The New York Times Book Review
The Longest Shot: Jack Fleck, Ben Hogan, and Pro Golf's Greatest Upset at the 1955 U.S. Openby Neil Sagebiel
The inspirational story of the unknown golfer from Iowa who beat his idol in the 1955 U.S. Open
With the overlooked 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 forgotten Iowan rallied to overcome a nine-shot deficit over the last three/p>… See more details below
The inspirational story of the unknown golfer from Iowa who beat his idol in the 1955 U.S. Open
With the overlooked 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 forgotten Iowan rallied to overcome a nine-shot deficit over the last three rounds—still a U.S. Open record—and made a pressure-packed 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.
On par with the classic golf narratives of Mark Frost and John Feinstein, The Longest Shot will surprise and delight fans as they trace the improbable journey of an unheralded former caddie who played his way into the record books by out-dueling the sport's greatest champion of his time.
The New York Times Book Review
Fifty-seven years after the fact (and in time for this year's Open at Olympic), two books about one of golf's most improbable upsets have surfaced simultaneously. Like the clash between Hogan and Fleck, the works pit an established, celebrated veteran against a relative upstart. And as in 1955, the upstart wins. But, unlike in 1955, it's not close. The Longest Shot is the first book from Neil Sagebiel, the founder and editor of Armchair Golf Blog, and he makes a strong bid to create shelf space for himself alongside 21st-century golf literati like John Feinstein, Mark Frost and Don Van Natta Jr. Sagebiel takes his time, working leisurely as golf demands, but does a thorough job. And his narrative pace during the last hour of that final round, as he bounces back and forth between Hogan in the locker room and Fleck on the course, may have a rhythm more suited to a tennis rally, but here it aces.
A compelling read…Golf historians can thank Sagebiel.
Long before a small circle of American kids dismantled the Soviets' Big Red Machine at Lake Placid, Jack Fleck's defeat of the mighty Ben Hogan at the 1955 U.S. Open was as stunning and stirring an upset as sports had ever seen. In The Longest Shot, Neil Sagebiel not only expertly reconstructs the million-to-one tale of the Iowa muni pro who denied Hogan his chance to become the only man to win the Open five times, he honors the grand tradition of profound and poetic literature in golf.
The Longest Shot is the remarkable story of how Jack Fleck, the improbably named municipal course pro from Iowa, defeated the great Ben Hogan at the 1955 U.S. Open. Moment by moment, Neil Sagebiel lyrically describes the drama of the David-and-Goliath clash at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. Sagebiel persuades a new generation of readers that Fleck's triumph was not only the most unlikely result at a U.S. Open, but one of the greatest upsets in American sports history. The Longest Shot is destined to become a classic of golf literature.
Iowa golfer topples big-time golf legend. Zach Johnson over Tiger Woods at the 2007 Masters? Sure, that was a huge upset. But how does it compare to another Iowa golfer taking down an icon? Jack Fleck had never won on tour, was playing a few hours behind the immortal Ben Hogan--who had already accepted congratulations for winning the 1955 U.S. Open--and had to birdie the 18th hole just to tie the four-time Open champion. Then it was on to an 18-hole playoff the next day in which the unknown Iowa muni pro knocked off his idol by three strokes. In The Longest Shot, Neil Sagebiel details how this remarkable outcome unfolded.
Lost in the pages of golf history is a remarkable story of an unknown municipal golf professional who won the 1955 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. Author Neil Sagebiel's account of the courage and determination of Jack Fleck, who late on a Saturday afternoon came out of the pack to tie the legendary Ben Hogan, and then go onto defeat him in an 18-hole playoff, is dramatically recounted in The Longest Shot. It is a Cinderella story of a young professional from Iowa who against all odds wins the U.S. Open. It is also the bittersweet account of Ben Hogan's last hurrah.
The Longest Shot is more than the story of the greatest upset in U.S. Open history. It's a book for anyone who's ever risked everything to follow a dream. Golfers owe Sagebiel a thank you for lending a voice to this oft-forgotten tale.
