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Q&A With Neil Sagebiel, Author Of "The Longest Shot"

Fresh off a stellar review in the New York Times, Armchair Golf Blog host Neil Sagebiel answered a few questions about his book, The Longest Shot: Jack Fleck, Ben Hogan, and Pro Golf's Greatest Upset At The 1955 U.S. Open. features an excerpt from The Longest Shot and a cool highlight video from the 1955 U.S. Open.

GS: Why the '55 Open at Olympic for your first book?

NS: A reader of my blog who was interested in Ben Hogan suggested I call Jack Fleck several years ago. That sounded interesting to me, so I called Jack one March day at his home in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and we started talking. I knew about the upset, but I was fascinated as I learned more. This wasn't just one of golf's greatest upsets; it was one of the biggest upsets in sports history. I saw where ESPN ranked it in their top ten. But there was no book. So I guess the project sort of tapped me on the shoulder. I had never written a book. I decided to give it a try.

GS: Tell us a bit about how you approached researching the book and how much access you had to Fleck?

NS: Jack did not have a good history with writers and the press, so I had to gain his trust. I'm a freelancer, not a traditional sportswriter or golf journalist. I told him I had no agenda. I just wanted to tell the story. We talked a lot on the phone and I'd see him two or three times a year at Champions Tour events where the legends played. I hung out with him. I caddied sometimes, ate in the player dining rooms. I also got to be around the other old-timers, hear their stories, pick their brains. Early on I went to the USGA in New Jersey to do extensive research. Later I traveled to the Olympic Club on a family visit to California and spent four days with Jack at his home and home golf course in Fort Smith.
GS: Fleck was ahead of his time with an interest in fitness?

NS: I'd say, more broadly, Jack was ahead of his time in terms of how he took care of himself. He didn't smoke, drink, or stay out late. All those activities were somewhat the norm for the pro circuit during that earlier era. He did yoga, he prayed and meditated, and he was careful about what he put in his body. He ate a lot of fruits and vegetables. He'd eat chicken, but stayed away from red meat and white bread, only consuming whole grains. He was early to bed and early to rise. At the Olympic Club in preparation for the 55 'Open, he played 44 holes each day on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. Then he cut back to just 36 holes on Wednesday, the day before the tournament began. His philosophy was to get in as many practice rounds as possible to learn the course and rehearse shots and situations.

GS: You write that Hogan handled the defeat with class, and seeing the photos of he and Fleck smiling in their impeccable dress would confirm that. Yet Fleck has almost been ostracized for having dared to defeat the great man, no?

NS: Jack Fleck beat an American sports hero, "a man who had cheated death and become an icon," as Bill Fields said, which surely disappointed a lot of people. He was a good player, but he was not the next Hogan, or a Cary Middlecoff, or a Doug Ford, so it was nearly impossible for him to live up to expectations. After the luster of his victory wore off and his game went into a decline, some in the press soured on his win and it put him on the defensive. Tommy Bolt told me the sportswriters didn't like it [Fleck beating Hogan] much. Bob Rosburg said Fleck got knocked for a lot of things because he beat Hogan. So, yes, that's something Jack has carried through the years. The best thing that ever happened to him in golf also became a burden. He has been defending his U.S. Open win for 57 years. Funny thing, Hogan always treated him well. I'm convinced that you'll never hear Jack Fleck say an unkind word about Ben Hogan. I haven't. Hogan was his idol. He wouldn't go to Hogan's funeral because he didn't want his presence to detract in any way from the remembrance of Hogan.

GS: Mr. Fleck will be at Olympic this year, correct? How would you like to see him acknowledged?

NS: Yes, I believe he'll be there all week. Whatever happens that week -- and I do believe there are plans to honor him -- my hope is that Jack gets the recognition he deserves as a U.S. Open champion. And that he can feel good about it.
GS: Will your book be available in the US Open merchandise tent?

NS: Yes, that's my understanding. I know the book will be there on Monday, June 11, because I'll be doing a signing from 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.

