The US Open’s five greatest upsets
There’s been much said about the Olympic jinx, but it can lay claim to just one of the US Open’s five greatest upsets.
There has been a lot of talk this week about the Olympic Club jinx on the game’s big guns, but this storied downtown San Francisco Club can lay claim to just one of the US Open’s five greatest upsets.
And that was the 150-year-old club’s first of four upsets in 1955 when Jack Fleck, a little-known club professional from Iowa, who, after having to qualify for the championship, came from nowhere late in the fourth round to tie Ben Hogan after the great man had already been hailed as a record-breaking five-time winner by the NBC before they went off air.
The NBC, like almost everybody else, thought that Hogan’s closing 70 would be more than enough, but Fleck matched him with a late, great 67.
And as if that was not enough, he then went on from there to confound the golfing world even more when he calmly went on to beat Hogan in the 18-hole play-off the next day.
To win a US Open at the Olympic Club’s Lake Course, you have to hit the ball straight. You also have to be able to handle its small, fast greens and Fleck, though relatively invisible until then, was able to do just that.
Certainly he did so in the play-off, where, somewhat ironically, he used a set of Ben Hogan-branded irons.
Fleck had built a three-shot lead over a somewhat stunned Hogan at the turn and then, during the play-off’s shocking climax, kept his nerve better than his vastly experienced rival when he led by only one shot teeing off at the 18th.
Hogan backers in the gallery – and they were clearly in the majority – hoped that Fleck’s resolve would finally dissolve on that pressure cooker final hole, but instead it was Hogan who stumbled when he hooked his drive into the rough and took two frustrated hacks to get out of it.
The double bogey that followed ensured that Fleck would beat him by three shots.
It was the inspired underdog’s first victory on the US PGA Tour and although he would only win twice more, no one will ever be able to claim his US Open triumph was a fluke. Of the seven rounds in the 60s that week, Fleck shot three of them.
The early years of the US Open, when it was seen as something of a sideshow to the US Amateur, were dominated by British club professionals drawn to the USA by reports of the game’s rapid expansion there.
An Englishman, Horace Rawlins, won the first US Open, a 36-hole event played over a nine-hole course at Newport Country Club, Rhode Island, in a single day and until 1910, the event continued to be dominated by British golfers, notably Scotland’s Willie Anderson, who won the title four times between 1901 and 1905.
The first American to end the British rule was John McDermott, who won the title back-to-back in 1911 and 1912, but in truth it was the stunning upset victory of a 20-year-old amateur, Francis Quimet, that finally got golf onto the front pages of American newspapers and set the US Open on track to becoming one of golf’s top four majors
This was in 1913 when the championship was especially moved from June, the month in which it is still played today, to September to accommodate two of Britain’s most celebrated stars, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray.
Quimet, although the reigning Massachusetts Amateur champion, didn’t even get a mention in pre-tournament speculation, but he did have excellent local knowledge of The Country Club at Brookline where the championship was to be played, living as he did just across the street from the 17th hole.
He raised nobody’s eyebrows when he finished six shots off the pace in the first round of his first major, but he began to get noticed when he posted a pair of 74s in his next two rounds and went into the final day tied for the lead with Vardon and Ray.
He was still there after matching the British stars 79s in the final round, but nobody expected him to go any further, especially when the next day’s play-off brought tough, wet and windy weather to Brookline.
Incredibly the unheralded amateur showed two of the period’s biggest names in professional golf the way and shot a closing 72 to the 78 of Vardon and the 79 of Ray and won going away.
It was one of the early 20th century’s greatest upsets in sport and the first of the five biggest upsets in the US Open.
The second came in 1935 at Oakmont and was pulled off by one, Sam Parks Jnr, a humble club pro at the South Hills County Club.
Park’s club was close to Oakmont and it enabled him to stop off there and play a practice round every day in the month leading up to that year’s US Open.
Nobody, then, was better prepared and his long hours of hard work paid off in a big way.
After staying close to the 36-hole leader Jimmy Johnson, he then nailed a 60-foot putt for an eagle and a 73 that edged him into a tie for the third round lead with Johnson with a seasoned and widely acclaimed 42-year-old Walter Hagen lurking just three shots back in his bid to win his third US Open.
The final round was hit by atrocious weather and none of the contenders could break 75.
With a 76, Parks was among the best of them and in the end it was enough to give him the US Open by two clear shots
Hagen also shot a 76, but of course it wasn’t enough. It was the last time both he and Parks were to contend for a major.
After Fleck’s shock win in 1955, The next greatest upset came in 1969, the last year in which a local and sectional qualifier was to win the coveted title, and the man who did it was an ex-army sergeant called Orville Moody.
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