Jack Fleck: The Underdog Who Beat Hogan for U.S. Open

Jack Fleck is remembered in golf history as the giant-slayer, the massive underdog who pulled off one of the greatest surprise wins ever. That win was a U.S. Open, and the giant Fleck had to beat in a playoff to get that win was Ben Hogan. Fleck was not a one-hit wonder, however. He won a couple more times on the PGA Tour afterward. Later, he added a big senior championship. And all of those wins happened in playoffs.

Full name: Jack Donald Fleck

Date of birth: November 7, 1921

Place of birth: Bettendorf, Iowa

Date and place of death: March 21, 2014, in Fort Smith, Arkansas

His Biggest Wins

Fleck had three victories on the PGA Tour:
  • 1955 U.S. Open
  • 1960 Phoenix Open Invitational
  • 1961 Bakersfield Open
Off the tour, he won the Illinois PGA Championship in 1964 and the Illinois Open in 1965. As a senior (50-and-over) golfer, Fleck won the 1979 Senior PGA Championship, one year before the creation of the Senior PGA Tour.

Fleck's U.S. Open Win Over Hogan

Jack Fleck's victory in the 1955 U.S. Open, where he first chased down Ben Hogan in the final round, and then beat Hogan head-to-head in an 18-hole playoff, is such a part of golf lore that, a quarter-century later, multiple books have been written about this one tournament. Those include The Upset: Jack Fleck's Incredible Victory over Ben Hogan at the U.S. Open, by Al Barkow; and The Longest Shot: Jack Fleck, Ben Hogan, and Pro Golf's Greatest Upset at the 1955 U.S. Open (affiliate links used for books in this article), by Neil Sagebiel.

The titles of those books give away why Fleck's win is the stuff of legend: He was, at the time, a golfer with no significant pro victories and little-know to golf fans. And Hogan was ... Hogan. A giant of the game, one of the all-time bests, who just two years earlier had won every major championship he entered (going 3-for-3). A man with the reputation of an intimidator.

Hogan was also trying to become the first golfer to win the U.S. Open five times. He had already won four of them, tied with Willie Anderson and Bobby Jones for most victories in this tournament. Every observer at the time expected a golfer with Fleck's thin resumé to wilt in a playoff against the legend-in-his-own-time Hogan.

And Fleck wasn't just battling against Hogan the golfer, but Hogan the fan-favorite. Spectators were overwhelmingly in Hogan's corner, which had nothing to do with with Fleck — Hogan was chasing history, and was the man who had come back from a near-fatal auto accident to play near-perfect golf.

But Fleck didn't wilt. And Hogan didn't get that fifth U.S. Open victory.

Fleck was 33 years old when he teed off the 1955 U.S. Open at San Francisco's Olympic Club. Hogan definitely knew who Fleck was, because Fleck had ordered a custom set of irons from the recently formed Ben Hogan Company. Hogan had hand-delivered a couple wedges to Fleck. Fleck was the only golfer in the field, aside from Hogan himself, playing Hogan-brand irons.

Tommy Bolt was the first-round leader with a 67, with Hogan sitting fourth at 72. Fleck's score for Round 1 was 76. That 9-stroke deficit after the first round by the eventual winner remains the tournament record today.

Fleck had a 69 in Round 2 that moved him into a tie for third place. One of the golfers he was tied with was Hogan. They were one stroke off the lead.

In the third round, Hogan moved into the lead with a 72. Fleck carded a 75 and fell back to sixth place, three strokes behind Hogan. Some big names — including Sam Snead and Julius Boros, tied for second place — were in-between Fleck and Hogan. Absolutely nobody though Fleck was a real contender as the final round began.

In those days, the leaders were not scheduled to tee off last in the next round. So Hogan teed off about an hour ahead of Fleck in the final round. And after Hogan scored 70 to post 287, he was well in front of the big names who had finished or were still on the course. Most observers felt Hogan was surely the winner.

In fact, Gene Sarazen, part of the NBC broadcasting crew, congratulated Hogan on-air for presumably winning and earning that record fifth U.S. Open title. NBC's coverage, only an hour long, ended with everyone believing Hogan had won, and with Fleck still on the course.

