PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Jack Fleck had planned to return to the Masters this April and compete once more in the traditional par-3 contest. He grinded his way through the nine holes last year at Augusta National Golf Club despite equilibrium issues that would have forced a lesser man to stay home in bed.
The former PGA club professional from Bettendorf, Iowa, was disappointed when he learned that K.J. Choi, in the final pairing of the day, beat him by 1½ inches for that piece of crystal. Fleck, who stunned the golf world by defeating legendary Ben Hogan for the 1955 U.S. Open Championship, was that proud and competitive.
He carried that competitiveness all the way to his death. Fleck, who was the oldest living U.S. Open champion, passed away Friday at the Methodist Health & Rehab in Fort Smith, Ark. His family said that he suffered a short illness. He was 92.
"He was an amazing person," said Ed Tallach of Hot Springs, Ark., Fleck's closest friend and a former PGA Tour professional-turned-owner of Edward Motor Company. "He was probably one of the most misunderstood champions of all time. He was portrayed as something different, when in fact he was a very loving, compassionate person. I felt so blessed to have spent the time I did with him."
Fleck crafted the most celebrated golf upset of all time in 1955 at Olympic Club in San Francisco, where he rallied with two birdies on his final four holes for a final-round 67 to tie Ben Hogan and force an 18-hole playoff.
The following day, Fleck recorded a sterling 69 to defeat the four-time Open Champion by three strokes. How did someone in his rookie season on Tour beat the greatest golfer of his era?
Author Neil Sagebiel, who spent long hours with Fleck before publishing in 2012, "The Longest Shot: Jack Fleck, Ben Hogan, and Pro Golf's Greatest Upset at the 1955 U.S. Open," got his answer.
"Jack outplayed Hogan in the playoff. It wasn't a fluke. He wasn't lucky," said Sagebiel. "And Hogan played well. Bob Rosburg later told me, 'I don't think he ever got credit. Nobody ever said he played great.' I think Jack needed someone to say it for him. Ben Hogan was his idol, and he didn't want to detract from Hogan in any way."
In 2012, the USGA invited its champions back to Olympic Club, where Fleck recalled his magical week of 1955. "I out-Hoganed Hogan," he said.
Sagebiel first met Fleck in March 2007, and was impressed by the golfer's dedication. "He was proud to be a golf professional, and he went to the golf course almost every day to practice and play through his 80s. He never stopped working on his game."
What is overlooked in Fleck's record is that he was in position to win another Open, chasing down Hogan again, in 1960 at Cherry Hills, before finishing tied for third while Arnold Palmer surged past them to a signature victory.
"Jack said that he gave that one away and he would have loved to have had that second major," said Sagebiel. "I don't think that he felt that he was accepted as a worthy champion."
Fleck knew something about handling pressure. All four of his Tour victories came via playoffs – the Open, the 1960 Phoenix Open Invitational, the 1961 Bakersfield Open and the 1979 Senior PGA Championship, when he served as a club professional in Magazine, Ark.
Fleck lost two other Tour titles in playoffs – the 1960 St. Petersburg Open Invitational after a hole-out by George Bayer, and the 1960 Insurance City Open, when Palmer birdied the third extra hole to down Fleck and Bill Collins.
Up to his passing, Fleck was a picture of fitness at 6-foot-1 and 164 pounds. "He was ahead of his time when it came to fitness and golf," said Sagebiel. "He never smoked or drank alcohol, and abstained from red meat and anything containing white flour. He called it poison.
"Jack said that he enjoyed a chuck wagon-like concession stand on the courses in the 1950s. He said that way he would decide what he put on his plate."
Tallach, who often caddied for Fleck, said that Fleck, a 66-year member of the PGA of America, "was so proud of his longevity. He worked at his game and worked at taking care of himself into his 90s. He was amazing."
Fleck is survived by his wife, Carmen, a son, Craig, a granddaughter and a great granddaughter.
A memorial service is Tuesday at 2:00 p.m. CT, following a private interment at the First United Methodist Church in Fort Smith. In lieu of flowers, donations should be forwarded to The First Tee of Fort Smith.