Upsets are the lifeblood of sports, and golf has provided its share--but arguably none so startling as unheralded Jack Fleck's triumph over the legendary Ben Hogan in the 1955 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. In "Dewey Beats Truman" fashion, NBC proclaimed Hogan the winner of his unprecedented fifth U.S. Open while there was still one man on the course, the unknown Iowan Fleck, who had a chance to tie. He did exactly that, with a birdie on the eighteenth hole, and then went on to beat Hogan by three strokes in the next day's playoff. Sagebiel wrings every ounce of drama and poignancy out of this remarkable sporting event, backtracking to tell the story of the lanky, teetotaling, socially insecure Fleck's improbable rise to success and judiciously reprising Hogan's life and career, including the nearfatal car accident and the inspirational comeback that followed it. And, of course, just like in a movie, Fleck idolized Hogan and was the first professional, other than Hogan himself, to use Hogan-designed clubs. But it's the on-course drama that golf fans will relish, Fleck, "whose long, fluid golf swing wrapped around his lean body like a loose belt," besting the man whose steely determination to win that fifth Open made him seem unbeatable. As fellow player Bob Rosburg observed about the outcome, "It defied everything anybody knew about golf." Great storytelling and great golf history.
Neil Sagebiel of Floyd County captures the drama and the ambiance of professional golf in the mid-1950s in a book that will delight golfers but also enhance any reader's understanding of American society in post-World War II America. The story of Iowa club pro Jack Fleck's rise from obscurity to win the U.S. Open is the essence of the American Dream....Sagebiel brings to life the drama of the tournament and the long road to arrive there. He also re-creates a time when golf was just a sport, and the players enjoyed the game without the money and the fame that accompany modern-day athletes. Reading this book is like reading the golf coverage from a major newspaper in the 1950s when a keen ability to describe the players and their venue was the key to having readers.
The author's imaginative narrative…gives a fascinating insight into Hogan's character, avoiding death by inches in a 1951 car crash to become one of the game's great icons.
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Read an Excerpt
In March 1955, after a week at home in Iowa to ready his two Davenport municipal courses for the upcoming golf season, Jack Fleck drove 1,300 miles southeast to rejoin the PGA Tour at the $12,500 St. Petersburg Open, the first event of the annual Florida swing.
For Fleck, sunny St. Petersburg wouldn’t be just another routine stop on the tournament calendar. It would be a turning point, an unexpected detour in the career of a wannabe tour golf professional who was determined to lift his game as high as his hopes. A long cardboard box bound for Fort Worth, Texas, awaited him in Skip Alexander’s pro shop at the Lakewood Country Club. The contents of that box would put his season and golf career on a surprising new path.
Fleck, now thirty-three with a wife and four-year-old son, needed any break he could get to achieve his dream of playing the PGA Tour full-time. Money was scarcer than birdies on the tournament trail, and he had family responsibilities. The pro golf tour was a young man’s game—preferably those with a healthy bankroll. Fleck’s youth was fading, and his twentieth-place finishes didn’t earn him enough money or recognition to escape obscurity.
Fleck arrived on the palm tree–lined streets of St. Petersburg with his tour career riding on every drive, approach, chip, and putt. He needed to become a successful PGA Tour player, someone who could make an adequate living and support his family while playing the full circuit. The unfulfilling alternative was clear: He would return to Iowa for good and settle for the humble life of a hometown pro. The 1950s PGA Tour was unlike today’s giant money grab; there was no financial security for marginal or middle-of-the-pack players, especially family men like Fleck.
Jack and Lynn Fleck had made their decision about his golf future before the 1955 season teed off in Los Angeles in January. Fleck would play full-time on the PGA Tour for two seasons while Lynn and Jack’s assistant pro ran Davenport’s two public golf courses. Not exactly a pact, the arrangement was one of those understandings between husbands and wives. This was Fleck’s shot. With his two-year trial period, he would either make it on the tour, or, as Lynn said, “you will get it out of your system.”
Maybe so—but it was hard to imagine that Fleck, a golf professional since the age of seventeen, would ever be cured of tournament golf.
* * *
A native Iowan, Jack Fleck was the head club professional of Davenport’s Duck Creek Golf Course and Credit Island Golf Course, a post he had held since 1947. Iowa’s third-largest city, Davenport was located 175 miles due west of Chicago on the Mississippi River, which formed the state’s eastern border. Overseen by the Davenport Parks and Recreation Department, Duck Creek and Credit Island were Davenport’s home of public golf. The greens fee for 18 holes was seventy-five cents, an affordable alternative to the private Davenport Country Club, the golfing playground of the privileged set.
