The Upset: Jack Fleck's Incredible Victory over Ben Hogan at the U.S. Open

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Jack Fleck had the slimmest of resumes as a professional tournament golfer. He had never come close to winning on the PGA Tour, and was in the mere qualifier category when it came time for the 1955 U.S. Open at the Olympic Golf Club in San Francisco. A qualifier, in the parlance, is not even a contender; he just fills out the field. Yet Fleck got himself into a playoff with Ben Hogan, one of the greatest players in golf history, for the game’s most prestigious title. And when Fleck defeated Hogan, it was not just...

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Jack Fleck had the slimmest of resumes as a professional tournament golfer. He had never come close to winning on the PGA Tour, and was in the mere qualifier category when it came time for the 1955 U.S. Open at the Olympic Golf Club in San Francisco. A qualifier, in the parlance, is not even a contender; he just fills out the field. Yet Fleck got himself into a playoff with Ben Hogan, one of the greatest players in golf history, for the game’s most prestigious title. And when Fleck defeated Hogan, it was not just surprising, it was incredible. How could a nondescript journeyman pro defeat a golfer who was revered as the ultimate champion golfer? Especially after Hogan had won it four times already?            This book presents a thrilling play-by-play, shot-by-shot recounting that brings back to life the look and feel of the entire three days of regular play and, most tellingly, the fourth-day playoff itself. Relying on first-hand sources, The Upset reveals the players’ mental processes as they strategized their game and handled their emotions. And it finally offers a convincing explanation for Fleck’s mind-boggling victory, which was considered at the time and remains to this day one of the most unexpected outcomes in all sports history.

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What People Are Saying

From the Publisher

“Al Barkow knows more about golf than any man alive.” —Rick Reilly, author of Who’s Your Caddy? and The Life of Reilly

“From Getting to the Dance Floor in ’86 to this piece of great non-fiction writing and reporting, Barkow has emerged as the pre-eminent golf historian of the past quarter century.” —Tim Rosaforte, GolfWorld and Golf Channel

“Fleck beat Hogan. Fleck beat Hogan? Huh? In the 1955 U.S. Open, no less. That's fact. It's golf history. But the story behind that win! It's never been told in the way Al Barkow tells it [. . .] It's some tale.”  Lorne Rubinstein, author of A Disorderly Compendium of Golf and A Season in Dornoch

“Al Barkow, golf’s leading historian and storyteller, unfolds the improbable Ben Hogan–Jack Fleck tale, and the results are as wondrous as the golf itself. Al knows exactly what we really want to know and he gives it to us with rich detail and a light, sure touch. Nobody evokes time and place in golf like Al Barkow.” —Peter Kessler, host of Making the Turn on the PGA Tour Network, Sirius XM

 “If Al Barkow hit the golf ball as straight as he writes about the game he’d be playing the Tour.” —Lee Trevino

“Golf is rarely more delicious than when a hero and an underdog square off. In his thorough and engaging account of the 1955 U.S. Open, Al Barkow skillfully dissects the showdown between Ben Hogan and Jack Fleck, delving deeply not only into the play but the personalities of the two men, which were as different as their stations in the sport when they arrived at Olympic that fateful week.” —Bill Fields, GolfWorld

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781613740750
  • Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 6/1/2012
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 800,632
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Al Barkow is a veteran golf reporter, former editor-in-chief of both Golf and Golf Illustrated magazines, and recipient of the 2005 PGA Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism. His books include Sam: The One and Only Sam Snead, That’s Golf: The Best of Al Barkow, The Golden Era of Golf, Gene Sarazen and Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf, Golf’s Golden Grind, and Gettin’ to the Dance Floor: An Oral History of Professional Golf (the Herbert Warren Wind Golf Book of the Year, 1986).

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Read an Excerpt


Jack Fleck's Incredible Victory over Ben Hogan at the U.S. Open


Copyright © 2012 Al Barkow
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61374-075-0

Chapter One


Of all the distinctions golf has in the world of sports, none is more telling and potentially compelling than the diversity of its venues. All football fields are the same length and width, as are tennis courts and basketball courts, not to mention the height of the net and dimensions of the baskets. A baseball field can be tweaked a bit to affect play—the distance from the plate to the outfield fences, the depth of the infield grass—but the pitcher pitches from sixty feet, six inches, and it's ninety feet between the bases everywhere in the world.

