Welcome to the second in my series looking back at some of the interesting, quirky and little told stories from the history of golf. In this edition, I will take a look at two fascinating personalities that you may never of heard of.
The Legend of Joyce Wethered
Joyce Wethered was born in 1901 and is generally considered the leading British woman player of the inter-war period. She came to prominence by winning the English Ladies Championship as a 19 year old in 1920 at Sheringham and went on to win four British Ladies Championships in 1922, 1924, 1925 and 1929 at the venerable venues of Princes, Royal Portrush, Royal Troon and St Andrews.
But Wethered was more than just the best woman golfer of her time.
Tall, elegant and reserved, Wethered had grown up in a wealthy and intellectual household. Her golf game was honed at Dornoch in the Scottish Highlands where the family had their summer home. Her technique was balanced yet powerful and it is just possible that she was the best golfer, male or female, of her generation.
In 1930, the great Bobby Jones had a chance to play a practice round with Wethered before the British Amateur Championship at St Andrews that would form part of his Grand Slam year in 1930. Following his defeat in the friendly match, Jones would proclaim:
I have not played golf with anyone, man or woman, who has made me feel so utterly outclassed. It was not so much the score she made but the way that she made it. It was impossible to expect that Miss Wethered would ever miss a shot – and she never did.
Bobby Jones (1930)
English great Henry Cotton was also quick to proclaim her greatness. It was in 1937 during an exhibition match at Worplesdon in Surrey that Cotton witnessed Wethered hitting the ball 240 yards from the tee and low-flying shots with the mashie that exhibited brilliant touch and control. He was drawn to state:
I do not think that a golf ball has ever been hit, except perhaps by Harry Vardon, with such a straight flight by any other person.
Harry Vardon (1937)
Wethered’s greatest triumph was perhaps the British Ladies Championship in 1929. Drawn back to competitive golf after three years of retirement by the lure of the Old Course, Wethered faced up to the great American Glenna Collett, who was coming off the back of the fourth of her five US Amateur Championship victories.
Collett stormed out of the blocks with an outward nine of 34 to establish a 5up lead. Slowly but surely Wethered came back into the match and at lunch was just 2 down. The back nine performance led Bernard Darwin to write that, “It is alright now. You’ll see. Joyce will win comfortably”.
Darwin was right. Victory was finally claimed at the famous Road Hole by a 3 & 1 margin in front of huge crowds that cheered their hero home.
Jack Fleck – the municipal Pro who downed Hogan
Ben Hogan is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest golfers to walk the planet. Coming off the back of his epic 1953 season, it seemed destiny that he would become the first man to ever win five US Opens in 1955 at San Francisco’s Olympic Golf Club.
That he did not – and would never win another major title – was down to one man. Jack Fleck – a municipal Club Pro playing only his third Major Championship with a previous best finish of T52.
The story of Fleck is quite a remarkable tale.
Born in 1921 in Iowa, Flecks parents were poor farmers who had lost their land in the 1920’s Depression. He was introduced to golf as a caddie for a local dentist before becoming an assistant Pro in the shop for 5 dollars a week prior to World War II.
He joined the military in 1942 and participated in the D-day invasion from a British ship off Utah beach in Normandy.
Our job was to fire 1140 5-inch rockets over the first waves of fellows going ashore. As some guys fired the rockets, others machine gunned the waters around the ship, trying to blow up mines. The sea was red with blood.
Jack Fleck (2007)
Within 2 weeks of discharge from the Navy, Fleck was back trying to compete in Professional golf. Things did not go too well until everything changed during one week in 1955.
Remarkably, Fleck had written to Hogan prior to the US Open with a cheeky request for some of his famous clubs. Unusually, Hogan replied with a positive response.
When I got to Olympic Club, Hogan had arrived before me. He hand delivered two wedges he had made up in addition to the irons and woods he had already given me. It was just unbelievable the kindness he showed me. In a sense it’s a shame that I used those very clubs to defeat him.
Jack Fleck (2007)
It was an 8 foot putt on the final green of regulation play that gave Fleck a closing 67 for a +7 total around the brutally difficult course and a playoff with Hogan.
The following day Fleck and Hogan set off on the 18-hole contest to decide the US Open. Fleck later gave insight as to how he kept up his energy levels.
All five rounds at Olympic, my good friend Dr. Paul Barton fed me cubes of sugar. He would give me a handful of them every four or five holes with the directive that I eat 3 cubes per hole. I did, and it seemed to get the energy flowing. I never got close to becoming tired.
Powered by his sugar rush, Fleck stormed out of the blocks in the playoff, but by the 18th tee, Hogan had closed the deficit to just one shot. A closing six, however, cost Hogan and Fleck took the Championship by three. The win allowed him to give up his Club Pro job but he never won another Major and even his greatest victory was tinged with a little regret.
I won the play-off by shooting 69 on a brutal golf course, making only one putt of any length. But it has always been thought of as the US Open that Ben Hogan lost, not the one Jack Fleck won. I never felt I was given credit for how well I played.