Fleck was two strokes behind after bogeying the 14th. But he got a stroke back with birdie on No. 15, pulling within one of Hogan's lead. He parred the 16th and 17th holes. Needing a birdie on the last to tie, Fleck got it: He rolled in an 8-foot birdie putt to card 67 and tie Hogan at 287.

That set up an 18-hole playoff for the following day. Again, there was nobody who thought Fleck stood a chance against the mighty Hogan. Fleck opened the playoff with seven consecutive pars, and he got the lead when Hogan bogeyed No. 5. At the turn, Fleck led by two strokes.

Fleck had consecutive birdies on Nos. 8, 9 and 10, and the birdie on 10 pushed his lead to three strokes. Fleck bogeyed No. 11. When Hogan birdied the 14th he cut the lead to two. Then Fleck bogeyed the 17th and his lead was down to a single stroke with one hole to go.

But it literally slipped away from Hogan: On his drive off the 18th tee, one of Hogan's feet slipped. He hit a bad hook into deep rough and needed multiple strokes just to get back into the fairway.

When that 18th hole ended, Hogan had double bogeyed and Fleck had parred. Fleck won the playoff, the U.S. Open trophy, and fame, with a 69 to Hogan's 72. It was immediately hailed as one of the biggest upsets in golf history. (Surprisingly, Hogan, by the way, actually had a losing record in playoffs over his career.) The Sports Illustrated headline was "Jack the Giant Killer."

But almost everyone had been cheering for Hogan, and Fleck never felt that he'd gotten his due for his accomplishment. There are also rumors over the years about the often-dour Hogan holding a grudge, but that is something Fleck always said was not true: "People said Hogan hated my guts because I won," Fleck once said, "but he was always good to me, exceptionally good."

Fleck's Other Performances in Major Championships

That 1955 U.S. Open wasn't his first time playing a major, and it wasn't his only time finishing near the lead in a major. Fleck's first time playing a major was in the 1950 U.S. Open. In 1953, he got into two majors, the U.S. Open and PGA Championship. His next appearance in a major was that huge victory over Hogan.

About a month later, in the 1955 PGA Championship, Fleck reached the Round of 16 (officially a tie for ninth place) before falling (in that tournament's match-play era) to Tommy Bolt. He played most of the U.S.-based majors from that point through the mid-1960s, but from 1968-76 played none. Then he made one last appearance in the 1977 U.S. Open.

Fleck had a total of four Top 10 finishes in majors. In addition to the two already mentioned, he tied for third in the 1960 U.S. Open and tied for seventh in the 1962 PGA Championship.

More About Jack Fleck

Jack Fleck grew up poor on a farm in Iowa. He began working when he was young to help support his family, eventually, in his early teens, becoming a caddie.

By the time he was 18 years old, in 1939, he turned pro as a golfer to take a job in the pro shop at Des Moines (Iowa) Country Club. He soon became the assistant pro, a position he held until he joined the U.S. Navy after the Pearl Harbor attack.

Fleck served in the Navy for the duration of America's involvement in World War II. He was onboard a ship providing fire support during the D-Day invasion. After the war, Fleck left the Navy in 1946 and returned to his club pro job.

His first appearance in a PGA Tour event was in the 1949 Western Open, from which he withdrew after the third round. But about a month later, Fleck finished fifth in his home-state Cedar Rapids Open, his first Top 10 finish on tour.

He stuck with the club pro life, though, for the next several years, with sporadic tour appearances. In 1953, Fleck increased his tournament play to 12 PGA Tour events. He made the cut in 10, and finished the year tying for ninth in the Miami Open. He boosted his tour play again in 1954, starting 16 tournaments, making the cut in 15, finishing in the Top 25 in nine of them.

In 1955, he went into the U.S. Open having made 14 starts on tour that year. In those 14 starts, Fleck finished outside the Top 25 just twice. His best showing was a tie for 11th and he had finished inside the Top 20 in eight of those starts. And Fleck finished 17th, 18th and 17th in the three starts he made immediately prior to the 1955 U.S. Open.