No such rigid standardizing of its field of play exists in golf, which is one of the game's enduring charms—and selling points. As those who claim golf is the toughest game say in the vernacular, "There ain't any sand traps between first and second base and no creek ten yards from the end zone." Except for the standardized diameter of the hole where the ball ends up, each and every golf course has its own dimensions, arrangement of hazards, undulations of terrain, peculiarities of turf, and configuration of holes. No two holes on a golf course are ever exactly alike in their form. All the more fascinating is that the challenges—the width and angle of the fairways, the incorporation of water hazards, the positioning of and contouring of the greens ... in short, the difficulties of a golf course—are man-made. Even on the Scottish links, where the game was born, the golfers would route the holes so that the sand-filled mounds—the bunkers—formed by sheep digging in for shelter against the incessant winds became obstacles to the golfers.

In the United States, with terrain far more varied than in Scotland, more ingenuity was needed to produce golf courses deemed sufficiently demanding of players. Courses built on perfectly flat ground in Florida or the Midwest, where there are no natural obstacles already in place, are invariably turned into layouts featuring deep man-made pits Americans have come to call traps, cunningly placed ponds, oddly banked greens, and very often roller-coaster fairways. If no stands of trees are extant, thousands are planted to hem in fairways. If native trees are on the property, fairways are placed to bring them into play. It is generally accepted that a dead-flat course with no bunkers or water or trees will not attract golfers, because the game is too easy, or seems to be. In fact, the harder a course is to play, the more praise it receives, or at least the more of a reputation it engenders.

Which is to say, given the problems inherent to hitting just one solid golf shot, let alone two in a row, those who crow about building "the hardest golf course in the world" are at heart sadists. Sadomasochists, really, because if they play the courses they demand be built, then they are inflicting pain on themselves as well as their fellow man. And when an important contest such as the U.S. Open is to be held on one of these hard courses, it is further manipulated, as critics of the United States Golf Association would have it, to make it even more difficult.

The USGA sets the gold standard in making courses as trying as possible, and especially when it comes to the U.S. Open. The association demurs at the many harsh and sometimes profane adjectives it hears regarding the preparation of courses it uses for the championship. Its most memorable rationalization for fairways through which a foursome must walk single file, play out of rough as high as an elephant's eye, and putt on greens as slippery as mercury is, "Our objective is not to humiliate the best players in the world, it's to identify them."

Be that as it may, when average golfers happen onto a U.S. Open course in the days before the grandstands, scoreboards, and gallery are in place, they will immediately sense that something special is afoot. The definition of the fairways is the most distinguishing characteristic, their unusual narrowness sharply defined by the deep and darker grass that borders them. The courses exude a tone of magnitude, significance, and consequence. Except for its overall length, which can't be seen at a glance, the Lake course of the Olympic Club had that air about it even before the USGA and the members of the club got their hands on it. But, of course, that was not enough.

The Olympic Club was founded in 1860. It was the first of its kind in the nation, its central purposes to provide a facility for its members to get into or stay in good physical condition through exercise and athletics of one sort or another and to have a place to hang out. It was also meant to develop high-level competitive amateur athletic talent. The Olympic Club formed teams to vie in national and international competitions in many sports—basketball, football, rugby, swimming, boxing. One club member was James J. "Gentleman Jim" Corbett, the heavyweight champion who defeated the legendary John L. Sullivan for the title. Corbett taught boxing at the Olympic Club for many years. In 1909 an Olympic Club member, Ralph Rose, set the world record for the shot put. In 1915 the club's basketball team won a national amateur championship, and in 1941 the fabled basketball player Hank Luisetti, an Olympic Club member, introduced the one-hand jump shot to the game and led the club's basketball team to the AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) championship. In 1918 golf was added to the mix.

Golf was steadily gaining attention in the United States after Francis Ouimet's remarkable playoff victory over Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in the 1913 U.S. Open. The game was "officially" only in its second decade in the United States when Ouimet took the title at the Country Club, in Brookline, Massachusetts. He was a twenty-year-old amateur golfer who had done nothing of competitive note nationally and not much locally. But he managed to defeat the #1 and #2 players in the world head-on. That Vardon and Ray were Englishmen made Ouimet's achievement all the more satisfying to an American audience. It generated a wave of new New World golfers.

Following the trend, in 1918, when the one-year-old Lakeside Golf Club ran into financial problems, the Olympic Club bought it. (In a neat turn, a notable member of the Olympic Club in 1955 was Ed Lowery, who caddied for Ouimet in that historic 1913 playoff.) It didn't take long for golf to catch on in a big way among the Olympic members, and the club eventually outgrew Lakeside. In 1924 it purchased considerable land adjacent to the Lakeside course, eliminated that course, and built two new ones. Both were the work of Willie Watson, a noted Scots-born course designer, and Sam Whiting, who was in charge of constructing the layouts. Whiting also contributed to the design of the course, especially when he was appointed the club's maintenance supervisor or greenkeeper.

