The tournament that would change the future of golf in America began for Francis Ouimet with a topped drive off the first tee that barely covered 40 yards.
Three days later, after being embarrassed by his opening shot in front of only a few fans, Ouimet was hoisted on the shoulders of strangers and carried off the nearby 18th green, a crowd of more than 10,000 likely having no idea of the significance of what they had just witnessed.
The story of Ouimet, still the unlikeliest of all US Open winners, is being retold now because his stunning victory happened 100 years ago in Brookline, at The Country Club across the street from Ouimet’s modest two-story house. For years, he had made the short walk from 246 Clyde Street to earn his working-class immigrant parents some extra income as a caddie.
In 1913, flanked by a 10-year-old caddie who would become as much of the story as Ouimet himself, the 20-year-old amateur beat the world’s two best professionals — England’s Harry Vardon and Ted Ray — in an 18-hole playoff to win the US Open.
Ouimet’s victory put golf on the front pages of major newspapers across the country for the first time, and signaled the beginning of a participatory explosion in a game that was still finding its footing in the United States. Golf in America was simply waiting for something — or someone — to ignite the spark.
Ouimet’s story is also being retold now because, in recognition of the centennial, the 2013 US Amateur is being held at The Country Club, with 312 players from around the world competing in the prestigious tournament, which started Monday. Until the day he died in 1967, Ouimet cherished his US Open victory. But this might surprise you: As a lifelong amateur, his two wins in the US Amateur, which came in 1914 and 1931, meant more.
“In sport one has to have the ambition to do things, and that ambition in my case was to win the national amateur championship,” Ouimet wrote in his book, “A Game of Golf,” which was published in 1932. “Therefore, I honestly think I never got the ‘kick’ out of winning the Open title that I might have done if I had thought I could win it.”
A winning pair
Ouimet’s interest in golf was planted by his older brother, Wilfred, and strengthened as a 7-year-old when he attended an appearance by Vardon, who was on an exhibition tour of the US in 1900, at a sporting goods store in Boston.
Vardon and Ouimet would meet again 13 years later. Vardon and Ray had scheduled another US exhibition tour (Vardon’s planned spring arrival was delayed because he took ill and gave up his ticket on the Titanic), and because of their stature and accomplishments in golf, the US Golf Association changed the date of the 1913 US Open to accommodate the British pair. Awarded to The Country Club in January, the US Open was moved from its customary June slot to Sept. 18-19. The 72-hole stroke-play championship would be contested over two days: 36 holes on Thursday, 36 more on Friday.
While a no-name nationally at that point, Ouimet was beginning to develop a reputation on the local level. He captured the 1913 Massachusetts Amateur, a tournament he’d ultimately win six times, at what is now Presidents Golf Course in Quincy. But Ouimet needed to be persuaded to even enter the US Open, at the personal request of the president of the USGA, who wanted at least one local amateur to help fill the field and maybe bring a few fans out.
Ouimet, by then working at that Boston sporting goods store, had used up all his vacation time but was given the extra days off by the store’s management.
The former caddie agreed to take on his soon-to-become-famous caddie, but only after Eddie Lowery’s older brother, Jack, was reminded by a truant officer that school was not to be missed. Eddie Lowery — initially misspelled “Laurie” by media outlets, including the Globe — saw an opportunity, ditched school himself, and talked his way onto Ouimet’s bag.
A Disney movie on Ouimet’s win, “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” which followed Mark Frost’s superb book of the same title, took some liberties in glamorizing Lowery, but the depiction wasn’t that far off: He had the spunk to speak up, and played a pivotal role in Ouimet’s victory.
Lowery became an accomplished player himself, winning the 1927 Massachusetts Amateur, two years after Ouimet’s last victory in that event. Lowery moved to California, owned successful car dealerships, and remained lifelong friends with Ouimet.