Duck Creek opened in 1927 and was located in a residential neighborhood on Davenport’s northeast side, not far from Jack and Lynn Fleck’s home on East Street. It was a rolling, tree-lined layout of modest difficulty, playing under 6,000 yards and to a par of 70. There was no driving range. When Fleck gave lessons, he and his pupil would go to a nearby section of the city park. A caddie would tag along to shag the practice golf balls.
Several miles away, Credit Island was a small island in the Mississippi connected to the Iowa shoreline by a paved causeway. Also an 18-hole course, Credit Island featured a large clubhouse and practice field. The course had been invaded by the rising currents of the colossal river many times in its thirty-year history. In the spring of 1951, four years into Fleck’s tenure, the course became submerged beneath fifteen feet of water. Credit Island was to flooding what California was to earthquakes.
Like many club pros of his day, Fleck earned his modest income from merchandise sales, golf lessons, and club repairs. The city of Davenport leased the two pro shops to Fleck for a dollar a year but paid him no salary. Similar to Iowa farmers, he lived off the land—his two golf courses. The length of his days at Duck Creek and Credit Island matched those of men toiling in nearby fields, lasting from first light to sundown.
The Davenport muni pro looked nothing like an Iowa farmer, though. While overalls and dungarees were the uniform of the farmer, creased trousers, cotton sweaters, polo shirts, and flat caps were the apparel of the postwar golf professional. One who set an immaculate standard for golf attire was Ben Hogan, the era’s greatest golfer and Fleck’s secret idol. Hogan looked the part of a golf god.
“The first thing that struck me about Hogan when I saw him the first time in person was his perfect clothes,” Tom Weiskopf, a later-generation tour pro, told Hogan biographer James Dodson. “I’d never seen shirts that fit so beautifully on a human being before.”
Hogan’s “perfect clothes” came in conservative blues and grays. His apparel featured trousers with razor-sharp creases, cardigan sweaters, tailored shirts, and polished leather golf shoes, each shoe with an extra spike for better stability. Hogan’s clothing was custom-made. He routinely removed labels, he said, to avoid offending anyone.
“I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Nobody ever looked the way Hogan did,” Weiskopf said.
Still, there were imitators. Hogan protégé Gardner Dickinson emulated the golf legend in almost every conceivable way, from clothing to golf swing to mannerisms, even puffing away on cigarettes. Hogan smoked Chesterfields, and no one would be a bit surprised if Dickinson did, too.
Fleck didn’t smoke. He never had, despite two older brothers who smoked, and despite serving in the U.S. Navy, where cigarettes were as commonplace as salutes. Fleck epitomized wholesomeness. He shunned tobacco, alcohol, and vices in all forms. His mother once told him he would be just like his brothers, smoking and such—a form of reverse psychology, he surmised. Whatever his mother’s motivation might have been, he turned out squeaky clean, a straight arrow who had no interest in straying from his heartland values.
Nor did Fleck have Hogan’s perfect clothes, but he was blessed with good looks and a slender frame that helped off-the-rack golf shirts and pleated trousers look sharp on him. He stood 6'1½" tall and weighed 164 pounds, a weight he would maintain within a pound or two for the next half century. He favored his father, Louis Fleck, but had the gentle eyes of his mother, Elsie. His eyes were green. His thick brown hair was neatly parted, and his face featured dark, bushy eyebrows, a long nose, dimples, and a strong chin. It was a friendly, handsome face that, in photographs, sometimes had an aw-shucks grin and at other times a broad, gleaming smile. Lynn once gushed that her husband looked like matinee idol Tyrone Power, Hollywood’s romantic lead in movies such as The Mark of Zorro and The Black Swan.
Fleck’s movements matched his lanky frame. There was nothing abrupt or jerky about how he carried himself or approached golf. He had the easy, casual way of a man on an afternoon stroll. One golf writer wrote that Fleck “had a loose-jointed walk, his arms and legs flapping about as if with no plan.” The Iowa pro remembered being called “slew foot” because his right foot turned out when he walked, the result of a broken leg at age seven when he and his older brothers were horsing around in an empty public swimming pool. Others described him as angular, straight, and Lincolnesque. Fleck possessed a long, fluid golf swing that wrapped around his lean body like a loose belt. He moved with unassuming ease.
