Only two Iowans have won major golf championships. One will be at Olympic Club in San Francisco this week, while the other one was there 57 years ago pulling perhaps the greatest upset in sports history.
Zach Johnson of Cedar Rapids and Jack Fleck or Davenport have met one another a couple times and share a kinship in knowing they are the only Iowans to win one of golf’s four major championships.
Zach will be seeking this week to add a U.S. Open title to his 2007 Masters crown. Johnson has won seven events and banked millions of dollars since that win in April, rising to become one of the world’s best players.
Johnson will be closer to a favorite than an underdog this week, unlike the situation Fleck faced in 1955. Fleck was the golf professional at Duck Creek and Credit Island golf courses in the Quad Cities, and in his first year on the PGA Tour in 1955. He had discarded his Tommy Armour set of clubs for a set that bore the signature of Ben Hogan.
Fleck made it through sectional qualifying and drove 49 hours from Davenport to San Francisco. In practice rounds, he never broke 80 at Olympic Club and considered withdrawing.
Fleck always had a balky putter, but he found something out of his Bull’s Eye model in the second round, shooting 69 to pull into second place behind none other than Hogan and two others. Saturday was a 36-hole combination of the third and fourth rounds.
As Fleck completed his 13th hole in the final round, Hogan was finishing with a 72. NBC commentator Gene Sarazen interviewed Hogan afterward and all but congratulated him on his fifth U.S. Open title. And then, NBC’s coverage signed off.
Fleck meanwhile birdied two of his last four holes to tie Hogan and force an 18-hole playoff. Fleck shot 69 to Hogan’s 72 in the playoff, with Hogan making double-bogey on the 18th hole.
With that, an Iowa club professional had slain the great Ben Hogan. It still is considered one of sport’s greatest upsets. Hogan announced his retirement in the tournament’s aftermath.
“He was kind of the local guy, club pro guy that took down Mr. Ben Hogan,’’ Johnson said in a story at the John Deere Classic website. “I mean, in the U.S. Open. Awesome story. If we would have the same media coverage then as we do now, I think it would have been an even bigger story.’’
Fleck won two other events in his PGA career, both in playoffs. He finished third in the 1960 U.S. Open behind Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, suffering a rash of three-putts down the stretch.
Now 90, Fleck hits the golf course nearly every day in Fort Smith, Ark. He is the oldest living U.S. Open champion.
Television coverage of this week’s U.S. Open undoubtedly will revisit Fleck’s victory over Hogan. Meanwhile, Zach Johnson will try to become the second Iowan to win an Open at Olympic Club.
(Mark Dukes is former sports editor of the Cedar Rapid Gazette. He is co-host of The Gym Class radio show weekdays from 3-4 p.m. on KGYM-AM 1600 and FM-106.3.)
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