Monday, August 17
Is Y.E. Yang the New Jack Fleck?
Yours truly with Jack Fleck in May.
MIKE LUPICA OF THE DAILY NEWS says Y.E. Yang’s upset of Tiger Woods at the PGA Championship “was Jack Fleck beating Ben Hogan at Olympic in 1955, only it was more than that.”
Comparisons to Fleck’s upset are understandable, which, at the time, was reported by sportswriters as the greatest golf upset since amateur Francis Ouimet beat British professionals Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in the 1913 U.S. Open at Brookline.
Yang’s achievement will certainly go down in golf history. Tiger, holder of 14 major championship titles, was a perfect 14 for 14 when leading a major after 54 holes. Yang did the unthinkable. He flat outplayed Tiger in the final round, overcoming a two-stroke deficit to win the Wanamaker Trophy. It was a jaw-dropping performance.
Through this golf blog and my golf travels over the last two years I’ve become well acquainted with Jack Fleck and his story. In fact, we’ve become friends. I’ve heard Jack’s story first hand and I’ve read most of what has been written about the 1955 U.S. Open.
It’s always difficult to compare golfers from different eras, but here’s what I can tell you.
Coming into the 2009 PGA Championship, Yang had a golf pedigree that easily eclipsed Fleck’s resume. Yang beat Tiger and a strong international field three years ago at the HSBC Classic in China. He also won the PGA Tour’s Honda Classic earlier this year.
And Fleck? “He had never won a caddies tournament,” Tommy Bolt told me last year. OK, a bit of an exaggeration, but not much. An Iowa muni pro, Jack was playing the first of two make-or-break seasons on the PGA Tour in 1955. His best finish in a tour event was eighth. He had played in two U.S. Opens, missing the cut once and tying for 52nd.
Ben Hogan wasn’t Tiger Woods, but he was certainly the Tiger of his era. Coming into the 1955 U.S. Open, Hogan had won four of his previous six U.S. Opens. (He didn’t play in 1949 because of a near-fatal car accident.) After the accident that was supposed to end his career, Hogan — playing in no more than seven events a year — won six majors in five seasons.
As Lupica points out, Hogan was more at the tail end of his career in 1955 than Tiger is in 2009. But Hogan was still the prohibitive favorite in the U.S. Open. When he completed play at the Olympic Club five shots ahead of Sam Snead and Tommy Bolt, NBC-TV and national radio announced Hogan as the winner, the first five-time U.S. Open champion.
Then something other worldly happened. Jack, a virtual unknown who was still on the course, birdied two of the last four holes on a brutal layout to tie Hogan. It included sinking a dramatic 7-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole. The next day the man who had never won a caddies tournament beat Hogan in an 18-hole playoff, 69 to 72, denying Hogan his record fifth U.S. Open. It was front-page news across the country and Jack was an instant celebrity.
Greatest pro golf upset? I still give the nod to Jack, an unproven player who beat the greatest of his era on a bigger golf stage, the U.S. Open.
Neil Sagebiel (aka The Armchair Golfer) is the author of THE LONGEST SHOT: Jack Fleck, Ben Hogan, and Pro Golf’s Greatest Upset at the 1955 U.S. Open, which publishes on May 22 from St. Martin’s Press (Thomas Dunne Books). Learn more and pre-order at book page, Amazon and Barnes & Noble.