Fleck had no wins on the PGA Tour prior to that 1955 U.S. Open, no wins of great significance off the tour, either. (He had won the RGCC Shelden Invitational twice, in 1952 and 1954, but that was a minor, regional tournament.) It is certainly true that to the public his name was little-known prior to the 1955 U.S. Open. But as we've seen, it is wrong to think of him as a "nobody" heading into that U.S. Open. His fellow pros might not have been thinking of him as a "player to watch," but they did know who he was.

But even after winning that 1955 U.S. Open, Fleck didn't commit to full-time PGA Tour schedule for several years, keeping his starts under 20 per year. The 1959 season was the first in which he played at least 20 tournaments (he made 22 PGA Tour starts that year). He had seven Top 10 finishes in 1959, including runner-up showings in consecutive weeks late in the schedule, at the Hesperia Open and the Orange County Open.

It was five years before he won again on the PGA Tour, but Fleck did win twice more. He won the 1960 Phoenix Open Invitational, plus the 1961 Bakersfield Open. His 1960 season included a career-best 12 Top 10 finishes (8 of those Top 5), plus another two runner-up showings at the St. Petersburg Open Invitational and Insurance City Open Invitational, both playoff losses.

Playoffs were a consistent theme in Fleck's PGA Tour career. All three of his wins were via playoff. In the 1960 Phoenix Open, Fleck beat Bill Collins in a playoff. In the 1961 Bakersfield Open, he defeated Bob Rosburg in a playoff. In those two playoff losses in 1960, Fleck fell to George Bayer (St. Petersburg) and Arnold Palmer (Insurance City).

His winning days were done on the PGA Tour after 1961. He did finish second at the 1962 Denver Open Invitational. Fleck made 31 starts in 1963, career-most, but in 1964 made only six starts after returning to a club pro job. He played a limited schedule through rest of the 1960s and made zero starts in 1969. Fleck played sporadically in the 1970s and didn't make his final PGA Tour start until 1983.

Fleck finished in the Top 60 of the PGA Tour money list (then the cutoff to avoid weekly qualifying) in 1955-57, plus 1959-63. His best money-list finish was 18th in 1960.

For his career, the PGA Tour credits Fleck with 339 official tournaments played and 41 Top 10 finishes. In addition to his three victories, Fleck finished runner-up five times on the PGA Tour, third place six times, and 17 times was in the Top 5.

Fleck turned 50 late in 1971, nine years before the creation of the Senior Tour. There weren't a lot of big tournament playing opportunities for 50-and-over pros at that time. In 1978, he began entering the Senior PGA Championship. He tied for fourth place that year.

And then Fleck, 57 years old, won the 1979 Senior PGA Championship (then called the PGA Seniors' Championship). Guess how he did it: in a playoff. Fleck, Bob Erickson and Bill Johnston tied after 72 holes and entered a sudden-death playoff. Fleck won it with a 25-foot birdie putt on the third extra hole.

Fleck went on to record Top 10 finishes in the Senior PGA Championship in 1980, 1984 and 1987 (tying for fifth at age 65).

When the Champions Tour was created (as the Senior PGA Tour) in 1980, Fleck was already 58 years old. But he played the senior circuit regularly through 1991. After that, his play was more here-and-there. But his final start on the Champions Tour didn't happen until 2005, when he was 83 years old.

On the Champions Tour Fleck finished with 248 tournaments played. He never finished in the Top 3, but did have two Top 5 finishes and 23 Top 10 finishes.

Throughout his career in golf, in addition to his stints as a tour pro, Fleck worked as a club professional. He spent time at clubs in Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois and California. In 1988, Fleck moved to Arkansas. There, he designed, built and ran a golf course he named Lil' Bit a Heaven Golf Club. In 1995, after flooding damaged the course, Fleck sold off his U.S. Open champion's medal for $35,000 to raise money for repairs. He ran the course until it closed in 2003.

Fleck wrote an autobiography, The Jack Fleck Story, that was published in 2002. He had previously authored two books of golf instruction, Be a Golf Tour Champion and The Mental Secret to Better Golf.

In 2012, when the U.S. Open was once again played at Olympic Club, the 90-year-old Fleck was there on the 18th green when it was over to present the trophy to the winner, Webb Simpson.

Jack Fleck was 92 years old when he died in 2014. He had been the oldest-living U.S. Open champion. He is a member of the Iowa Golf Hall of Fame and of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.

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