Much has changed in the game of golf since journeyman and virtual-unknown Jack Fleck’s once-in-a-lifetime playoff victory over Ben Hogan in the 1955 U.S. Open. Gone the way of the 3-wood “spoons” are the two-a-day 18-hole rounds, Saturday finales, and the lone hour that NBC allotted for TV broadcast of the Open’s final round.
Indeed, as NBC wrapped up its abbreviated coverage on that Saturday, the network pronounced Ben Hogan the winner of his record fifth Open title. Except that Fleck was still playing, and when the Iowan rolled in a clutch birdie putt on the 18th hole at The Olympic Club -- site of this week’s national championship -- he forced Hogan into an 18-hole playoff the hobbling legend was sure would never happen.
The rest, as they say, is history, which Neil Sagebiel, author of a new book about one of golf’s most stunning outcomes, believes is unlikely to be repeated.
“I suppose anything is possible,” Sagebiel told SB Nation Wednesday by phone from San Francisco, where his book, “The Longest Shot: Jack Fleck, Ben Hogan, and Pro Golf’s Greatest Upset at the 1955 U.S. Open,” as well as its 91-year-old protagonist (the second-oldest living major champion, who made the media rounds earlier this week), received a great deal of favorable attention.
“But the fact that we haven’t seen anything of this magnitude happen in 57 years makes it seem pretty unlikely.”
Perhaps not as unlikely as what Fleck, a 33-year-old loner and former caddie, accomplished when he defeated his idol by three strokes in that Sunday’s playoff. In his first book, Sagebiel, the founder and editor of Armchair Golf Blog, stirringly recounts each stroke of Fleck’s suspenseful and remarkable playoff triumph over one of golf’s greatest champions.
Sagebiel weaves a moving tale of a socially awkward and religious Fleck, who employed clubs designed by Hogan to keep his hero from notching what would have been an historic victory. The author skillfully paints a picture of Fleck’s rise to instant renown and inevitable slide from the pinnacle as the pressures of newfound fame and riches took their toll.
No story about Fleck’s win and Hogan’s defeat would be complete without mention of the nine-time major champion’s near-fatal car crash and his remarkable recovery, and Sagebiel does the tragic occurrence justice. But the best drama occurs on the golf course as Fleck -- who later confided that a voice told him, “Jack, you are going to win the Open" -- produced what golf watchers of the time considered an impossible feat.
While golf’s rich history provides no perfect comparison to Fleck’s deed, Sagebiel noted that current major champions, Rory McIlroy and Bubba Watson, have struggled with issues similar to those that beset the 1955 Open winner. In the year since he conquered the field and the course at Congressional Country Club, McIlroy has labored to balance his on- and off-course lives, while the demons that dog Watson seemed to have intensified since his win at Augusta in April.
“It seems like [letdowns] happen a lot to major champions,” Sagebiel said. “On one hand, it’s the greatest achievement of their lives and they want to take advantage of that, and for good reason. But it also disrupts their lives to the point where it can affect their golf, routine, and play.”
Defeating Hogan certainly had that impact on Fleck.
“After beating someone like Hogan, [Fleck] couldn’t fulfill people’s expectations, no matter what he could have done,” Sagebiel said. “He was not the next Hogan, or [40-time tour winner] Cary Middlecoff.
“Fleck was a good tournament player,” Sagebiel averred, “but he wasn’t going to win lots of majors.”
“The Longest Shot,” from Thomas Dunne Books, is available at Amazon.com.