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Reader Comments (24)

Thanks, Geoff - I enjoyed the highlight reel. This was well before my time, but has the ring of a great story, and highlights how churlish the press and fans can be regarding "lesser" players winning the big ones. As a Scot, I see the same dismissal of Paul Lawrie who is one hell of a player and is thankfully enjoying a renaissance in the autumn of his career and has more grit and bottle than Casey and Westwood put together.
06.6.2012 | Unregistered CommenterAlan McDermaid
"The Upset" by Al Barkow, former editor of Golf and Golf Illustrated, was published this month and is great read. He does a terrific hole-by-hole recap of the play-off.
06.6.2012 | Unregistered Commenterrainbowwig
Good luck with the book. My only problem was the photos in the book. Very limited, mainly close ups of Fleck.
06.6.2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoel
Stewart Cink is also a little Fleck-ish.
06.6.2012 | Unregistered CommenterAbu Dhabi Golfer
Sportswriters can be brutal when "their guy" or "their team" or "their story" or if the "needle mover" doesn't win. Times have not changed in that regard. Winning 2 US Opens is not a fluke, however Janzen and North are treated as flukes by most of the media.
I thought about buying this book but there are no reviews on Amazon which is a big put off. Would anyone who has read it please put a review up on Amazon, which may, or may not, influence waverers like me to buy it. 1955 is slightly before my time but Jack Fleck sure was a 'Field of Dreams' man. It's nice that Hogan always gave him full respect.
06.6.2012 | Unregistered CommenterIvan Morris
"This is the best book ever written; Ivan Morris will enjoy it immensely."
[signed] A stranger with too much influence over Ivan Morris
06.6.2012 | Unregistered CommenterR Mack
Ordered it today, Ivan. I'll read it this weekend and let you know, probably in an aside here ;-) The world doesn't need any KLG anywhere else. The review in the Sunday NYT Book Review by Bill Scheft was complimentary. The same reviewer also thought that Barkow mailed it in, given the number of mistakes included. Such things do make you wonder...
Talk about a continuing lack of respect - the link to the footage calls him Jeck Fleck. Irony of ironies.
06.6.2012 | Unregistered CommenterGinGHIN
If I made my buying choices strictly as a result of reviewers or critics, I'd live a life paralyzed and curled up in a corner in the fetal position. Why not consider whether or not you're interested in the subject matter, THEN make a buying decision and later determine whether the book or movie or restaurant was "up to your standards." You're almost saying that unless someone -- someone you don't know -- recommends the book then you're not interested. Nice demonstration of timid non-logic.

And as for this: << Winning 2 US Opens is not a fluke, however Janzen and North are treated as flukes by most of the media. >>

Well, WEREN'T THEY? Lee Janzen won eight events and Andy North, not counting his two Opens, won exactly ONCE. Now, I'm not criticizing.... good for them... but still: isn't it odd, unique and other-worldly that two such journeymen could DOUBLE the number of U.S. Open victories by say, Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson? Don't even mention Sam Snead....

Golf is weird, huh?
06.6.2012 | Unregistered Commenterbenseattle
That's a new one - somebody calling ME (the Limerick bear) timid! (-o;
I suppose I asked for it. Maybe I was just hoping that somebody would also read the reviews on Life As A Way of Golf, while they were at it?
06.6.2012 | Unregistered CommenterIvan Morris
Another thing about Jack Fleck was the putter he won the Open with; a Bullseye Standard. The win moved John Reuter, inventor of the Bullseye, front and center as a club mfg. The putter gained popularity on tour and then when Gene Littler won the U. S. Open in 1961 with another Reuter Bullseye the folks at Acushnet couldn't take it any more and bought out Reuter. The Bullseye putter wasn't done winning Opens. Nicklaus won in 1967 at Baltusrol with a Bullseye Standard painted white (later to be named White Fang...the only one of Nicklaus' 4 Opens not won with the Geo. Low Wizard)...Johnny Miller's famous final round 63 and win at Oakmont in 1973 was won with a Bullseye...Hale Irwin won in 1974 and 1979 with a Bullseye flange model...David Graham in 1981, Tom Kite in 1982 and Steve Jones in 1996 also won The Open with Bullseyes. The Reuter/Acushnet/Titleist Bullseye putter became possibly the most famous design in putter history along with the Ping Anser. BTW, Ping models have won 12 U.S Opens, Bulleyes have won 9. Thank you very much.
06.6.2012 | Unregistered Commenterrb
The Morris' have always been somewhat cautious with money, you should have met my fathers family
06.6.2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Morris
The Hogan bio "A Golfers Life" by Dodson (IIRC) deals gracefully with Fleck. Fleck was spiritual and that week, made amends to be able to pray for strength to do his best without asking his God to make him play better. He had a profound inner peace that week.

