Francis Ouimet’s name has long been synonymous with golf in Massachusetts. He is considered the first American golf hero as a result of his stunning victory in the 1913 US Open at The Country Club in Brookline.
To increase awareness of Ouimet’s contributions to the sport, a Centennial Gala will be held May 15 at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, kicking off a series of events as part of “Ouimet 100.’’ The gala will feature Arnold Palmer, Peter Jacobsen, author Mark Frost, and movie director Bill Paxton, as well as master of ceremonies Rich Lerner of the Golf Channel.
Much has been written about Ouimet, and the movie based on Frost’s book, “The Greatest Game Ever Played,’’ chronicled Ouimet’s great upset over Britain’s Harry Vardon and Ted Ray.
Ouimet was a 20-year-old amateur who had grown up across the street from The Country Club’s 17th hole. His caddie, Eddie Lowery, was just 10 years old.
His accomplishment, which was reported across the globe, is widely referred to as the birth of golf in the US and led to an explosion of popularity for the sport. In the 10 years that followed, the number of golfers in America jumped from 350,000 to 2.1 million. The number of courses tripled in that span. In 1910, there were an estimated 700 courses in the nation, but by 1929, there were some 5,600.
Ouimet also was very active in charitable endeavors.
As a member of the Army in World War I, Ouimet raised funds for the Red Cross by participating in exhibition golf matches. He continued to raise money for relief efforts during World War II. But he is best known for the Francis Ouimet Scholarship Fund, which was founded in 1949. He said the fund was his greatest achievement in golf.
The fund, which has helped more than 5,000 students who have given service to golf, has awarded need-based four-year college scholarships totaling more than $25 million.
Many of the Ouimet scholars have gone on to have highly successful careers.
One of the more recent Ouimet scholars is Ryan Durkin of Andover, who graduated from UMass-Amherst in 2008 and became an entrepreneur who founded CampusLive (which has since been rebranded to Dailybreak), a digital launch pad for contests and promotions.
Durkin was the student speaker at the annual Ouimet Fund banquet in 2008, and his emotional presentation of what golf has meant to him moved Gary Player to tears.
“I grew up in the game of golf,’’ said Durkin. “To be honest, it’s kind of been my rock over the past 15 years. I started out as a caddie when I was maybe 11 and I was pretty much the smallest guy on the post.
“I was offered a job in the bag room at Indian Ridge Country Club. I got to be buddies with practically everyone there. To this day, they are still like my extended family.’’
Durkin lost his father when he was just 5, so having those golfers in his life made an indelible impression.
“It goes beyond golf, but I really think that’s really the key message,’’ said Durkin. “Most of these people who I grew up caddying for or working in the game with ended up being like a second father to me.
“My dad died when I was little and most of these guys ended up basically assuming the role of my own dad. To this day, I’m still buddies with all of them. It’s unique.’’
Durkin said the Ouimet scholarship program is special.
“I know most of the money goes to caddies but a lot of other money goes to people who have just worked within the game whether it’s in the bag room or in the pro shop,’’ said Durkin. “[At the banquet], you can just sense how tight-knit the community is. I think a lot of that just extends from golf itself, but they do a ton of different events throughout the year, and the outreach to all the clubs is phenomenal.’’
Durkin said the Ouimet events are very much a unifying factor throughout the golfing community, particularly the bag tag program, which raises money through donations from area golf clubs.
He credits Indian Ridge and the Demoulas family, for whom his parents worked, with keeping him grounded and inspired.
“Without it, man, I don’t know where I’d be, to be honest,’’ said Durkin.
There are few better places to network than on the golf course, and the Ouimet program has brought a lot of people together from all walks of life.
“It certainly is a golf unifier, first and foremost,’’ said Durkin. “I’ve always thought about it more in the sense of the way it connects the rising young leaders of Boston. You get a lot of these young people who play or work in the game — and I’d always consider myself a better worker than a player, for sure — but it’s really been about finding people I can look up to and aspire to be.
“Being able to show young people who they can become down the road and getting to access that — golf is a pretty conversational sport. The craziest thing on the golf course I started to realize was how all these people were interconnected. That was one of the first communities where I felt like a part of it.’’
The Ouimet Memorial Tournament is a fixture on the golf landscape. It began in 1968, a year after Ouimet’s death.
Matt Parziale, a member of Thorny Lea Golf Club in Brockton, captured the 2009 Ouimet championship by a stroke. Parziale said it’s a privilege to play in the storied event.
“They always have three really good courses that are in good shape, and all the history behind it, too,’’ said Parziale. “It’s one of the ones that all the guys around here want to win. I was lucky enough one year to be able to do that.
“As I played the game more [growing up], I learned a lot more and you come to realize how much history is behind that tournament. I definitely appreciated it by the time I was able to win.’’