. He supposedly replied, "That's OK, Jack, we're in no hurry." The story was that his comment put me at ease and that he later regretted saying it. But the story just isn't true. I wasn't in a bunker there, I made no bogeys on the front nine and in fact never trailed at any time in the playoff. I won the playoff by shooting 69 on a brutal golf course, making only one putt of any length. But it has always been thought of as the U.S. Open that Ben Hogan lost, not the one Jack Fleck won. I never felt I was given credit for how well I played.

A man I knew, a club professional named Harry Gonda, once claimed that, given a proper chance, he could make a hole-in-one. There were doubters, and a bet was arranged. They took Harry to an ordinary par 3 and told him he could hit all the balls he wanted, so long as he stayed there and didn't quit. Harry hit balls all day long, stopping only for sandwiches and refreshments. When night fell, they strung lights so he could see. On he went, into daylight the next day. He hit thousands of balls and hit the flagstick numerous times and left several balls within inches of the hole. But he never did make the ace, and after 24 hours he gave up, totally fatigued.

In 1957 the Dunlop and Nadco sporting-goods companies staged a national hole-in-one contest. If you made an ace and registered, you were entered. At the end of the year, there were 390 entries. The name of each entrant was written on a ball, and five local pros were hired to try to make a hole-in-one themselves. The first player to make an ace won a new Cadillac for the person whose name was on the ball. The local pros hit 390 balls and got only 36 within a 20-foot circle around the hole. I was affiliated with Dunlop and Nadco, and they had me hit the 36 balls again. On my 18th try I made an ace. I always wondered who the lucky stiff was. Years later, during a taping at a seniors tournament in Los Angeles, I was interviewed by Mike Douglas, the TV talk-show host. When the cameras rolled, Mike said he always wanted to thank me for winning him a new Cadillac in a hole-in-one contest. Imagine that, Mike Douglas!

Be a good guy, not a nice guy. Nice guys are pleasant outwardly, but they're looking for how situations can benefit them. Good guys give of themselves, no questions asked.

There's only one way to get good at this game, and that's to play more than you practice.

Avoid talking about the golf swing. When you discover something that works, keep it to yourself. Discussing swing mechanics is very bad for your game. It introduces too many ideas and diminishes the power of the things that really work. The people who play golf best are the ones who discuss swing theory the least.

The Great Depression started for the Flecks not in 1929, but in 1926. We lost the farm in a land crash, and we moved onto 21&Mac218;2 acres on the outskirts of Bettendorf, Iowa. I had my first jobs when I was in kindergarten—picking apples, topping onions and catching cabbage butterflies. Every penny went to the family. The stories of kids wearing pants with patches over patches, putting cardboard in their shoes and so on, are true.

Rather than wait to be drafted during World War II, I looked into joining. I'd taken three years of ROTC training in high school, mainly because we got a uniform and that spared me having to worry about clothes to wear. I thought that would give me an advantage, and when the recruiting officer told me I would sign on as a "Petty Officer, Specialist Golf," I thought I had it made. It was a ruse, of course. Sam Snead and Paul Runyan were already assigned to the naval golf course in San Diego. I wound up like most guys, on a ship.

It's hard to believe, but somehow I got through the Navy without learning how to swim. Believe me, I tried. I could muddle through the shallow end OK, but at the end of the 16-week training period, we had to go through the deep end. I almost drowned; they barely saved me. They finally gave up. The instructor told me, "If things get rough, put on a ëMae West' [a life jacket] and you'll survive."

On D-Day, I was on a rocket ship off Utah Beach. Our job was to fire 1,140 five-inch rockets over the first waves of fellows going ashore. As some guys fired the rockets, others machine-gunned the waters around the ship, trying to blow up mines. The sea was red with blood. It was something our current generation of golfers hasn't had to go through, which is good. On the other hand, it did give us a perspective on the world that maybe they don't have.

In the fall and winter of 1946, I was determined to play the PGA winter tour. I arranged to travel out West with another pro, Bill McPartland. We removed the back seat of his car, installed a mattress and stretched into the trunk, and lit out. We just about froze to death the first night, and after that we decided we needed a place indoors. Finding lodging was always a challenge out West because there were no motels. The city of Tucson, for example, had just one hotel, and it was crowded. We ended up spending the week there with 23 other pros on the balcony of the Pioneer Hotel, all of us sleeping on Army cots. We weren't playing for much, so we were glad to have those cots. Me especially, because I wasn't finishing in the money very often.

The scramble format is terrible for your game. Playing from the preferred lie robs you of your ability to manage yourself around the golf course. You lose the knack for playing from poor lies, how to lay up, play back to the fairway and a hundred other things you need to score. And they take forever to play.

Statistics are fine for the fans, but if you're a player, it's better not to keep track. How many fairways you hit, the number of putts you took, greens in regulation—the hard numbers plant very negative ideas about your game because they call more attention to your shortcomings than is necessary. If you're driving the ball poorly, you don't need statistics to know it.

The condition of a course is everything to golfers these days. No matter how bad a golf course is, if it's well-manicured, most players will rave about it. And if a good course is in poor shape, they'll let you know about it.

Sam Snead was the best I ever saw. He was a genius. I saw him give an exhibition in Seattle one time when he hit nothing but a 1-iron and hit every shot in the book, on call. High, low, slight draws and fades, deliberate snap-hooks and screaming slices that delighted the audience. It's impossible to explain how I won a U.S. Open and he did not.

Many nice things followed winning the '55 Open. I got to meet President Eisenhower. I appeared on "The Today Show." The best thing, I think, was the welcome home I received at the airport in Davenport. There were many speeches. When it was my turn to talk, I held my son, Craig, and thanked God, my family and the people for being so nice to me. When I came down off the platform, my father looked at me and said, "I thought you forgot about me." When I said, "I love you" and gave him a hug, his eyes filled with tears.

At the 1967 U.S. Open at Baltusrol, I was on the putting green when I heard a voice behind me call out, "Hi, Jack!" I turned around, and it was Ben. I walked over and we chatted for a bit, and when I went to resume my putting I noticed several other pros were staring. I must have looked surprised, because Ted Kroll came over and explained why they were taken aback. "That's the only time Ben Hogan has addressed anyone's back," he said.

Many years later, I decided to phone Ben, and he was nice. His voice sounded good. As we talked, I mentioned the clubs that he made for me and how much I appreciated what they did for me at Olympic. There was a pause, and then he replied, "Is that a good course?" He didn't remember the 1955 U.S. Open. He didn't remember making the clubs for me. Not long after, my friend Ben Hogan passed away.

One day a golf course I built in Arkansas flooded, and there was a terrific amount of damage. To pay for repairs and avoid owing any money, I auctioned off my U.S. Open gold medal. I was nowhere near destitute, as was reported. I had a home, two cars and money in the bank. I really don't regret doing that, because I don't need trophies to remind me of what I did. I have the Ben Hogan clubs I used, which are much more symbolic. Material things just aren't that important to me. Money isn't everything. They won't let you into heaven with it, and if you go to hell it'll burn up anyway.

Where did life lead me? I'm 83 and can run around the golf course. My health is wonderful, and Lord willing, I'll live for many more years. I made an awful lot of mistakes, but I have very few regrets. I did win the U.S. Open, which is a lifetime achievement for people who play this game. All in all, it's been a good, interesting life.