History had all but been written. Ben Hogan was in the house and poised to lift his record-breaking fifth U.S. Open Trophy. Until a little-known municipal golf pro from Davenport, Iowa, birdied two of the last four holes on the Lake Course at The Olympic Club to force a playoff.
Everyone had counted out Jack Fleck. But after his long journey to San Francisco, both physically and symbolically, he wasn’t ready to concede to one of the game’s all-time greats.
“Somebody told me that they had announced that Ben Hogan had won the tournament. But I knew I was still in the ballgame,” said Fleck ahead of the 2012 U.S. Open at The Olympic Club. “They hadn’t counted on me being so close in the running.”
In fairness, Fleck, himself, didn’t arrive at The Olympic Club in 1955 expecting to pull one of the biggest upsets in golf history.
“My goal was that I wanted to finish top 10 in the ‘55 Open. Then I’d be exempt the next year,” said Fleck. “Even while playing the U.S. Open at Olympic, the thought of winning it didn’t cross my mind.”
But win it he did via an 18-hole playoff in which he never trailed. Up three strokes through 10 holes, Fleck staved off a charging Hogan, who had cut the deficit to one stroke on the 18th tee. There, Hogan all but gave it away with a wayward tee show that opened the door for Fleck to calmly clinch his enduring moment in history.
“When I won the tournament and I beat Hogan, he was one of the first to shake my hand,” said Fleck, who ironically played Hogan-branded clubs during the championship. “He complimented me many times about it. It was really something.”
But the 1955 U.S. Open is just the climax of the Jack Fleck story. The narrative leading up to that is atypical of a major golf champion in those days. Fleck was the antithesis of the posh country-club kid. He was born into a farming family in Bettendorf, Iowa, in 1921.
Fleck fell in love with golf as an adolescent and played on his high school team at Davenport High while caddieing at local courses as a teenager. At 18, he turned professional and served as the assistant pro at Des Moines Country Club.
Soon after, his life was turned upside down by World War II. Three years after starting his career as a golf pro, Fleck enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was involved in the 1944 D-Day invasion of Normandy, providing support on a British vessel on Utah Beach.
Discharged from the Navy in 1946, Fleck’s life had changed dramatically and permanently, but the golf bug never left. Within two weeks of returning home, he attempted to qualify for the PGA Tour’s winter events. But his return to the game was hardly a smashing success. He toiled as a journeyman for years until he decided to commit to the game full time.
It was the fateful year of 1955 when Fleck dedicated himself to the game. He was all in. This is what he wanted to do. Clearly, that commitment paid dividends, but success was fleeting following the 1955 U.S. Open. He won a couple Tour events and tied for third in the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills – he finished behind a couple guys named Palmer and Nicklaus. He was also a fixture on the senior circuit through the 1980s, but nothing came close to that week in San Francisco in 1955. For an Iowa farm boy with modest aspirations, that was perfectly fine by Fleck.
Fleck died in March 2014, but his dalliance with history endures and gives hope to other small-town Iowa golfers with a dream.
Joey Flyntz is the USGA’s associate manager of digital media. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.