One course was named Ocean, as it was more open to the nearby Pacific Ocean. The other was named the Lake, or Lakeside, for its proximity to inland Lake Merced. At the outset the Ocean course was the more highly regarded of the two, largely due to a few visually dramatic holes in the dunes-like area about a quarter-mile west of the Skyline Highway entrance to the club's grounds. When a powerful storm caused landslides that buried those holes, Whiting was assigned to restore them. Given considerable leverage, Whiting put all eighteen holes of the Ocean course east of the Skyline Highway. And he made some significant additions to the Lake, especially the planting of thousands of trees on what was a treeless piece of land. They would become imposing, dramatic-looking trees—eucalyptus, pines, green cedars, and the particularly distinctive California cypress. The Ocean remained an excellent test of the game, especially in having to deal with the wind, but Whiting's trees gave the Lake such a formidable aspect that it came to define the club.

The general chairman of the 1955 U.S. Open was Bob Roos, a longtime member of the Olympic Club and for many years a force in Northern California golf. He was an excellent player who qualified for two U.S. Opens and eleven U.S. Amateur championships, played in six British Amateur championships, and once defeated a young Ken Venturi in a U.S. Amateur match. He was the club champion many times over. A short man, he wore horn-rimmed glasses through which came the clever look of a shrewd businessman. Roos headed up Roos Brothers, a chain of retail clothing stores with its flagship store in downtown San Francisco. And he was as calculating a golfer as he was a retailer. He made up for his lack of distance with the driver by becoming a wizard at chipping and putting.

It was Roos who first proposed the idea of holding a national championship, in particular the National Open, at the Olympic Club. He was encouraged by the membership. In 1953 Roos began a campaign to achieve that goal. He knew that the USGA's general practice was to try out a potential Open course by first putting its second-biggest championship—the U.S. Amateur—on it. In a letter to Joseph P. Dey, the executive secretary of the USGA, Roos pointed out that the Lake course would make an excellent venue for that event. Roos reminded Dey that the Lake had been previously tested by the game's top players. In 1930, 1932, and 1939 it hosted the National Match-Play tournament, in which all the top professionals of the era competed. In 1930 Leo Diegel, a PGA champion, defeated Al Espinosa in the final. In the 1932 final Dick Metz defeated Horton Smith, the first and third winner of the Masters. And in 1946 the San Francisco Open was played on the Lake course, with Byron Nelson, who was then at the very peak of his world-class game, coming away the winner with a three-over-par 283. Ben Hogan, only two years away from winning his first U.S. Open, finished third, ten shots off Nelson's pace. Nelson's winning score made it clear that Olympic's Lake course had a very sturdy character.

Dey was impressed by the course's past history, but he was also cognizant of a feeling held by many in golf that the USGA, headquartered in New York City, was eastern-seaboard oriented and did not sufficiently recognize the abundance of superb national championship golf courses elsewhere in the country, especially on the West Coast. Of the fifty-four U.S. Opens played to date only one had been held in California. That was in 1948, when Ben Hogan won it at the Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles. Putting those two elements together, Dey simply told Roos, "Let's skip the Amateur and play the 1955 National Open at Olympic." Roos and the club members couldn't have been happier.

Roos immediately began the process of amending the Lake course. Robert Trent Jones Sr., the preeminent golf course architect in the country, was hired to suggest changes and oversee making them. In the previous four or five years Jones had become the "doctor" of U.S. Open courses. Some, including Ben Hogan, would say he was guilty of malpractice after Jones doctored the Oakland Hills Country Club layout in Birmingham, Michigan, for the 1951 U.S. Open. Oakland Hills' South course was formidable in the buff, so to speak, but Jones determined that it needed an upgrade in its fairway bunkering.

The course was opened for play in 1918, and based on the distance the pros were getting on average with their drivers, Jones relocated existing fairway bunkers and added new ones so they would come into play. The idea was to put an added premium on accuracy off the tee. Either because the players were leaving their drivers in the bag and laying back off the tee to stay short of the bunkers—thus having to play longer approach shots—or because they were taking a chance and finding the sand, there were only two rounds in the 60s in the 1951 championship. One was by Hogan, a dogged, brilliant three-under-par 67 in the last round that gave him a two-shot victory over Clayton Heafner, who, also in the last round, shot a 69. Detroit's golf reporters had been calling the revised Oakland Hills South course a "monster," and in his victory speech Hogan referred to that description, saying he had tamed it. He did not coin the term for the course, but it became associated with him.

