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.
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.