Hogan admitted Fleck's strategy in course mgmt on those final holes to tie Ben in the 4th round was spot-on. Fleck was able to make birdie and then beat Hogan.

Also, I believe Fleck had ordered Hogan wedges but they hadnt made it to Iowa. He told Ben this and Ben gave him the wedges that week before the US Open. The Hogan line wasnt in full production/sale yet so Hogan appreciated Fleck being a pro who played Ben's wedges.

Both Hogan and Fleck were pga pros (like most were) at varying points. Fleck from a driving range in Iowa, and Hogan having worked at a # of clubs who did spend time with students, despite his passion for the range. There are a # of stories of Hogan flagging down Fleck at events, a complete abnormality for Hogan.

I have tremendous respect for Mr. Fleck.
06.6.2012 | Unregistered CommenterStreaky Putter
Personally I think that 2 US Open wins, and "fluke", are mutually exclusive.

Andy North certainly did not rack up a whole bunch of wins but I will guarantee you that he has the respect of his peers. Lee Janzen too.

Was Tom Lehman's Open Championship a fluke?
06.6.2012 | Unregistered CommenterDTF
Would Rocco Mediate beating Tiger in 2008 at Torrey Pines have been a greater or lesser upset than Fleck being Hogan?
06.6.2012 | Unregistered CommenterStreaky Putter
Touche, John Morris! However, I did buy four out of the five books I was considering. Fleck lost out but I'll save up and buy it soon (-:lol) FYI - the books I bought were The American Triumvirate, Moe & Me, A Golfer's Education and The French Women Don't Get Fat Cookbook!!
06.6.2012 | Unregistered CommenterIvan Morris
@<em>Tom Lehman's Open Championship a fluke? </em>

He was a OWGR #1. Yes, you can debate the ranking. But that's a world-class player. He was also in the final group of the US Open, what, 3 or 4 years in a row?
06.6.2012 | Unregistered CommenterStreaky Putter
Lehman was in fact OWGR #1, for a grand total of 1 week in the end of the year he was 9th....and was only top-10 at year end two other times. 2nd in 1996, and 9th in 2000.

Tom won a grand total of 5 events....that's one more than Ben Curtis has. And you are correct, Tom was there a bunch but didn't get it done except for the one time.

I don't think Tom's Open win was a fluke. However, if one were to categorize A. North's (2) US Open wins in the "fluke" category, then I think by default Lehman would have to be on the fluke list as well.

As for Janzen, 8 wins with two majors, that's better than Lehman no matter how you cut it. Won't be long until Lee gets his turn at the Ryder Cup wheel huh?!?
06.6.2012 | Unregistered CommenterDTF
Janzen rates higher than the "journeymen" class, at least to my way of thinking. Didn't he also win a Players along the way?

He might also might make a pretty fair RC captain.
06.6.2012 | Unregistered Commenterd.b.cooper
@benseattle If a player can find two US Open trophies amongst his silverware, I cannot call him a fluke. Maybe my standards are off, but that's just me.
Don't you have to wonder how many tournaments Janzen and North might have won if every PGA tournament was set up like the US open? Bet it would have been more than 8 and 3.

And suggesting Tom Lehman as a flukey winner of a major is bizarre. Lehman's made the cut in a major 42 times and counting. 11 top tens. Rich Beem has only played in 28 and only made 11 cuts. Only the one top ten. He's much more of a fluke than Fleck, in my view. Fleck played in 26 stroke-play majors and made 17 cuts with 3 top tens.

The flukey thing about Lehman, probably, is only winning 5 PGA tournaments. But if you take 20 guys who "should" win 10 PGA tournaments proably one of them will win 15, another 5.
06.6.2012 | Unregistered Commenterweg
I dont think I've ever called a person who won a tour event a fluke. It's not a term I'd ever use.
06.7.2012 | Unregistered CommenterStreaky Putter
The only thing that may still be held against Jansen is that many (myself included) believe the 5 min search period to have passed when his ball fell out of that tree at Olympic in '98. He was already heading back to re-tee and with the stroke and distance for a lost ball should not have won the US Open. That said, people can call it a fluke or whatever all they want but Lee's got 2 huge silver trophies in his house to counter those claims and salve any insult, if any is even taken.
06.7.2012 | Unregistered CommenterKRoper

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