There’s a touch of regret in Walker Inman Jr.’s voice when he talks about this week’s U.S. Open at Olympic Club in San Francisco.
“I’d like to be going,” Inman said. “I played the first two there.”
Though storylines this week will focus on whether Tiger Woods can back up his victory at the Memorial with a win in a major, or whether Phil Mickelson can break through to win his first U.S. Open, plenty of attention will be given to four previous championships at Olympic and some of the stunning results they produced.
Inman, 82, is an Augusta native who now lives in Port St. Lucie, Fla. He played at Richmond Academy and later became head golf professional at Scioto Country Club in Columbus, Ohio, but his main claim to fame is his role in the first U.S. Open held at Olympic in 1955.
Inman’s friend Jack Fleck defeated Ben Hogan in an 18-hole playoff in what is considered one of golf’s greatest upsets. A new book, The Longest Shot by Neil Sagebiel, details the story of how the little-known Fleck denied Hogan a record fifth U.S. Open victory.
Inman gets plenty of ink in Sagebiel’s book, and he should. Not only did he play the first two rounds with Fleck, but he also was in contention the entire way.
“We played the whole week together,” Inman said. “We played practice rounds together Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, then I got paired with him the first two rounds. I felt like I was right in the mix with him.”
With Olympic’s rough the nastiest that most players had ever seen, under-par scores were at a premium. Inman opened with even-par 70 and was alone in second behind Tommy Bolt’s 67.
“I’d never seen it that deep. I played in seven or eight Opens and a bunch of Senior Opens and I’ve never seen it that deep anywhere,” Inman said of the rough. “It looked like a wheat field on either side of the fairway. They had Boy Scouts with little flags on either side of the fairway, because if you didn’t have them it was gone.”
Fleck began with 76 but improved with 69 in the second round. Inman’s 75 left him tied with Fleck and one shot behind co-leaders Bolt and amateur Harvie Ward going into the 36-hole finale played Saturday.
Inman was paired with Ward, and both shot 6-over 76 in the third round. Fleck could manage only one shot better, 75, and as the players prepared for the final round a new leader had emerged.
Hogan shot 72 and was at 7-over for the championship, one shot clear of fellow veterans Sam Snead and Julius Boros. Only five shots separated Hogan and the rest of the top 10, though the smart money was on Hogan with his steady game.
Inman played well in the final round, and as he faced a birdie putt at the 15th green his playing partner thought he could win the tournament.
“Harvie said, ‘Walker, all you have to is hold on to the club and you’ll win the Open,’ ” Inman recalled.
At 1-over for the round, Inman was in contention but had no idea how he stood with Hogan and the others playing behind him.
“I was young and inexperienced. I never saw the rough until the 16th hole the last day,” Inman said. “I hit it in the rough, and it just killed me.”
His tee shot hooked left into the first cut of rough on the par-5 16th, and the thick grass swallowed up his shot. He tried to advance it but hit it only a short distance and left it in the rough. He needed five shots to reach the green, thenthree-putted for a devastating triple bogey.
“I made 8 on that par-5 hole and never missed a shot,” Inman said in Sagebiel’s book.
Inman limped home with double bogeys on the final two holes, and his closing 78 left him with a 299 total.
Though his chances of winning the major were gone, a big prize was still on the table for Inman.
“When I was on the 15th green and Harvie said I’m going to win, I told him I’m not worried about winning the tournament,” Inman said. “I want to finish in the top 16 to get into the Masters. I didn’t think about it. … I accomplished what I wanted to.”
Inman wound up 14th, and he qualified for his only Masters appearance in 1956. He was the first native Augustan to play in the Masters, and he tied for 29th as weather wreaked havoc on the field in the final round.
Though Inman was disappointed with his finish at Olympic, high drama was playing out behind him. Hogan shot even-par 70 in the final round and took the clubhouse lead at 7-over 287. Most fans, and even the media, presumed he had won.
But Fleck still had a chance, and he birdied two of the final three holes to forge a tie. An 18-hole playoff would decide the winner.
Though Hogan was a favorite in the playoff, Fleck would not back down. He did the impossible, shooting 69 to Hogan’s 72. It was an upset for the ages, but Inman was not surprised.
“Jack was a good player and could play from tee to green,” Inman said. “He told me the night before, ‘I looked in the mirror and something came over me and said, “Jack, you’re going to win the Open.” ’ He went out very calmly and beat him. Outdrove him, outputted him, outscrambled him.”
While Fleck returned to Iowa for a hero’s welcome, Inman took Fleck’s car and drove on to the next tournament. He did not get to see the 18-hole playoff.
Eleven years later, the U.S. Open returned to Olympic. Inman qualified, but he was disappointed on arrival in San Francisco.
“The rough was about three or four inches at most,” Inman said. “I thought it ought to be higher. (But) the USGA never did that again.”
Inman wasn’t a factor as he missed the 36-hole cut. But history played out in the final round as Arnold Palmer squandered a seven-shot lead with nine holes to play, and Billy Casper tied him to force a playoff. Casper prevailed in the playoff, 69 to 73.
Inman won’t be there to see if another upset unfolds at Olympic, but he’ll be watching from his Florida home.
“It’s a beautiful place. I’ve got a picture in my den looking down the 18th hole,” he said. “I’d come in at night and look at it and remember the great time of playing in that Open.”