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Jack Fleck's Incredible Victory Over Ben Hogan at the U.S. Open
By Al Barkow
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2012 Al Barkow
All rights reserved.
Ben Hogan was up at 6:00 AM to begin his first round. His tee-off time was 10:00 AM — "Bobby Jones time," as it's said, the time when the elite golfers get to start their play. It's when the body has woken sufficiently and the blood is running on pace, when breakfast has been well digested and there is no rush to get to the practice tee and hurry one's warm-up. It's also when the gallery has arrived in numbers to see the stars. The last element was the tournament's business but not Hogan's. Once asked if he ever considered himself an entertainer, his response was a curt, absolute "No."
He looked out the window, which faced west, and liked what he saw out where he would be spending the day. The sun wasn't out quite yet, but it was coming. There was much blue for so early in the day, and the sky was streaked with thin clouds. He called down to the hotel desk to find out the temperature and the wind velocity expected for the day. The fellow at the other end of the line didn't know about the wind but said the temperature was predicted to be in the mid-to-high sixties. Warm for San Francisco in June. But there would still be a chill to it, especially out there. And all of it could change in an hour in this land of microclimates, where subtle and sometimes not so subtle changes in temperature, moisture, and wind direction can occur from one block to the next, or so it seems. He would wear the serge slacks, which were a touch heavier, a woolen golf shirt, and a V-neck sweater. He did not dress himself thoughtlessly. He was pragmatic but was also conscious of style and shade.
He ran his bath, added the Epsom salt to the warm water, and stirred to dissolve it with his right hand. As the tub filled he stood before the toilet for his morning pee, which was slow coming. Now what? he asked himself. Prostate?
He lit his first cigarette of the day, which he fixed into the black cigarette holder he had begun to use, but only in private. He didn't want to affect his trademark public image as a hardworking, blue-collar toiler, the reality of which he had been quietly shedding when the money started getting good. No one could tell at a glance that his sweaters were fine cashmere, that his slacks were custom made, that his shoes were handmade in England. A cigarette holder, though, spoke of salons and chandeliers. Hogan was never going to be a salons-and-chandeliers kind of guy, but he did like quality clothes, and he was more aware of images and perceptions than he would ever let on. Especially now that he had a business to build up.
The cigarette would be the first of at least forty he would smoke during the day. His body odor often had the acrid scent of burnt nicotine. The bath took some of that away. Splashes of Aqua Velva after his shave helped bury it. Mouthwash did some more of the work. He had preordered room-service breakfast to be delivered at 7:00 PM, making sure ginger ale was included with the scrambled eggs, toast, and coffee. Staff people were unaccustomed to including ginger ale in breakfast orders. Hogan's hands were feeling puffy. He pushed down his pajama bottom, unbuttoned the upper, and eased out of it, making sure he didn't turn his left shoulder in some odd way. He entered the tub left foot first so there would be less pressure on the right leg and also holding onto the shower bar above. At the same time, he pressed his right hand against the wall to further assure he didn't slip. He then slid carefully down into the bliss of warm water. The cigarette holder remained locked between his teeth. With the holder he could smoke the Chesterfield down to the very end and then easily set it aside.
As he soaked he worked up his swing key for the day, the one thought that would precede every shot. Yes, he believed in the automatic response of arms, legs, hips, etc. to take desired positions during the swing that comes from relentless practice — muscle memory, it is called — but he didn't want to take any chances. By concentrating on one of those moves, or some segment within, the others would fall into place. This day it was eyes on the ball. How did Runyan put it, way back when? "See the ball being hit." Yes.
Valerie was staying in town. She wanted to do a bit of shopping, read a magazine, and walk a few of the picturesque but less hilly of the city's streets.
Jack Fleck began his Thursday with his exercises. His tee time was 10:40 AM, a good one. Somehow he got lucky, so he had plenty of time. He was up at 6:00 AM and wanted to be at the course by 8:30 AM to loosen up with twenty or twenty-five practice shots and then hit a lot of putts on the putting clock.
He sat on the floor with his back straight and his legs crossed in front of him — a classic yoga position — and held it for two minutes. He then lay down on his back and spread his right leg laterally as far as it would go, held it there, then did the same with the left leg. Ten repetitions of each. The Hip Opening Pose. Next were Inversions. Staying on his back, he raised his lower body to where his hips were as vertical as his legs; he held his hands at his hips. Then came Side Bending. Standing, he raised his arms and clasped his hands together and bent at the waist — to the left and hold, to the right and hold. He handled the postures easily. He had been doing them for over two years and was so flexible he was holding the positions longer and longer. Afterward, he called home. Lynn said little Craig was fine and missed him, that all was well at the courses. She wished him good luck and said they better ring off; the calls were costly.
