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Who is Jack Fleck? If you had been able to answer that question a week ago on a television quiz and had been able to answer it correctly, there is no knowing how many refrigerators and home freezers it would have won for you. Today it is different. Everybody knows who Jack Fleck is. He is the angular 32-year-old Iowan who accomplished two miracles two days hand running. On Saturday at the Olympic Club course in San Francisco, he tied Ben Hogan for first place in the 55th National Open Championship with a 67 on his last round. On Sunday, playing crisp, precise shots from tee to green and putting like a man in a trance, he stopped Ben's tremendous bid to become the first five-time winner of the Open by outscoring him 69 to 72 in the play-off. In short, Jack Fleck is the new National Open champion.
Late on Saturday afternoon, just about an hour after Hogan had finished his fourth and final round with a 70 and had trudged up the hill to the locker-room to sweat out Fleck, the only man on the course with a chance to tie his four-round total of 287 strokes, a tall, spare, somber-faced young man, his dark eyebrows edging from beneath his large gray cap, walked calmly and easily down the fairway of the 18th hole. This rather Lincolnesque figure was Fleck, a pro with just the suspicion of a reputation who operates two municipal courses in Davenport, Iowa when he is not competing in tournaments, who plays with Hogan clubs, who never before had finished as high as fifth place in any circuit competition and who had had an 87 in a warm-up round. On the 337-yard 18th, Fleck walked to the edge of the rough where his drive had ended a scant four inches off the left edge of the fairway, about 110 yards from the small plateaued green which lies in the U at the base of a steep-banked natural amphitheater. As some 10,000 spectators peered down from the hillside, Fleck undramatically prepared to play his pitch—a very big shot indeed. On it rode, to a very large extent, the success or failure of the magnificent attempt to catch Hogan this highly unregarded young man had been making all afternoon after Hogan's pace (and their own errors) had killed off all of his experienced competition.
At the time Hogan had holed out on the 72nd green, Fleck, who had started the final round three shots behind him, had been playing the 12th hole, the 66th of the tournament. He had then stood two under par for the round. He had gotten his par nicely on the 12th and had rescued his par on the 13th with an excellent trap shot, but when he had gone one over par with a five on the 14th, Fleck's chances of catching Hogan had seemed absolutely forlorn. To do so, he had had to finish with two pars and two birdies on the last four holes, and on the Olympic Club course this is a considerable feat on a lazy non-tournament afternoon let alone on the last round of the world's most important championship.
Fleck had immediately picked up one of the birdies he needed on the 15th, a short par three, where he dumped his iron about nine feet from the cup and holed his putt. On the 603-yard 16th, after he had pulled his third in the rough behind the apron, he had all but holed his delicate chip. Par. Playing now like a man who has been "touched," as golfers say, hitting every shot superbly, he had laced two woods to the back of the green on the 17th, a par four 461 yards long which swings uphill all the way. His try for his birdie from 40 feet had just slid by the cup. Par. So now it all depended on whether or not he could birdie the home hole.
From his lie in the rough—not too difficult a lie since the rough was not too heavy at that spot—Fleck played a three-quarter seven-iron and hit a simply wonderful shot. Flying in a low trajectory, the ball just cleared the bunker that guards the front entrance to the green and sat down hole-high, seven feet to the right of the cup. This home green tilts severely from back to front and its surface is slippery. All the tournament long, the players, and with reason, had been babying their putts here, hoping to catch just a corner of the cup. There was nothing tentative about Fleck's putt, downhill with a faint right-to-left borrow, as he read it correctly. He struck the ball firmly and it rolled right in, right in the center. He had gotten that birdie, he had tied Hogan, but for minutes and minutes after they had seen him do it, no one in the gallery could actually believe what they had witnessed.
Jack Fleck's fantastic finish and his equally incredible golf in the play-off were the ultimate chunks of drama in a championship which, even before Fleck came ghosting down the stretch, had made its progress one of the most exciting additions of the National Open. It had just about everything. To begin with, after only one man had broken par (70) on the opening round—Tommy Bolt with a 67—there had been the annual controversy as to whether or not the USGA and the host club had made the course unfairly tough in their efforts to provide a formidable test for the present brigade of precision golfers. Along the narrow fairways—narrower in "feel" than their actual measurements since they are lined with dark green cedars, eucalyptus and pine—lurked rough that was really rough. Mainly made up of a rye grass imported from Italy 33 years ago, grass whose single stalks measure about three-eighths of an inch in width, this rough, whether cut to two inches adjacent to the fairways or allowed to grow first to five inches and then to a foot in height farther from the fairway, was extremely thick, matty and resistant. To play more than a six-iron from the deeper strips was quite impossible. Moreover, the clumpy rough around the perimeter of the greens was terribly potent. To get out of it, a golfer had to strike the ball a pretty decisive blow, and it was quite impossible to do this without the ball's picking up a terrific overspin that sent it racing, sometimes, over the opposite edge of the green. To cope with this rough, a sharp-edged wedge was required equipment, and as Bob Drum of the Pittsburgh Press remarked, this Open, among its other distinctions, could boast of "the sharpest wedges ever honed."
