A 'Giant Killer' finds Open map Olympic: In 1955, journeyman Jack Fleck beat legendary Ben Hogan in an 18-hole playoff for the national championship.

June 18, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

SAN FRANCISCO -- The U.S. Open has always been the most egalitarian of golf tournaments. Plop down your entrance fee, screw your tee into the ground and take your best shot at winning the national championship.

And of all the courses on which the Open has been played in its first 97 years, the Olympic Club was the site of what might have been the game's biggest upset. It was the place where a journeyman named Jack Fleck beat the legendary Ben Hogan in an 18-hole playoff in 1955.

It didn't launch Fleck's career. In fact, it might have hindered it.

"After I won, I went on the banquet circuit in New York," Fleck, now 76, recalled yesterday from his home in Magazine, Ark. "That was not my life. That threw me off from what I had always been. I was the kind of guy who hit balls all night and I never did that again."

A 33-year-old former club pro at the time, Fleck had left his home in Davenport, Iowa a few months before the Open to play a few events on the PGA Tour. Fleck was going to give himself two years and wound up staying out eight.

He wound up winning twice and throwing away many more chances. One of those came in the Open five years later at Cherry Hills, where he finished two shots out of a playoff between Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.

"I lost a lot of tournaments because of my putting," said Fleck. "I lost one tournament when I missed a 12-inch putt. I lost another when I three-putted three times in the last four holes. I could hit the ball long and straight. I was a good bunker player. But I couldn't putt."

But at Olympic, he became transformed. Playing with a set of Hogan clubs -- the only other set being used aside from the one the four-time Open champion was playing himself -- Fleck three-putted only once, on the fifth hole in Friday's second round.

A stroke behind Hogan going into the 71st hole, Fleck made a birdie putt to force the 18-hole playoff. He wound up winning by three shots when Hogan double-bogeyed the final hole. It launched his legend as "Jack The Giant Killer." He was also dubbed "The Man From Nowhere."

"I wasn't exactly from nowhere because I had played in a number of tournaments, including a few PGA Championships," said Fleck, who owns a golf course in Magazine named Lil' Slice of Heaven. "But it made for a good story."

Though it's unlikely that an upset of that magnitude could be repeated here when the 98th Open gets under way this morning, a story nearly as heartwarming has already begun to unfold. But Ken Peyre-Ferry doesn't expect to beat Tiger Woods come Monday.

"I don't belong on the same page as Jack Fleck," said Peyre-Ferry, a 49-year-old club pro from Marlton, N.J.

When he made a 15-foot birdie putt on the final hole of the 36-hole sectional qualifier a week ago, Peyre-Ferry became the oldest player ever to make it through to the Open without an automatic exemption or an invitation from the USGA.

He also might have become the only father of a groom-to-be who hoped not to stand up for his son.Kenny Peyre-Ferry is getting married Saturday and hopes to be on a red-eye flight back late Friday night. Alone.

"I absolutely hope he's not there," the younger Peyre-Ferry, 23, who works for his father as an assistant at Little Mill Country Club, said yesterday as they stood on the practice green at Olympic. "It's probably a little on the strange side, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Ken Peyre-Ferry has tried to qualify for the Open since his days at the University of Maryland. So he didn't expect to make it this time -- until his son told him the date of the wedding. "Kenny said to me -- this is the year you're going to make it," the elder Peyre-Ferry recalled.

This is all part of Peyre-Ferry's plan to get his game in shape to give the Senior Tour a crack in the next couple of years. Many of the PGA Tour's soon-to-be seniors, including Tom Watson and Tom Kite, were college contemporaries of Peyre-Ferry.

"I've been around those guys," said Peyre-Ferry, who twice qualified for a Philadelphia-area tour stop, the last time in 1979. "But I'm sure they don't know who I am."

Fleck's legacy has sort of disappeared at Olympic over the years as well. Though Fleck beat Hogan, he had to qualify for the Open when it was held here in 1966 while Hogan received the USGA's first special exemption.

"There are pictures of Hogan and Palmer and [Billy] Casper [who beat Palmer in the 1966 Open] all over the place," said Fleck. "I think there's a little picture of me behind the bar."

Peyre-Ferry isn't expecting to have his picture put on the wall of Olympic, or his name engraved on the trophy given to the champion. His dreams are quite small. He just wants to put the tee in the ground today and miss his red-eye flight home tomorrow night.

Pub Date: 6/18/98

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