The golfing triumph a century ago of Francis Ouimet is the stuff of sporting fairytale. It inspired an engaging Disney movie called “The Greatest Game Ever Played”, written by Mark Frost and based on his fine book of the same title. This is my own more modest account.
In September 1913, the privileged gods of amateur golf and their socially inferior professional counterparts were in Brookline, Massachusetts, preparing for the US Open championship. Little did they suspect that golfing history was about to be made by such an unlikely character, and that the nature of the game would be changed for the better and forever.
Among the field that competed over the Country Club course was a lanky, 20 year-old lad called Francis Ouimet. He stood 6 foot 2, weighed 12 and a half stone, and was the son of Arthur Ouimet, a French-Canadian immigrant, and Mary Ellen Burke, who had come to America from Ireland. When Francis was 4 his family bought a house on Clyde Street in Brookline, just a wedge shot’s distance from the Country Club’s 17th hole. Despite this proximity the Ouimets were from the wrong side of the tracks, while Brookline was sited firmly and luxuriously on the right side.
A century ago, US amateur golf was the preserve of the wealthy, while professional golf offered competition and a modest living for former caddies, who were obliged by the USGA to give up their amateur status if they continued caddying beyond the age of 16. Amateurs drawn from the ranks of the elite were the giants of the sport; professionals were regarded with the sort of disdain reserved for mercenaries, and not allowed inside the clubhouses of private clubs. Nevertheless, Francis developed an interest in the game and took to caddying at the Country Club aged 11 – which not only got him closer to golf but also brought in a few extra and well received dollars.
His brother Wilfred, also a caddie, had an old club, and both boys found balls as they patrolled the course with their employers. With these Francis began to teach himself the game, for which he had a more instinctive feel than Wilfred, also golf mad. In the back yard of their house the brothers even fashioned a makeshift practice area of 3 holes that included a gravel pit, long rough, and cups made from tin cans piled into what passed for greens.
Caddying also meant that Francis got to see his heroes up close when big tournaments were played at the Country Club: men like Chandler Egan, Jerry Travers, Fred Herreshoff, Walter J. Travis, Alex Smith, and Willie Anderson. Francis was also a personable youngster and many members were fond of him. One of them, Samuel Carr, for whom Francis had caddied the day before, made him the gift of 4 unwanted clubs from his locker: a driver with a leather face, a lofter, a midiron, and a putter. The golf bug that had infected Francis now became a fever; he rose at dawn or before and practiced on the famous course until the green keepers told him to clear off. At the weekends he and a school friend would spend the whole day on the nine-hole public course at nearby Franklin Park. On one Saturday the boys managed to fit in 54 holes.
Francis was becoming a fine golfer and, looking back, there is evidence of the gathering momentum that would generate such historic results in September 1913. In 1908, when he was 15 and about to enter Brookline High school, he played in the Greater Boston Interscholastic Championship. Strictly speaking he was ineligible, because this chapter of his schooling was still to be opened. But Francis argued that he should be able to represent Brookline High and, somehow, given golf’s stickling for rules, won his case. He qualified with an 85, but was eliminated in the first round by J. H. Sullivan (whose sister Francis later married).
Two years later, in 1910, Francis decided to enter the National Amateur to be played over the Country Club. But, to compete he had to be a member of a recognised golf club, so he applied for junior membership at the Woodland Golf Club, borrowing from his mother the $25 it cost to join, and paying her back by earning $4 a week in a Boston shop during the summer. It was all to no avail – he failed to qualify by one stroke, and the same thing would happen in 1911 and 1912, though in that year he reached the final of the Massachusetts State Amateur only to be beaten by Heinie Schmidt, “the well dressed man”. In 1913, Francis made amends and won the State Amateur, and also qualified for the National Amateur, giving Jerry Travers a stiff challenge before succumbing on the 34th green.
So Francis’ 1913 had been a good year, and yet he had no plans to enter the US Open despite the venue being his beloved Country Club at Brookline. He had to be persuaded to enter by the President of the USGA, Robert Watson. Francis’ agreement would set in motion events that would change the nature of golf in America and across the world, because, in the space of 3 days, Francis Ouimet would make possible the impossible.