In any event, since scrambling was out of the question, the major problem for anyone who hoped to score well was to sacrifice distance and keep straight and meet this examination in tight target golf on its own terms. On his opening round, Sam Snead did just the reverse. After missing three putts of under five feet which had taken the edge off his concentration, Sam had begun spraying his tee shots, had been unable to get home from the rough and had ended his sad safari with 79 blows. Although it later turned out not to be the case, it seemed at the time that Sam had shot himself completely out of the tournament and, in his understandable chagrin, had stomped from the clubhouse to his auto still wearing his spikes. On this opening round, 82 of the 162 starters took 80 or more to get around. At the halfway mark, a total of 155 strokes was low enough to qualify for the final 36 on Saturday, the highest figure for the "cut" in a good many seasons.
By Saturday, the big day, when a mild San Francisco fog rolled in (on little caddies' feet) and obscured most of the white city in the distance, "the cream" had come to the top, as it invariably does on a demanding course. Leading at 144 were Bolt and Harvie Ward. With a chance to run away from the field if he added a fairly low second round, Bolt had taken a 77, fading his irons chronically and stroking his putts anything but like the golfer who had taken only 24 putts in the process of his opening 67. A stroke behind at 145 stood Ben Hogan (73-72) and Julius Boros (76-69) along with Fleck (76-69) and another unknown, Walker Inman, a youngster from Augusta who had been Fleck's playing partner the first two days and who is his present traveling partner on the tournament circuit. Snead, relaxed again and playing superlatively from tee to green, had leapt back with a 69, and he stood at 148 along with Jack Burke, only four strokes off the pace. It was an amazing dramatis personae for the final day, a storybook lineup if there ever was one. Here was Harvie Ward, the local boy who lives across the street from the club, with as good a chance as any amateur has had in a long, long time to take the Open. Here was Snead once again in a position, if he could muster all his talent, to finally take the Open, the only major championship he has never won though, heaven knows, he has had his chances. And here, to be sure, was Hogan. On his first two rounds, Ben's play had not been too impressive, not for anyone who remembered the complete authority that had been his in 1951 and in 1953, his peak year. The old sense of attack was missing in his putting. His swing seemed somewhat flatter and shorter than usual. He seldom opened up with his full cut, and when he did, he had trouble getting through on the shot. He was swinging faster too, sort of punching into the short shots with his forearms forcing the blow. But Ben was controlling the ball, hitting the fairways, hitting the greens, retaining his composure and his keenness since the tiredness that came into his legs as he climbed up and down the hills was largely burned away by the inner drive that stayed with him every second of the way as he strove to achieve his appointed goal of becoming the first player ever to win the Open five times.
By midafternoon it looked as if Ben had that fifth championship, and with strokes to spare. One by one the other contenders had faded away. Young Inman went out with a 76 in the morning, and Harvie had shot his wad on the third round also, with a 76. Bob Rosburg, who had rushed into the contention with a 67 in the morning, played himself out of it early in the fourth round. Boros' chances were finished after he took a double bogey on the short 3rd (or 57th). For all intents and purposes, the tournament had resolved itself into another duel between those two ancient rivals, Hogan and Snead.
Playing about three holes in front of Ben, Sam started the final round one shot behind him. He quickly fell three behind when he led off with 5-5 against Ben's 4-4. He remained three behind when he turned in 37 and Ben in 35. At this stage of the tournament, both of these great golfers were playing great golf. You just can't hit a golf ball any better than Sam was hitting it. On the 12th, 13th and 14th, for example, he played, in succession, an 8-iron approach nine feet past the pin, a 4-iron five feet past and a 5-iron approach about seven feet to the left. He made none of the putts and, in truth, never looked for a moment as if he would. The definitive comment on Snead's pathetic failures on the greens came on the 13th (or 67th) hole, a 187-yarder, where he all but holed his 4-iron. As the ball barely missed the cup and slid five feet by, Sam's rooters almost conceded on the spot that, having missed his one, he would now have to settle for a three.