Wednesday, May 30

Q&A: Bob Rosburg on the Olympic Club and 1955 U.S. Open

(Editor’s note: This is another in a series of stories and interviews about how I wrote THE LONGEST SHOT: Jack Fleck, Ben Hogan, and Pro Golf’s Greatest Upset at the 1955 U.S. Open.)
TOMMY BOLT, BOB ROSBURG, SHELLEY MAYFIELD. They’re all gone now, but I had the pleasure of interviewing them, along with several other legends, as I researched and wrote THE LONGEST SHOT. All three men played in the 1955 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club. And all three were highly entertaining as they recounted that historic tournament and the early days on the PGA Tour.

In the fall of 2008, I twice called Rosburg at his home in Palm Springs and we talked at length about the 1955 U.S. Open and a range of other golf topics. Following is an excerpt from our conversation.

Bob Rosburg circa 1955.
What stands out in your memory about the 1955 U.S. Open?

BOB ROSBURG: Probably that the course played so hard. Being a member there, I didn’t think it would play quite so hard as it did. You just look at the scores, and it was unbelievable how tough the golf course was. It’s not long. It’s not the type of back breaker that so many courses are, but the Olympic Club has always stood up to be a great golf course. I thought it really played hard. It was the toughest rough I've ever seen there. You hit it in the rough and you didn’t have much chance. At the end, they couldn’t even move it out of the rough some of the times.

I knew you had a good finish there and after the first 18 on Saturday you were right in it.

BOB ROSBURG: I had a chance. I was just a couple of shots behind. Everybody said Hogan was tired. And Snead, I played the first two rounds with him and I said, “Sam, you got a great chance.” He shot 79, 69, or something like that. He said nobody can win the Open that’s missed as many putts as I have. He had a phobia about the Open and I think that’s why he never won.

I guess that’s one of the great heartbreak stories in the history of golf. Snead came close so many times.

BOB ROSBURG: That’s right.

I imagine growing up on that golf course, playing it as a junior, I can’t imagine there was another pro in the field who knew the course better than you did.

BOB ROSBURG: I wouldn’t think so. I played there a lot. My dad joined when I was about 10 or 11 years old, and I had played it that whole time. It was a great golf course. It was fun to play there. The juniors got treated pretty well. The members were nice. It was just a great place to be around.

Robert Trent Jones had done some modifications to the course before the Open. He changed a couple of holes around and added length. But from talking to the other fellows, they all said they had never seen rough like that before or since.

BOB ROSBURG: There’s no question about that. It was the toughest I've ever seen. I wasn’t around in ‘51 when they played at Oakland Hills where Hogan said it was the hardest place he had ever seen. Every other Open course I've played, yeah, they’ve had rough, not anything like the Olympic Club was.

You tied for low round of the tournament with your third-round 67. Tommy Bolt had a 67 in the first round to lead and Fleck shot a 67 in the last round. What do you remember about the third round? What did you have going?

BOB ROSBURG: I don’t remember a whole lot about it. I played with a fellow named Charlie Rotar who was just an average kind of a club pro. He didn’t play a lot on tour. He was a good player. We started out with about four people. By the time we got to 18, we had a pretty big gallery because people heard I was going real good. In fact, I bogeyed the last hole. I was 4 under going to 18, and 18 is not a really hard hole, but I managed to make a 5 there. It was a big thrill to get back into where I had a chance to win.

What were you, about 28?

BOB ROSBURG: Yeah, I was 28.

There’s a good picture of you in the June [1955] Sports Illustrated. It has a U.S. Open preview.

BOB ROSBURG: I think I remember that. It has pictures of a lot of young guys, doesn’t it?

They called you the Young Guard. And you were in there with [Arnold] Palmer and [Gene] Littler and [Mike] Souchak. Were you considered a favorite or someone people thought had a pretty good chance?

BOB ROSBURG: I think I was under the radar. I didn’t get a lot of publicity. It was sort of funny because I think everybody figured Littler was the favorite. Gene was a very good friend of mine. In fact, he stayed with us in Palo Alto at the time during the tournament. We rode to the course everyday. He couldn’t handle the rough. I played a practice round with him and he might have shot 85. He was shanking it out of the rough. I think he kind of lost his confidence.

But I think Littler was the favorite going in. Palmer hadn’t done a whole lot up until that time. And, of course, everybody thought Hogan was kind of finished. They were wrong. Bolt had a chance whenever he played. Tom was a great player when the course got real hard. When things are tough at a golf course, Tommy could be a driving force. And he played well. He had a chance.

But nobody thought anything about Fleck.

(Bob Rosburg died seven months later on May 14, 2009. He had 6 wins on the PGA Tour, including the 1959 PGA Championship, and played on the 1959 U.S. Ryder Cup team. He also served as an ABC on-course commentator for more than three decades.)

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, from St. Martin’s Press (Thomas Dunne Books). Learn more at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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