Fleck then shaved, dressed, and walked across Mission Street to the Beacon Diner, looking both ways to see if a streetcar was coming. He had orange juice, a bowl of oatmeal with a banana, a slice of toasted whole wheat bread, and a glass of water. He drove north to the Olympic Country Club, parked in one of the spots reserved for contestants, and went about his pre-round routine.
The press run-up to a golf championship is fraught with speculation, predictions, and many assorted facts and anecdotes that sometimes turn out to be prescient. Or simply trivial. It's a matter of filling the space and generating interest for the next day's issue, until the real thing comes along.
Newspaper readers learned in the Monday through early Thursday editions that Bob Rosburg had just come through a bout with the measles and that Gene Littler, who was staying with the Rosburgs (no trailer that week), was safe from being infected.
Sam Snead told a newsman that he might have ague, and it was reported that Hogan whistled and hummed "Davy Crockett" throughout a practice round (the movie was playing in town). A seventeen-year-old amateur from Maryland named Deane Beman was thought to be the youngest qualifier in U.S. Open history. He got in as first alternate when Harry Bassler decided not to play. Toney Penna, referencing the effect the climate would have on the event, was reported to have said, "The fog can fool you. If the weather's bad the scores may hit the low ceiling."
Vern Callison, one of the better amateur golfers in Northern California, said he played a practice round with a "hacker by the name of Fleck," and Callison wondered how he (Fleck) ever managed to qualify. (Callison shot rounds of 89 and 80, then departed the scene.)
Ed Furgol thought the course was much easier than the layout on which he had won the 1954 title. (He then said, after a first-round 79, that it was the hardest Open course he ever played.)
Sam Snead was brimming with confidence after a final practice round of 68. In fact, for the three practice rounds previous to that one he shot scores of 70, 71, and 71, and on the eve of the championship's first round he was quoted as saying, "Man, just let me keep those four rounds for the Open right now. Ah'd just sit on the veranda and watch the other guys try to do better."
After his first practice round on the Lake, in which he reportedly shot an 83, Gene Littler said the course was eight times tougher than the one on which he had finished second the previous year. After they cut down the rough he said, "OK, now it's only four times harder."
Some quotes from baseball players were noted: "Golf helps most baseball players because a swing is a swing. I like for my pitchers to play golf during the baseball season" (Al Lopez, manager of the Cleveland Indians). "Golf makes you watch the ball until the last second, and that's what we have to do in baseball" (Gil McDougal, Yankee infielder). "Playing golf helps a baseball player hit a low pitch, the timing and coordination of both swings are the same. Lefty O'Doul could hardly foul a low ball until he began playing golf" (Paul Waner, Hall-of-Fame outfielder). "I had to quit playing golf because it caused me to upper cut with my baseball swing" (Al Rosen, Cleveland Indian third baseman).
Some of the newspaper writing had a lively flair, while at the same time getting down to specifics. For example, San Francisco Chronicle sports columnist Art Rosenbaum wrote in Wednesday's edition what the first hole would play like.
There will be the usual dramatic introduction [of the player's teeing off], and then the golfers will hit their drives down a fairway thickly roughed on the sides....
A big hitter will debate his second shot. He will prance around the top of the knoll and wish he hadn't eaten that second order of ham for breakfast as his stomach rumbles with excitement. His target is a tiny, heavily trapped green. ... He is facing a ticklish decision ... that could spell success or failure, for he knows he can carry the green with a two-wood. However, if he [doesn't] he's in trouble. ... [If] he deliberately plays short ... an easy pitch will get him home. This golfer is wise to some of the secrets of the Olympic Club's Lake course.
Reports also stated that ten miles of rope would be supported by 2,400 stakes to control the expected 10,000 to 12,000 fans coming out every day to watch the tournament. It was the second year that galleries were no longer allowed to walk on the fairways to follow play.
Then, finally, there was the golf.
Off the first tee, Ben Hogan, the cuffs of his trousers folded up one width against the moist turf, hit his driver on a slightly right-to-left trajectory that finished in the left corner of the fairway. With a clear view of the green but too far back to reach it with his second shot, he played a 4 wood just short of the bunkers fifty yards from the green. He then hit a wedge shot onto the green about fourteen feet from the hole. (Did he read Art Rosenbaum's column, or did Rosenbaum read Hogan's mind?) His first putt was on line but came up short by a foot. He tapped in for a par-5 and was off but not running. He was on form. Hogan was not a golfer who dashed to the rail right out of the gate and into the lead. Like most great champions, he played a waiting game; he played steady, solid golf and waited for the front-runners to back up.
The caddie assigned to Hogan when he had arrived at the Olympic Club was a seventeen-year-old high school boy. Hogan said he was too young and that he wanted an older man. Tony Zitelli — a man in his late twenties — took the bag. It was a surprising request, because Hogan wanted nothing more from a caddie than to keep up with him and keep the clubs clean. Sam Snead, by contrast, was dependent on a caddie who could judge what club he should hit for approach shots. Oddly, for so superb a golfer, Snead had trouble clubbing himself. Hogan had no such problem.
