THE LONGEST SHOT: Jack Fleck, Ben Hogan, and Pro Golf’s Greatest Upset at the 1955 U.S. Open
By Neil Sagebiel. Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press. 320 pages. $29.99
Reviewed by Michael L. Ramsey
MICHAEL L. RAMSEY is president of the Roanoke Public Library Foundation.
Golf is a good walk spoiled.
— attributed to Mark Twain
The 1955 U.S. Open was played at the Olympic Club’s Lake Course in San Francisco, and for many of the qualifying professional golfers, the Lake Course was a good walk spoiled. But not for Jack Fleck.
Neil Sagebiel of Floyd County captures the drama and the ambiance of professional golf in the mid-1950s in a book that will delight golfers but also enhance any reader’s understanding of American society in post-World War II America.
The story of Iowa club pro Jack Fleck’s rise from obscurity to win the U.S. Open is the essence of the American Dream.
The title of Sagebiel’s book tells you the outcome of the contest that is the focus of this story. It doesn’t spoil the read.
Sagebiel tells Fleck’s story while re-creating the venue of the early pro circuit in the days before games were televised and golfers were national celebrities. Of course, there were some well-known golfers in the 1950s — including Ben Hogan, Fleck’s hero. They had one big thing in common: work ethic. Hogan’s earned him four U.S. Open championships, Fleck’s earned him celebrity by winning one U.S. Open in a playoff with Hogan.
Fleck’s introduction to golf was through working as a caddie, a time when caddies toted the bag of clubs (before country clubs had carts) and offered no advice to players (because their advice was not sought, nor would it have been welcomed).
He became the club pro at two municipal courses in Davenport, Iowa. His wife and his assistant helped him with the pro duties, and that allowed Fleck time to follow the winter circuit of golf tournaments, where he had the chance to earn a spot on the pro tour.
In the 1950s, professional golf was not the same business it is today. The pros did not have lucrative endorsement contracts (some had endorsements, but not as generous as they are now).
Most players played with a kind of blindness that bothered obsessive players like Fleck (and Hogan). Fleck was one of only a few golfers who measured the yardage of holes and the length of fairway shots. Usually, yardages were not published by courses because they were not known. No reason to spoil a good walk with statistics.
Fleck knew the length of fairways, and he knew how far he could hit a ball. That meticulous preparation would help on the wicked Lake Course at Olympic.
The Lake Course was the work of legendary golf course designer Robert Trent Jones. His course had narrow fairways bordered by very high roughs and terminated by difficult greens surrounded by bunkers.
If anybody spoiled a good walk on the Lake Course in 1955, it was Jones. But Fleck and Hogan played to a tie, and in the 18-hole playoff, Fleck emerged victorious, denying Hogan his fifth U.S. Open championship.
Sagebiel brings to life the drama of the tournament and the long road to arrive there. He also re-creates a time when golf was just a sport, and the players enjoyed the game without the money and the fame that accompany modern-day athletes.
Reading this book is like reading the golf coverage from a major newspaper in the 1950s when a keen ability to describe the players and their venue was the key to having readers. Having readers was the key to job security.