Exhibiting social grace, on the other hand, was among Fleck’s most enduring life challenges. He had been painfully shy since his schooldays. He would always choose to make a special project with his dependable hands rather than face the terror of an oral presentation to his classmates. “I would build guillotines or whatever illustrated the stories we were studying so I could get credit and not have to get up in front of people,” he said.
In his early days as an assistant pro at the Des Moines Golf and Country Club, he preferred the solitude of the club room. He dreaded the encounters with customers in the pro shop. “At first, I was so bashful … that I had to talk myself into going into the front golf shop to wait on the members that wanted service.”
His strongly held values, combined with his social unease, sometimes worked against him. Fleck was modest, serious, and, at times, stubborn. He was plainspoken and unflinchingly honest, which sometimes rankled others. Sugarcoating was not his style. He did not believe in undertaking special efforts to be popular or endear himself to others. He eschewed the art of politics that was so enmeshed in society.
Instead, Fleck sided with the unvarnished truth as he saw it, even if it occasionally hurt. Because there were few gray areas in his world, he tended to let fewer people in. In many ways, this made the solitary rhythms of life as a golf pro a perfect fit for Fleck, who was, at heart, a loner. He was adept with his hands, wielding a club, swinging it, and sending a golf ball toward a distant target. As in his days as a Davenport schoolboy, he would rather show you what he could do than talk about it.
* * *
Jack met Lynn when she walked into his pro shop in the summer of 1949. She wanted the pro to repair a golf club. The pro wanted a date. “I talked her into having dinner,” he said. “We had many dates that summer and fall.” The broken club later earned a permanent spot on the Flecks’ mantel.
Originally from Chicago, Lynn Burnsdale was attractive and smart, a real brain, Fleck said. “She could read a book faster than anybody” and was good with numbers like her father, a bookkeeper for two large automobile agencies in Chicago and St. Louis. Fleck had fallen in love with someone who could manage a golf pro shop with great aplomb. Lynn’s easy command of administrative tasks and her graceful people skills would later turn Duck Creek and Credit Island into well-honed golf operations.
By the time Fleck left home for the Miami Open in December 1949, he had received the blessing of Lynn’s parents to ask for her hand in marriage. The couple married on January 5, 1950, in a Davenport church. A honeymoon followed in California, which, not coincidentally, hosted events on the PGA winter tour.
Fleck had chased success on the winter tour since 1946. Starting in Florida and traversing the warm winter climes of California, Arizona, Texas, and Louisiana, the winter tour was where club pros tested their skills against the game’s best players—Hogan, Sam Snead, Jimmy Demaret, Lloyd Mangrum, and others. If they were able to qualify and had the financial means, they could play in tournaments from December through March. Then they would return to their club pro duties at their home courses for the start of golf season, practicing and playing in local events when time allowed. If club pros played well on the winter tour, they dipped into the modest tournament purses and offset expenses. Most important, they discovered whether their game was ready for the big time, the full PGA Tour that staged events from early spring through Labor Day.
The newlyweds arrived in Lakewood near Long Beach, where Fleck shattered a light fixture while taking a full practice swing in the couple’s motel room. “Glass flew everywhere,” he said. He painstakingly picked the tiny shards of glass out of the carpet using wet paper towels. It was an omen of sorts.
Fleck’s first tournament as a married man was a disappointment. He finished out of the money in the Long Beach Open. The honeymooners packed up and motored across the California desert to Arizona for the Phoenix Open.
Following along at the Phoenix Country Club, Lynn witnessed her husband’s lofty tournament golf standards. Fleck shot a respectable 71 in the opening round, but despite sunny weather and solid play, things darkened for the golfer in the second round. He encountered his chief enemy on the golf course—himself.
Actually, Fleck was playing very well on the tight layout lined with tamarack trees and punctuated with elevated, well-bunkered greens. He drilled several laserlike iron shots, including a hole-out with a 9-iron, and was under par for his round as he played the second 9. Headed for another good score, the Iowa pro would be in contention at the tournament’s halfway point. He had never won on the winter tour and had just one high finish in his career. It made what happened on the 14th green all the more confounding.