Let’s skip to September 19, 1913, the day this report was filed to the New York Times: “An American youth, Francis Ouimet, a stripling scarcely out of his teens, carved a niche for himself in international sporting history here today when he tied with England’s famous professional golfers, Harry Vardon and Edward Ray, in the final round of the national open championship.” The anonymous reporter goes on to describe the atmosphere that descended upon the tournament. “When the gallery realised that in this home bred amateur rested America’s chance of winning the championship, the tournament ceased to be a purely golf competition and developed into an international contest between the representatives of Uncle Sam and John Bull.”
In one sense, Francis had home advantage; he knew the Country Club course well. On the other hand his caddie was a 10 year old boy called Eddie Lowery. What’s more, Francis had spent precious little time in the crucible that forges the true steel required for golf at the highest level, and could not have imagined the hysteria that gripped the final few holes of his round. “Enthusiasm ran the gamut from despair to elation; silence was followed by outbursts of cheering that could be heard from one end of the course to the other. When Ouimet’s second shot from the seventeenth tee landed dead on the edge of the home green, five thousand spectators massed themselves in a gigantic ring of breathless humanity about Ouimet and his playing partner George Sargent.”
Francis had a putt to take the title. In wet conditions he missed and left himself a three footer. He lined up again and sank it…and barely had the ball dropped into the hole before he was raised up on to the shoulders of the crowd and carried towards the clubhouse from the scene of the miracle. Vardon, Ray and Ouimet – Who? – all tied on 304. As New York Times readers learned: “Many not realising that Ouimet was an amateur and not a professional thrust bills of large denominations at him only to be met with a smile and a shake of the head, which took the sting out of the refusal made necessary by their mistake…It was a climax new to golf in this country, and even Ray and Vardon, who were trailing along amid the swish-swish of rubber coated spectators, gripped their pipes until the stems threatened to snap under the strain of the clinched teeth.”
The next day brought the play-off, to be decided over 18 holes. The weather was still poor. Francis had gone to bed at 9.30 the evening before and risen at 8am. After a light breakfast he walked over to the Country Club and hit some balls towards young Eddie. A short while later he, Vardon and Ray drew straws to determine who would have the honour. Francis drew the longest and hit a nervous but straight tee shot down the 430 yard par 4. In the conditions only Ted Ray stood the chance of getting to the green in 2, but pushed his ball into mounds on the right and had to be satisfied with a 5 after a poor chip. Vardon also made 5 and Francis had a short putt to do the same. When it hit the bottom of the cup he said later that he lost all sense of “awe and excitement”.
And this is borne out by the contemporary reporting of the contest. Francis Ouimet remained calm and focused, while his professional opponents wrestled with the demons of intense competition in difficult conditions. By the 15th Ray was fading, even though he had the good fortune to see his ball hit a spectator’s derby hat and ricochet away from the rough towards which it was heading. But instead of capitalising on this slice of luck he found a bunker with his second shot, took 2 to get out, and made 6. Vardon and Ouimet made par 4’s, leaving Vardon 1 shot behind Ouimet with Ray 4 shots adrift. On this hole, Vardon, who normally never smoked on the golf course, lit a cigarette.
On 17 Vardon hooked his drive into a trap and had to play out on to the fairway. His third hit the green. Ouimet took out his mashie and hit his second to 18 feet. Vardon 2 putted. Ouimet rolled his ball into the hole.
So, walking on to the last tee the young pretender held a 3 shot lead. His drive was straight. His second landed on the green. His first putt was weak and left the ball 4 feet short. Even so, 20 year old Francis Ouimet was on the brink of a remarkable victory and only now did he submit to the occasion. He began to shiver. He hesitated within the eerie silence of several thousand people enraptured by history in the making. Francis made his stroke. His ball disappeared into the hole. And the silence came to a tumultuous end.
Francis Ouimet’s US Open victory changed golf. He had taken on the British greats and won, but, more importantly, he had demonstrated to Americans that the game was not the sole province of the elite. Against the social odds of the time he became a great player and a champion who inspired millions to pick up a golf club and the creation of many public courses. The images of this 20 year old striding down fairways with a boy half his age carrying his clubs are the stuff of sporting legend, and a welcome reminder that, sometimes, dreams do come true.