Tuesday, July 31

Leaderboard Golf: Q&A With Author Neil Sagebiel

Jack Fleck at the 1959 Hesperia Open.
LEADERBOARD GOLF (UK) RECENTLY published a Q&A with me about THE LONGEST SHOT: Jack Fleck, Ben Hogan, and Pro Golfs Greatest Upset at the 1955 U.S. Open (St. Martin’s Press, May 2012).

Q: How did you meet Jack Fleck?

NEIL SAGEBIEL: A reader of my ARMCHAIR GOLF BLOG who shared my interest in golf history and was a big Ben Hogan fan passed along the tip. You might want to talk to Jack Fleck, he said in an email. That sounded fun to me, so I called Jack one day in the spring of 2007. That first phone conversation led to many more. Not long after I drove to Savannah, Georgia, to meet Jack while he was playing in the Legends of Golf. He was 85 at the time and could drive the golf ball 260 yards. He was flexible. His swing was fluid. I was amazed.

Q: How did the book come about?

NS: I wasn’t planning it, I can tell you that. But the more I dug into Jack’s story and the ’55 U.S. Open, the more fascinated I became. I had known about the upset for years, seeing it written up from time to time in newspapers and magazines. I realized from my early research that this wasn’t just one of golf’s greatest upsets; it was one of the biggest upsets in all of sports. I was surprised there was no book. So, knowing it would not be easy, I decided to give it a try. 

Q: What drew you to the story? Were there any big surprises?

NS: Through the years as I’d hear about it, I always wondered how Fleck did it. That is, how did an unheralded club pro from Iowa beat a legend, a four-time U.S. Open champion? It was kind of unfathomable. My research and now my book reveals how it happened, including who Fleck was and what his aspirations were in the spring of 1955. It also tells about Hogan, of course, but a lot of people already know a little or a lot about him. And yes, there are plenty of surprises, but I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. The biggest, obviously, is that the unproven Fleck managed to beat the great Hogan in an 18-hole playoff for the U.S. Open title when nobody thought Fleck had a prayer. 

Q: What makes this pro golf's greatest upset?

NS: Fleck was called “Jack the Giant Killer” in Sports Illustrated after he beat Hogan. It was front-page news around the country. Sportswriters at the time hailed it as the greatest upset since amateur Francis Ouimet beat Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in a playoff to win the 1913 U.S. Open. And, in my opinion, nothing since 1955 has eclipsed it. 

Q: What was tour golf like back in the 1950s?

NS: A whole lot different than today. It was competitive like it is today, but there wasn’t any money to speak of. Tournament purses ranged from about $10,000 to $30,000. (Jack Fleck received $6,000 for winning the 1955 U.S. Open.) The golf courses were not lush and perfectly groomed. Grass could be scarce and the greens all different. There were no yardage markers. They played by sight and intuition. Travel was so much harder, all by car. Players stuck together to save on expenses and make it from town to town. Jack’s wife once said that he spent $8 for every dollar he earned on the circuit. It was tough out there.

Q: Did you have any interesting experiences while writing this book?

NS: Yes! I got to talk to and hang out with golf legends—Tommy Bolt, Arnold Palmer, Billy Casper, Doug Ford, Errie Ball and many others. As I developed a relationship with Jack, I attended Champions Tour events where Jack and other old-timers played. I caddied, entered locker rooms, ate in player dining rooms and otherwise kept company with players as they swapped stories and talked about the old days on the PGA Tour. 

Q: Does Jack Fleck still play golf?

NS: He does. He’s 90, and still plays almost every day. He hits practice balls. Then he goes out in a cart and plays 9 holes. A few weeks before the U.S. Open, he got a new set of irons. The first day he used them he made a hole-in-one at his home club in Fort Smith, Arkansas. I’m pretty certain Jack will never stop playing unless he’s physically unable to. He’s been a golf pro for 73 years.

THE LONGEST SHOT is now available on Amazon UK. Or get it at Amazon US.

(Photo courtesy of Jack Fleck)

2 comments :

golf school said...

4It's amazing that Jack is still playing golf at the age of 90. Did you have the opportunity to play with him while working on the book?

The Armchair Golfer said...

I've never actually played with Jack, but I've been out on the golf course with him many times, including caddying for him at Champions Tour events. I did hit balls with him in Fort Smith, where he lives. We were on the practice tee at Hardscrabble Country Club and he said I could hit with him, using his clubs. That was fun!