Bill Fields is a senior editor at Golf World. The following is from his forthcoming book, Arnie, Seve, and a Fleck of Golf History, which will be available June 1, 2014.
Long before Jack Fleck, who died March 21 at age 92, defeated Ben Hogan in an upset for the ages at the 1955 U.S. Open, the Iowan was fascinated with the golf icon whom he would deny a record fifth U.S. Open title at the Olympic Club.
Throughout the late 1940s, even after he got a job as the pro at the two municipal courses—Duck Creek and Credit Island—in Davenport, Iowa, Fleck made occasional forays to Texas, Arizona and California to try his luck on the circuit.
Although the rewards weren’t great, neither was the cost. “I could take $200 and be gone for two or three months,” Fleck says, marveling at the feat. He is still a man who cringes if a night on the road costs him more than $45. “We’d go to California and rent rooms in fine houses for $6 a week. And we could go to a cafeteria or a chuck wagon and load up a tray full of food for 69 cents.”
All the while, Fleck’s entwinement with Hogan was beginning. It started when Fleck perused the agate scores of golf tournaments in the Iowa papers, then copied the scores in a small notebook. “I’d record those eight or 10 places, whatever the paper ran. Pretty soon, the name Ben Hogan comes up. Pretty soon after that, he wins three consecutive tournaments in the Carolinas.”
When Fleck joined the winter tour in those days, he made an effort to watch Hogan, whose serious mien, dark hair and thin build were similar to Fleck’s—except the Iowan was much taller at 6 feet, 1 inch and had a long, loose-jointed stride. “He never knew I was watching him,” Fleck says. “He never knew me from a bale of hay.”
Among the characteristics Fleck observed was Hogan’s tendency to memorize club selection and how holes were best attacked. Knowing he was the kind of guy who remembered things best when he wrote them down, and because he didn’t enjoy the best depth perception, Fleck decided to pace off the distances he hit each of his clubs. He then combined this knowledge with detailed yardages of courses by pacing off from landmarks to the front-third and rear-third of greens.
Although Jack Nicklaus is widely credited as the first big-name golfer to play by yardage—and that he learned about the trick from an amateur named Gene Andrews—Fleck said he was playing by yardages as early as 1947. “I paced yardages when Nicklaus was still in diapers,” Fleck says. “And after I won the Open, everybody started doing it.”
But despite Fleck’s meticulousness, he fought a bad temper and wasn’t a wonderful putter because he opened the blade on the backswing and imparted sidespin on his putts. While his winter trips to points south and west were a heck of a lot more fun than shoveling snow in Iowa, they were neither lucrative nor particularly encouraging.
The closest Fleck got to a headline was on February 2, 1949. As he drove along a Texas highway from El Paso toward Van Horn, an ambulance escorted by a pair of motorcycles roared past his car. “The next morning,” he recalled years later, “I’m having breakfast and I see a paper: ‘Hogan Near Death In Bus Accident.’“