Wednesday, May 16

Q&A: Tommy Bolt

(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.)
At left: Tommy Bolt.
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.

I was lucky to even talk to Tommy Bolt, a Hall of Famer who led after the first and second rounds of the ’55 U.S. Open. They called him “Thunder Bolt” and other nicknames because of his legendary temper and club throwing. Tommy was not in good health in the spring of 2008. He was in a nursing home in Arkansas the first time I called and told me to try him again in a week or two. I called back, and although he didn’t feel well that day, at his wife’s urging, he took the phone. When we finished, he said he was glad we talked.

You had a pretty good tournament at Olympic. 

TOMMY BOLT: Oh yes I did. A better chance than any of them, really.

Tell me what you remember about Olympic. You shot 67 in the first round and you were leading the tournament. 

TOMMY BOLT: What did I finish?

You finished tied for third with Sam Snead. You led after the first round. 

TOMMY BOLT: I remember Fleck beating Hogan. I know that Fleck was playing good. It was really a championship course. Yes, it was. It was one of the best courses they ever played the Open on.

One of the stories I have read was that you were in the locker room and they thought Hogan had won. They were waiting for everybody to finish and Fleck was still out on the course. He birdied the last hole to tie Hogan. Do you remember that? 

TOMMY BOLT: Yes, I do. I remember that vividly.

Do you remember what happened in that locker room? I think you were cutting up with Hogan.  

TOMMY BOLT: I said you little SOB. I said something like that. We always cussed one another out. And we were jabbering all over the place. And Fleck shot 65 [67, actually] and tied Hogan and beat him in the playoff.

Tell me about your memories of Ben Hogan and what you thought of him. 

TOMMY BOLT: Oh boy. He was the greatest player I ever played with. As a golfer, he could out-concentrate anyone else. His concentration was better than anybody else. He just overpowered them with concentration. He kept his mind on what he was doing. That's how he beat everybody. His mind never left his business.

Somebody once asked you, who do you think is better Hogan or Nicklaus? And you said something like, “I’ve seen Nicklaus watch Hogan practice, but I’ve never seen Hogan watch Nicklaus practice.” 

TOMMY BOLT: I did say that one time (chuckling). I have said a lot of good things out there. I thought Nicklaus was a great player, but Hogan was just a little bit better than him.

What do you remember about Jack Fleck? 

TOMMY BOLT: Although he won the tournament and beat everybody, they were not really for it too much. The sportswriters didn’t like it too much.

Fleck wasn’t very well known before he beat Hogan. 

TOMMY BOLT: Nobody knew who he was. He had never won a caddies tournament.

Did you know who he was? 

TOMMY BOLT: No. It seems like I might have played with him in Iowa one time. He came from Iowa.  

What was it like for you to play the tour back in the 1950s, Tommy? What was pro golf like then for you? 

TOMMY BOLT: It was tough (chuckling). You had to win some money to get out of town. You didn't have a jillion dollars thrown at you. There wasn't that much money out there. It was a lot of fun, but it was a lot of pressure.

How are you doing [now]? 

TOMMY BOLT: I’m 92 years old. I’m fine. They haven’t put me in the grave yet.

It’s an honor for me to get to speak to you for a few minutes. 

TOMMY BOLT: I appreciate that.

Tommy Bolt died three months later on August 30, 2008. He had 14 wins on the PGA Tour, including the 1958 U.S. Open, and played on two U.S. Ryder Cup teams.

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.


D.J. - The World of Deej said...

Great interview. My Granddad was on tour in late 50's-early 60's and shared a couple Tommy Bolt stories over the years... Look forward to your book.

Alice Ryder said...

Legendary golfers are always remember. Kodus to these people because of them were keep on admiring the sport. Great interview.