Fleck 3-putted. It was not unusual. It happened to Hogan, Snead, everybody. They missed putts due to a breakdown in technique, a misread, and, often in early tour days, bumpy, inconsistent putting surfaces. This created a certain injustice that has forever existed in the game of golf. A player can maneuver a small dimpled ball to a faraway green only to stab at and miss a 30-inch putt. It can induce rage. All too often, Fleck’s putter failed him. The shortest club in the bag was the necessary evil of a difficult game. Its betrayal on the 14th green at the Phoenix Country Club shattered his fragile composure.
Lynn tried to encourage her husband. “You are doing well—don’t let it bother you.” Her soothing words did not calm Jack’s simmering anger.
“If I 3-putt another green, we are going home!” he snapped.
On the 17th green, Fleck again took 3 putts to find the cup. He rallied with a birdie on the par-5 finishing hole to shoot 69, a 2-shot improvement on his opening round that placed him in the top ten with 36 holes to go. His highest finish and largest check were within reach.
It made no difference. When a few pro friends asked him how he did, Fleck said, “I’m leaving.”
Not just to go to the motel, as his friends thought. After shooting rounds of 71 and 69—good tournament scores by almost anyone’s standards—Fleck withdrew from the Phoenix Open and blew out of town. Three nights later he and his new bride rolled into snowy Davenport.
It was a disastrous winter tour season for Fleck: two tournaments without cashing a check, an abbreviated honeymoon, and hundreds of highway miles to wonder if he would ever master his emotions in tournament golf. He spent the rest of the cold Iowa winter at home chipping and putting on his carpet.
“I had to find a way to control my mental attitude,” he said.
Phoenix would not be the last time Fleck would stomp off a golf course in the middle of a tournament. The temperamental pro had a history of blowups. The shy man with a friendly smile had erupted in sudden fits of anger dating back to his navy days during World War II. In a scuffle with a belligerent fellow sailor on the deck of a navy ship, he nearly tossed the man overboard.
One winter at Brackenridge Park Golf Course in San Antonio, Horton Smith, the winner of the inaugural Masters in 1934, advised Fleck to put his score on the board, whether an 89 or 69. The dapper Smith also counseled him to wear a sport coat on the pro circuit. We need to build the image of the tour pro, emphasized Smith, who went on to head the PGA of America for three years in the early 1950s.
Slipping into a sport coat—which Fleck would do for the rest of his career—was far easier than controlling his temper. He wanted to master his emotions, but golf had a way of lighting his fuse. On one near-career-ending occasion, the object of Fleck’s fury was a person instead of his play.
The incident occurred at the 1954 Fort Wayne Open in northern Indiana. Heavy rains soaked the Elks Country Club the night before the first round, forcing the pros to play a course partially covered with standing water. The rules of golf allow competitors to take a free drop from standing or “casual” water, a situation that Fleck faced midway through his opening round.
On the par-5 9th hole, Fleck’s second shot bounced left toward a greenside bunker filled with rainwater. Fortunately, his ball came to rest on the grass short of the bunker. Submerged in standing water beside the bunker, his ball was unplayable, a routine drop. He called over his playing partner for confirmation, took his free drop, and finished the hole. It was a normal occurrence in tournament competition, especially on a rain-saturated golf course.
Then things took an ugly turn.
“You know, it’s a penalty to drop out of the bunker there,” a PGA Tour supervisor said as Fleck walked by the clubhouse.
From his position, the tour supervisor could see most of the 9th-green area but hadn’t seen where Fleck’s ball came to rest. He’d made an erroneous assumption that rattled the Iowa pro.
“You tend to your job and I’ll tend to mine,” Fleck said.
A terse reply was understandable. The two men had an unpleasant history. A few years earlier Fleck had informed the same tour supervisor not to enter him in a Monday qualifying event. The tour supervisor said that was fine since Fleck had no chance of winning. The stinging comment motivated Fleck like nothing ever had before to succeed on tour.
In Fort Wayne, Fleck’s fuse had once again been lit, a slow burn that would engulf him. The tour supervisor’s false view could have been quickly corrected by Fleck’s playing partner—if Fleck had called on him to clear up the misunderstanding. Instead, Fleck trudged to the 10th tee.
To his credit, Fleck completed his opening round in fine form, carding a 68. Combined with a 70 in the second round, he stood at 138, just 3 shots off the lead after two trips around the soggy course. With 36 holes to go, he was in excellent position to contend for the title. Even short of winning, he might record his best finish on tour and cash the largest check of his career.
