by Bob Robinson
Al Mengert was sitting in front of his locker at the Olympic Club shortly after his final round of the 1955 U.S. Open. The Spokane native, later to spend time as head pro at Tacoma Country and Golf Club, was casually watching the TV wrap-up of its final-round coverage.
“Just before they signed off, Gene Sarazen congratulated Ben Hogan for his ‘victory’ and then he said something that stunned me,” Mengert said in a recent interview. “He said that the only player with a chance to catch Hogan was Jack Fleck.”
Mengert said he almost fell backwards off the bench on which he was sitting. “A locker room attendant caught me before I hit the floor,” he said. “I was in a daze.”
Fleck, of course, did catch Hogan, making two birdies on the last four holes. Then he beat Hogan in a playoff the next day, 69 to 72, on the course in the San Francisco suburbs.
Mengert’s amazement was triggered by memories of a practice round he played with Fleck the day before the championship’s opening round. “To say that he was unimpressive would be an understatement,” he said.
Fleck’s victory, one of golf’s all-time shockers, brought recollections to the surface again as the 2012 Open is being played at the Olympic Club this month. A book by long-time golf writer Al Barkow – The Upset (Chicago Review Press, 2012) – jogged memories by providing meticulous details on the experiences of Fleck and Hogan, on and off the course, in that week long ago. It even reveals how a doctor friend provided Fleck with sugar cubes on the course in an effort to keep him energized.
Barkow also describes Fleck’s pre-Open practice rounds with buddies Walker Inman Jr. and Mike Krak, but he doesn’t mention that Mengert joined the trio for the final practice round.
It should be pointed out that, under USGA pairings guidelines at the time, tournament leaders weren’t necessarily paired together for the final two rounds. That’s how Fleck happened to still be on the course long after Hogan had finished in the lead.
Now back to Mengert, who turned pro in 1952 after winning the first of his two Northwest Open titles as an amateur and finishing as runner-up to Jack Westland in the 1952 U.S. Amateur at Seattle Golf Club. He also is remembered for a historic 40-hole conquest of Ray Weston in the semifinals of the 1950 PNGA Men’s Amateur Championship which he would go on to win. Mengert was inducted into the PNGA Hall of Fame in 2001.
Mengert, now a resident of Carefree, Ariz., had modest success as a part-time tour player, mixing in club pro jobs. He tied for 16th in the 1955 Open after tying for 13th the year before at Baltusrol. He was the first-round leader with a 67 in the 1966 Open, also at the Olympic Club, before fading to a tie for 26th.
Of the practice round with Fleck, he said, “Jack was my partner for a money game with Inman and Krak. He was awful. He shot about 86, even with some conceded putts. We got killed in our game. I told friends that I couldn’t understand how Fleck could be in the Open field.”
Which explains why Mengert was still bewildered as he left the locker room to watch Fleck finish his charge to tie Hogan. He needed a birdie at the 18th and got it with a fine approach and an eight-foot putt. Mengert said that he immediately tried to make bets that Hogan would win the playoff.
“I offered some good odds but I got no takers,” he said. “Finally, I made a bet on Hogan with my wife. I gave her 100-1 odds. It took me years to pay off that one.”
Bob Robinson covered golf for The Oregonian for more than 30 years. He has covered 24 major championships, two Ryder Cups, and more than 30 LPGA Tour events. He has been awarded the Dale Johnson Media Award by the Oregon Golf Association and the Distinguished Service Award by the Northwest Golf Media Association.