There was nothing new in the readjusting of golf courses for the game's best players. Ever since the invention of the three-piece rubber-core golf ball at the turn of the twentieth century by two Ohioans, Coburn Haskell and Bertram Work, golf courses were regularly being lengthened to "protect" them from super sub-par rounds by the game's best players. The Haskell ball (a generic term; eventually, various manufacturers put their own brand name to it) was also dubbed the "Bounding Billie" for the distance it rolled after landing. It was much livelier than the solid gutta-percha ball that had been used for almost a half-century. And, as ball makers gradually made improvements on the Haskell, making balls that could be hit farther and farther, courses kept getting longer. So would the Lake.

It was Jones's charge in his Olympic Club assignment to bring the Lake course "up to modern standards." Before Jones made the revisions, the Lake played to 6,373 yards from the backmost tees. It was indeed too short for the Open, and Jones set a number of tees farther back. The 18th, in particular, was lengthened by close to forty yards. Even though the 17th, originally a short par-5 at 485 yards, was turned into a 460-yard par-4, overall the course was lengthened by 327 yards to 6,760 yards, and the par for the course dropped from 71 to 70. But it would play a good bit longer, owing to the weather conditions. For one thing, the dew and fog moistened the fairways, which did not give a lot of roll. Also, the cool, damp air and the low altitude (the site is only a few feet above sea level) impeded the distance a ball would travel. These factors put some 150 unmeasured yards on the course as a whole. It would play at around 6,900 yards.

An unusual feature of the hitherto untouched Lake course was that it had no fairway bunkers. A few were scattered randomly left and right on some holes, vestiges of the day when the course had no trees. They had become sequestered in among Sam Whiting's trees and were effectively not in play for the U.S. Open. As to adding any, however, Jones was kept well in check. Most people felt that few, if any, were really needed. Whiting's trees had grown to maturity over the past thirty years and closed in the fairways. So only three fairway bunkers were added. Two of them, not in play off the tee, were on the right side of the fairway, some fifty yards short of the first green. They would be factors for second shots and mainly only those played from the rough—or, if a bold player thought he could carry them, in trying for the green from the fairway. The other one was truer to its designation, being placed some 245 yards from the tee on the left side of the 6th fairway—within driving distance. A number of existing greenside bunkers were deepened or expanded to tighten the approach shots, but that was it in respect to the bunkering of the course. Except for a ploy Bob Roos tried but in the end didn't get away with: the dreaded Oakmont Furrows.

When the Oakmont Country Club, just outside Pittsburgh, was opened for play in 1905, Henry Fownes, who founded the club and who evidently had a mean streak as wide as his course, was bound and determined to make it the most difficult in the world. Aside from building the fastest greens known to man, he devised a rake with two-inch-long tines set about a quarter-inch apart that was used to create deep furrows in all the sand traps. The sizing of the tines was perfect. A golf ball fit snugly within the furrows. Adding to the difficulty, the sand was raked so the furrows were perpendicular to the line of play. Unless a misdirected ball happened to end up atop a furrow, the odds of which were very long, it was just about impossible to hit a decent recovery shot. The furrows took a skill shot out of the game and effectively made the bunkers as punishing as water hazards. Finally, after the 1953 U.S. Open at Oakmont, there was so much complaining about the furrows that the USGA banned the feature. Bob Roos claimed he did not know of the ban and outfitted the Olympic Club grounds crew with the damned rake. A likely story. When the USGA saw the furrowed bunkers Roos was told to rake the sand in the customary way.

But no matter how the bunkers were raked, it was the rough that got everyone's attention—and for good reason. The USGA set down parameters for its length. The first six feet or so off the fairway, called the "collar" (now known as the "first cut"), was to be in the range of four inches deep. From that point back it could be grown to eight inches or higher. To this Bob Roos added another element that was not a part of the USGA's specifications—the density of the grass.

In the spring of 1955 Roos and the club's greenkeeper, Elmer Border, overseeded the Italian rye grass and heavily fertilized it. They then refertilized it ten days before the championship to give it a truly wrist-wrenching consistency. The grass itself was thick bladed, so overall the rough was matted and exceptionally resistant to golf clubs trying to pass through it. Furthermore, Roos went above the USGA specs by growing the collar at close to six inches high.


Excerpted from THE UPSET by AL BARKOW Copyright © 2012 by Al Barkow. Excerpted by permission of CHICAGO REVIEW PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Author's Note....................vii
Prologue: Two Characters in Search of a Championship....................1
Stage Set....................9
Supporting Cast....................59
Act I....................71
Act II....................85
Act III....................93
Act IV....................103
Act V....................135
The Reviews Are In....................177
Epilogue: Upset....................211
Selected Bibliography and Sources....................219
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