Those career-changing possibilities abruptly ended the following day when Fleck’s anger boiled over. Prior to teeing off in the third round, he learned from two fellow players that the tour supervisor had accused him of cheating. His game went to pieces. As he approached the 6th green several strokes over par for his round, there stood the tour supervisor, a huge smile plastered on his face.
“I’m going to go over there and punch him in his big fat belly for telling lies about me!” Fleck told his playing partner.
“Don’t do it!” the pro exclaimed. “You will be barred for life!”
Instead, Fleck walked to the parking lot, got in his car, and drove home to Iowa.
Beginning with such promise, the Fort Wayne Open had ended as a disturbing failure. “You might as well not play tournament golf anymore,” Lynn told her husband. “The supervisor knows how to upset you.”
Fleck knew she was right. If he ever hoped to be a successful tour pro, he would have to find a way to maintain his composure.
* * *
Craig Harold Fleck, Jack and Lynn’s only child, was born on December 5, 1950. Lynn would not agree to Jack’s first name choice—Snead Hogan Fleck. The couple struck a compromise, and Lynn chose Craig Wood from a list of U.S. Open champions.
“Snead Hogan” would have been a peculiar name choice, but it made perfect sense if a father was intent on naming his son after the two best golfers of the age. Fleck was sandwiched between the two greats at the Richmond Invitational in 1946, a watershed year for Ben Hogan. The Texas pro won thirteen times, including his first major, the PGA Championship. Yet, as Fleck recalled at the time, Samuel Jackson Snead, the colorful hillbilly pro born in Ashwood, Virginia, was the biggest draw on tour. Snead had collected more than thirty titles with a swing Fleck and many others regarded as the best in golf. As much as he admired Snead, it was the hardworking Hogan that Fleck had idolized since his teens growing up in Bettendorf, Iowa, a factory town of 1,300 people on the banks of the Mississippi River.
Fleck was introduced to golf at age fifteen when he and a friend hitchhiked fifteen miles to the Davenport Country Club for the 1936 Western Open, considered a major championship in the days before the Masters gained prominence. The two hired on as forecaddies and saw Ralph Guldahl win with a course record–setting 64 in the final round. Over the next three years, Gudahl dominated golf with victories at the 1937 and 1938 Western Opens (making it three straight), the 1937 and 1938 U.S. Opens, and the 1939 Masters.
Fleck was hooked, becoming a regular caddie at the Davenport Country Club, where he had playing privileges on Mondays using a shared set of golf clubs. While waiting around the caddie yard for a bag to tote, he constantly swung his 7-iron—and constantly took divots, earning the nickname “Gopher.” His older brothers, Henry and Pete, were also caddies at the club. Fleck liked being a caddie, especially the money, forty-five cents a round, although he admitted the large leather golf bags got heavier as he lugged them over the hilly layout.
“He used to worry mother because he sometimes slept at the country club,” said Fleck’s younger sister, Shirley. “Jack would miss meals in order to caddie.”
Within a year Fleck came under the tutelage of Dr. Paul Barton, a dentist and club member whom Fleck called his “father in golf.” Dr. Barton was a fine player who once won the Iowa Amateur Championship and teed it up with tour stars such as Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, and Horton Smith in local exhibitions. Dr. Barton became Fleck’s playing partner in tournaments throughout Iowa, Illinois, and Minnesota. The Davenport dentist encouraged Fleck’s golf aspirations and would be a lifelong friend.
Although he was the number-one player on the golf team during his senior year at Davenport High School in 1939, Fleck did not consider himself to be an accomplished junior golfer. Yet there was a bit of early success. Fleck, along with friend Franklin “Whitey” Barnard, was part of a four-man team that won the Junior Eastern Golf Tournament in nearby Cedar Rapids. Davenport High golf coach Russ Bickford tried to talk his best player out of turning pro. He didn’t think Fleck had the temperament. The young man was unswayed.
“I told myself I was going to be a professional golfer, if and when I got an apprentice golf pro position, and I was determined to do so!” Fleck said.