It was Lowery who twice got Ouimet’s attention before the 18-hole US Open playoff, which was played on Saturday morning, Sept. 20, 1913, in a steady, messy drizzle. Ouimet, Vardon, and Ray finished 72 holes at 304, all shooting identical 79s in the final round on Friday afternoon. Ouimet, with Vardon and Ray finished and now watching him play the final few holes, worked hard just to get into the playoff, making a birdie on the 17th hole — within sight of his house — and scrambling for a clutch par at No. 18.
In a story in the Boston Sunday Globe on Sept. 21, 1913, the day after his victory and written by Ouimet, he credited Lowery with giving him a patriotic boost as he prepared to face the two intimidating Brits.
“Little Eddie furnished the inspiration,” Ouimet wrote in the Globe. “I will never forget the shame that crept over me as I beheld the diminutive lad with a red, white, and blue ribbon fluttering from the lapel of his coat. It was absolutely the first time that I realized that I was an American, and that upon my playing devolved the duty of retaining the title in America.”
Not long after, as they made their way to the first tee, Lowery spoke up again.
“Eddie whispered, ‘You’ve just got to beat those fellows, Francis,’ ” Ouimet wrote. “ ‘They never can take the championship across the water with them.’ ”
Ouimet trailed just once in the playoff, when Vardon took a one-stroke lead at No. 6. Ouimet and Ray drew even at the eighth, and all three players made the turn with front-nine 38s. Vardon and Ray fell two shots behind after the 12th, but Vardon cut the deficit in half at No. 13, which is how the playoff would stay — Ouimet ahead by one stroke — going to the 17th, the hole closest to the amateur’s house, the hole where he’d sneak on as a barefooted boy learning the game, and the hole that had been so good to him the day before.
It would be again. Vardon, desperate to make something happen, tried to carry the dogleg but instead found the fairway bunker at the corner (now Vardon’s Bunker). Ouimet drove into the fairway, sent his second shot onto the green, and for the second straight time, knocked in his putt for a 3. Vardon’s 5 put Ouimet’s lead at three shots with one hole to play. Another solid hole — drive in the fairway, second shot on the green, two putts — and Ouimet was the champion.
Ouimet 72, Vardon 77, Ray 78. It remains one of golf’s greatest upsets, and gave the US Open its first signature moment.
Despite the photographs depicting a wild scene at The Country Club immediately after Ouimet’s win, his post-victory celebration Saturday night was rather tame. Or predictable, for those who knew Ouimet. According to the Sunday Globe, he dined quietly with a friend at a café on Boylston Street, then attended a performance of “The Merry Martyr” at the Colonial Theatre. He returned home promptly when the curtain dropped.
He wasn’t done
Francis Ouimet went on to hold a number of job titles, although he never completed his coursework at Brookline High School (which awarded him an honorary degree in 2000). He was president of the Boston Bruins in 1931, and became vice president of the Boston Braves in 1941. He owned a sporting goods store and was an investment adviser.
But Ouimet’s roots remained in golf. He played on eight US Walker Cup teams, captaining six, became the first US captain of the R&A in 1951, and in 1949 helped create a scholarship fund in his name that has provided more than 5,000 Massachusetts students in excess of $25 million in college scholarship money.
To Ouimet, the twin wins 17 years apart at the US Amateur (1914 came at Ekwanok Country Club in Manchester, Vt.) were his greatest accomplishments on the golf course. In the opinion of almost everyone else, it was what took place over three days at The Country Club, nearly 100 years ago.
“The most significant championship in American golf history happened here,” said Michael Trostel, the USGA’s curator and historian, a Massachusetts native, and a Ouimet Scholar. “It’s really who he beat. Ouimet came here and beat Harry Vardon, already a 5-time British Open champion, and Ted Ray, defending British Open champion. Ouimet was really the first American golf hero.
“Ouimet’s humility and his working-class roots were something you didn’t see a lot at that time in the game. Golf was perceived as a game exclusively for the wealthy and the elite, and Ouimet helped break that perception. In the decade after Ouimet’s win, 2 million Americans took to the game, so it’s a story that really transcends golf. It’s not just a golf story, it’s a human interest story.”