Jack Fleck’s playoff victory over the legendary Ben Hogan in the 1955 U.S. Open is considered one of the greatest upsets in golf, but his final trip to the Masters in 2013 was pretty memorable, too.
Fleck, who died Friday in Fort Smith at the age of 92, travelled to Augusta, Ga., last year with close friend and former caddie Ed Tallach to take part in the annual par-3 tournament that is held the Wednesday before the start of the Masters.
“We’re there at the par-3 tournament, and after the seventh hole I told him he looked a little peaked,” Tallach recalled Friday. “He told me, ‘I’m going to finish.’ So, on the eighth tee, I told CraigStadler, who was playing with him, to walk in front of him and I was going to walk behind him with a finger in his belt loop that not too many people could see.
“It was in case he started to fall, we could grab him, but he walked the entire nine holes at 91 years old.”
And Fleck wasn’t just there for the lightheartedness often displayed at the event. He was all business about his golf.
“They give away silver goblets for each closest to the hole,” said Tallach, who was scheduled to attend the Masters again with Fleck in a couple of weeks. “He was closest to the hole at the second up until the final group came through, and K.J. Choi beat him by an inch and a half.
“Can you imagine had he won one of those silver goblets at that age?”
Hardly anything seemed out of the realm of possibility for Fleck after he defeated Hogan in a playoff for his first and most significant victory in the 1955 U.S. Open at Olympic Club in San Francisco.
Fleck was 32 at the time and playing in just his third major championship when he found himself nine shots behind leader Tommy Bolt after shooting 6-over-par 76 in the opening round
Hogan, who was going for his fifth U.S. Open title, appeared to have things under control after shooting a 70 in the final round, which left him at 7 over for the tournament. Hogan, already in the clubhouse receiving congratulations, looked like such a lock that NBC declared him the winner and moved on to other programming with Fleck still on the course.
But Fleck, who went into the final round three shots behind Hogan, turned in a final round of 3-under 67 to tie Hogan at 7 over and force an 18-hole playoff the next day. Fleck held a one-stroke lead going into the 18th hole of the playoff. Fleck made par and Hogan double-bogeyed to give Fleck, a native of Bettendorf, Iowa, the victory.
Not only did Fleck deny Hogan his record fifth U.S. Open title, he set a mark for the largest comeback (nine shots) to win the tournament, and he did it using Hogan-brand clubs.
“At the time of the Open championship, they were the only two playing Hogan’s clubs,” Tallach said. “He didn’t have the entire set, but Hogan had the final components of the set, probably the wedges, delivered personally to him.”
At least two books were written about Fleck’s victory, The Upset by Al Barkow and The Longest Shot by Neil Sagebiel.
“Jack was a great player who will always be remembered for winning in legendary fashion, capturing one of the most memorable tournaments in history of our game,” PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem told pgatour.com on Friday. “He embodied the ideals of a U.S. Open champion for the remainder of his career.”
Fleck married his first wife Lynn in 1950. Their only child is named Craig, but Fleck wanted to name him Snead Hogan instead.
“She trumped him on that one,” Tallach said.
Fleck won twice more on the PGA Tour, at the 1960 Phoenix Open and the 1961Bakersfield Open, both in playoffs. He won the 1979 PGA Seniors Championship in a playoff and teamed with Tommy Bolt to win the Demaret Division of the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf in 1995 at 73 for his last professional victory.
Fleck played on what is now the Champions Tour through 1981 before moving to the Fort Smith area in 1988, where he built and operated the Lil’ Bit of Heaven course near Magazine. He was the oldest living U.S. Open champion at the time of his death.
“Upon becoming an Arkansas resident, I went up there and had a long conversation with him,” said Tallach, who served as Fleck’s caddie at two PGA Senior Championships and again at the British Senior Open at Turnberry. “He was a misunderstood champion. Sometimes he was portrayed other than what he really was, which was a very compassionate and loving person but a very tough competitor.”
Fleck could be found in his later years at Hardscrabble Country Club in Fort Smith. Club pro Jeremy Moe said Fleck would pass through the clubhouse, talk some golf, sign some autographs and pose for pictures, but mostly he wanted to get to the sanctuary of the course.
“Normally, he’d put his clubs on the back of the cart, hit some balls, then play,” said Moe, who saw Fleck on Wednesday. “He skipped all over the place. He didn’t like to wait. A few hours later he’d be back, have a cup of soup, eat a sandwich, then go out, hit some more balls, putt a little bit and was gone.”
Moe said he and others drove Fleck to the course since he didn’t have a driver’s license any more. In Moe’s nine years at Hardscrabble, he said Fleck gave two lessons and asked for only one lesson from Moe.
“He was complaining about his ball striking, so I said, ‘Why don’t we go work on it?’ ” Moe said. “It was funny in a way, because he was still using the old Hogan blades. It was one of the most interesting lessons I ever gave.”
Fleck is survived by his wife, Carmen, who he married in 2001, and his son, Craig.
Funeral services are scheduled for 2 p.m. Tuesday at First United Methodist Church in Fort Smith, with visitation following the service. A private burial is scheduled beforehand at Fort Smith National Cemetery.
The family requests memorials be made to First Tee of Fort Smith.
Jack Fleck glance
Former professional golfer Jack Fleck, best known for defeating Ben Hogan in an 18-hole playoff to win the 1955 U.S. Open in one of golf’s greatest upsets, died Friday in Fort Smith at age 92. Here is a look at his professional victories:
PGA TOUR VICTORIES
U.S. Open ........................................1955
Phoenix Open ..................................1960
Bakersfield Open .............................1961
PGA Seniors Championship ...........1979
Liberty Mutual Legends* ................1995
*Won the Gold Demaret Division with Tommy Bolt
NOTEWORTHY Fleck’s best Masters finish was a tie for 11th in 1962. His best finish in the PGA Championship was a tie for seventh in 1962.
Sports, Pages 19 on 03/22/2014