* * *
By the time Hogan emerged in the late 1930s on his long ascent to golf’s summit, Fleck was a full-blown golf junkie who scoured the sports pages of the Davenport Daily Times and Davenport Democrat for every scrap of news about golf tournaments and the tour pros. “Who is Ben Hogan?” Fleck wondered as he watched Hogan’s name creep upward in the tournament standings. Then something remarkable happened in March 1940 as the tour moved through North Carolina. Hogan got his first individual career win at the North and South Open at Pinehurst with a record score of 277, igniting a blazing run that produced three consecutive victories. He set another scoring record and bested the field by nine shots the next week at the Greater Greensboro Open. Seven days later at the Land of the Sky Open in Asheville, Hogan won again and took over the top spot on the money list from Jimmy Demaret. Fleck marveled at Hogan’s torrid play. The Associated Press called Hogan’s ten of twelve rounds in the 60s “the most sensational streak in the annals of the Professional Golfers’ Association.”
After years of toiling in the shadow of fellow Texan Byron Nelson, Hogan—who like Fleck turned pro at age seventeen—had finally won. It was like salve for the hyperdriven pro. In the ensuing years, Ben Hogan would pile up wins faster than any other tour pro except Sam Snead.
Playing behind Hogan in the 1946 Richmond Invitational wasn’t the first time Fleck trailed his hero. He followed Hogan during the 1940 winter tour, ducking in and out of the woods along the fairways to observe his idol’s practice habits, concealing himself from the tour star. Fleck watched Hogan hit multiple shots into greens, memorizing club choice and noting the locations of trees, bunkers, and other landmarks. It was before the days of yardage markers.
“I copied him and actually did him one better,” Fleck said. “I began pacing off yardage, which nobody else had done at that point.”
Fleck perfected his method by measuring his stride in light snow in his yard at home in Davenport. He also determined the exact distance he hit each of his clubs. Amateur Gene Andrews was later credited as the first player to pace off yardage because he shared the method with Jack Nicklaus, but Fleck had preceded Andrews.
The young pro was looking for any advantage that would help him succeed in tournament golf. Fleck returned to the winter tour after World War II, which interrupted the tournament careers of virtually all pros. Chief Quartermaster Fleck served on a ship providing fire support in the Normandy invasion and was en route to Pearl Harbor when the Japanese surrendered. A few weeks later, he was back in San Diego, this time on the golf course rather than drilling at the Naval Training Center. Instead of drinking and telling war stories like other Bettendorf veterans, Fleck would use the few hundred dollars he had saved in the navy for another shot at the tournament circuit. His first round after a nearly four-year layoff was a rusty 93 at the San Diego Country Club alongside fellow Iowa pros Joe and Jim Brown.
“I played and practiced all day long,” Fleck said about his return to golf. “That’s all I did.”
Occasionally, he qualified to play in tournaments such as the Richmond Invitational in northern California. He was seldom in the money. Tournament purses in the 1940s and 1950s could be measured in hundreds and thousands of dollars instead of the millions available on today’s PGA Tour. A dozen to two dozen money places were the norm. A player could make the 36-hole cut and still need to beat most of the remaining players just to cash a check. Even so, the money was slim. For example, Fleck’s twenty-fifth-place finish in the 1953 San Diego Open netted him $13.75, which fell short of his caddie fee of $21.50. Lynn once said the couple spent $8 for every dollar Jack won. Her husband was used to getting by on a shoestring.
* * *
The Great Depression came early for the Flecks. The middle child in a family of three boys and two girls, Jack Donald Fleck was born on November 8, 1921, on the northern outskirts of Bettendorf. When Jack was four-years-old, his parents lost their truck farm and moved to a rambling, eight-room house at 2002 Mississippi Blvd. on the edge of town. The home sat on a two-and-a-half-acre lot with two small abandoned houses on a hill.
Fleck and his older brothers did all types of chores and odd jobs to help his family endure the economic despair of the late 1920s and 1930s. “I had my first jobs in kindergarten,” he said, “picking apples, topping onions, and catching cabbage butterflies. Every penny went to the family.”
Piece by piece, including straightening all the nails, father and sons dismantled the two abandoned houses on the property for scrap. The boys chopped wood, raked leaves, and shoveled snow. Every spring they dug the three large gardens that supplied vegetables for the Fleck family. In the fall, mother and daughters canned the family’s produce for winter consumption. Nothing was wasted. What wore out was repaired and reused. Fleck’s mother sewed patches over patches on his pants and put cardboard in his shoes when he wore holes in the soles.