Chain-smoking and sitting whenever he found a bench on a tee and had some time before it was his turn to play, Hogan's first round was a mixed bag. The ball-striking was excellent, the quality of a great player. But his putting put him in the weekend golfer class. At the long second hole his second shot finished in a bunker beside the green. He made a fine recovery, blasting the ball to within five feet of the hole, but he missed the putt to bogey the hole; the putt didn't even touch the cup. At the par-3 3rd and par-4 6th he had birdie chances from fifteen and twenty feet and didn't come close to making them. At the 8th he had a six-footer for birdie that came up short. And he three-putted the 9th green after drilling his first putt six feet past the hole and missing the one coming back. However, by methodically hitting fifteen out of eighteen greens in regulation, he managed a 72. He made only one birdie on the round and took a total of thirty-five putts, a very high number for a contender. His score was two over the card par but even par by his own reckoning. And that's exactly how he characterized it.
A headline in the San Francisco Chronicle read, "Hogan Calls His 72 'Par in My Book.'" He told newspapermen gathered around him in the locker room that he played "darned good." What he meant was that he had hit a lot of sound shots from the tees and fairways.
Jack Fleck was off to a shaky start, bogeying the par-5 first hole. Bogeying a par-5, no matter how long or difficult it may be, is like giving up a stroke to the field. They are the holes where the birdies must come. He also made bogeys on the 3rd and 6th holes, playing loose approach shots. But he got one of the bogeys back on the short par-4 7th, where he hit a crisp wedge approach to within four feet of the hole and made the putt. He turned the front nine in a two-over-par 37.
On the back nine it was a bit worse. He bogeyed four holes and had no birdies to make up any of them. He felt confident, though. The mistakes were merely mechanical. They had nothing to do with his thinking, his strategy, or — most important — his emotions. He ended up with a round of 76 and yet found himself in a reasonably good position vis-à-vis the field.
He was tied with eighteen others for the eighth-lowest score of the day. Behind Fleck by a shot or more were such stalwarts as Middlecoff, Boros, Littler, Furgol, Rosburg, and Nelson. And Sam Snead was way back. He made a twelve-foot putt on the 18th hole for par to just barely break 80. Fleck did not feel he was out of the competition, not by any means, and was particularly satisfied with his mind-set. It was not a great score, but as that Air Force guy he met said all the time, "Negative perspiration."
Snead's round of 79 was the biggest surprise of the day, except to those convinced he just did not have whatever headwork it took to win the U.S. Open. His driving is what caused him so much grief. Close Snead observers thought he didn't do well in the U.S. Open because he wouldn't revise his game for the setup, that is, the narrower fairways. If it was a par-5 hole he played a driver off the tee, when a judicious 2 iron or 3 wood was a better play to an especially slim landing area or short dogleg. On this day his driving was not good. He hit a number of drivers through the doglegs and into deep rough.
Clearly, the course played as difficult as predicted. Of the 162 starters, 73 shot from 80 to 89, and there were five rounds in the 90s.
The leader by three strokes after round one was Tommy Bolt, who had a "sizzling" 67 — a boon to the newspaper guys, who were stuck with reporting so many high scores. Bolt was good copy, because he was a character famous for his explosive temperament and one-liners. With a prominent chin that — when in a red-faced snit — he raised à la Franklin D. Roosevelt, over the years his irritability prompted some not especially inventive but alliterative nicknames: Tempestuous Tommy, Terrible-Tempered Tommy, and the inevitable Thunder Bolt.
He was always good for colorful anecdotes and quotes. He once advised golfers who threw their clubs in anger to always throw them forward so they could just "pick 'em up on the way." When Bolt withdrew from tournaments, he did it with a certain panache. Once, in the middle of a rainy fourth round of a Houston Open in which he was not doing well, he was waiting in the fairway to play his approach shot. It was a longish wait, and finally he said, "I'm standing out here ruining clothes that cost more than I can win in this tournament. I'm going in." And he did. Bolt was a very snappy dresser — and withdrawer.
Bolt had worked as a carpenter around Houston, did some hustling on local municipal courses, and didn't turn pro until he was in his early thirties. But he became a fine shot-maker in the big time, with a long and elastic swing, and when he made some putts, he could win — and did. In his first round over the Lake course he had twelve one-putt greens and a total of only twenty-five on the day. That didn't happen too often, the temper thing often getting in the way. But after his first round he was all smiles and didn't have much to say to the newsmen except to remark that those who called him Terrible-Tempered Tommy were themselves "terrible-tempered newspaper guys."
Excerpted from The Upset by Al Barkow. Copyright © 2012 Al Barkow. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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