As a young pro, Fleck traded the boyhood tools of shovels and rakes for those of irons and woods. Although he exchanged laboring in Bettendorf fields for working in country club fairways, his existence on the tournament circuit was more uncertain than his family’s survival during the Depression. Even in the worst of times the Fleck family could grow food for their table. Fleck would have to beat the country’s best golf professionals to earn more than the paltry sums doled out for twenty-fifth-place finishes. The odds were long for every pro who dared to play tour golf.
“The tournament trail is a gaudy road lined with the best times a man can have—if he’s on top,” Jimmy Demaret wrote in My Partner, Ben Hogan. “But if he’s just one of the crowd, putting in the pick-and-shovel work on this uncertain road to success, it is far and away the toughest haul in sports.”
One of those on top, the man nicknamed “Sunny Jim” for his colorful clothes and personality, defined the haves and have-nots. “The players themselves can be classified roughly into two groups—the attractions and the entry fees. This might seem a harsh way to describe the difference between those 10 or so top golfers who come away from the tour showing a profit and the other 140 or so who go home with indigestion and empty pockets. But it is, sadly, the truth.”
“The money was really very scarce,” said Fred Hawkins, a slender Illinois native who played on the PGA Tour from 1947 to 1965. Squeeze into the top ten, a good finish, and a player could expect a check of about $200. “We were really kind of foolish because we could have made more money doing something else,” Hawkins said, “but we all loved to play and we liked the competition.”
“It was tough,” said Tommy Bolt, chuckling, a twelve-time winner in the 1950s and eventual Hall of Famer. “You had to win some money to get out of town. It was a lot of fun, but it was a lot of pressure.”
Players didn’t earn a dime for finishing beyond thirtieth, remembered Walker Inman Jr., a tour rookie in 1955. If a player made the cut, which was hard to do, he still had to beat half the guys to pocket $100.
As a result of the small purses, players knew how to stretch a dollar along the tournament trail. It was not a gaudy road for Inman, whose average weekly expenses amounted to $125. “So if I had $500,” he said, “I could go a month—pay my caddie, eat, hopefully win a little money, and get to the next tournament.”
For a struggling tour pro like Jack Fleck, the way to stretch small and uneven tournament earnings was to travel as cheaply as possible. In late 1946 he and fellow Iowa pro Bill McPartland pushed expense-saving measures to the limit as they embarked on a new winter tour season. They removed the backseat in McPartland’s automobile and installed a mattress through the trunk so they could sleep in the car. They abandoned the bed on wheels after a couple of cold nights west of Iowa. Instead, they rented rooms in private homes, a common practice in the early days on tour.
There were few motels at the time—and they could be crowded. In town for the 1947 Tucson Open, Fleck was one of twenty-three pros who slept on cots on the balcony floor of the Pioneer Hotel. “We were glad to have the army cots,” he said. Nor were the tour pros treated to the lavish buffets in plush country club dining rooms that are a mainstay of today’s PGA Tour. Fleck recalled the roadside cafeterias and chuck wagons as good food at a good price.
It was the club pro job that enabled golfers to ride the financial roller coaster of tour life. Drawing a small salary and collecting earnings from merchandise sales and golf lessons provided a modest living for most club professionals. Even golf stars like Hogan, Snead, and Demaret held club pro jobs to augment their fluctuating incomes.
Landing a head pro job at the two Davenport municipal golf courses allowed Fleck to buy his first automobile at age twenty-five. Prior to that, as an assistant to Joe Brown at the Des Moines Golf and Country Club, he hitched rides and shared expenses with others on the winter circuit. It was the only way to make it across the hundreds of miles between tournaments in California, Arizona, and Texas.
The nomadic life began in January 1940 when the eighteen-year-old Fleck hitchhiked to San Antonio to intercept the winter tour at the Texas Open. In deep snow and icy cold, he caught a bus to Poplar Bluff, Missouri, then hitched three rides across Arkansas. Each driver offered the same greeting.
“Get in here, kid. Don’t you know this is a chain-gang state?”
Fleck finally arrived in San Antonio, checked into the YMCA, and walked the streets and along the river downtown. The sunny winter weather and 89-degree heat amazed him.
“I never lived another full winter in Iowa,” he said.
Copyright © 2012 by Neil Sagebiel
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