Francis Ouimet, America's First Golf Hero: Part II
August 12, 2013
By Rhonda Glenn
In the 18-hole playoff the following day, September 20, 1913, pandemonium ruled. More than 20,000 American working men, and a few women, freed from their jobs in factories, shops and offices on Saturday, seethed over the soggy course at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass.
Francis Ouimet awoke, had a light breakfast and then walked across the street to hit some practice shots. Two-time champion and fellow American John McDermott watched him warm up and told him, You are hitting the ball well. Now go out and pay no attention whatsoever to Vardon and Ray. Play your own game.
Just before 10, Ouimet joined the Englishmen on the first tee. He drew the longest straw and had the honor, nailing a fine drive. Harry Vardon and Ted Ray also hit good tee shots, and off they went. At the turn, the three remained tied at 38.
All three hit the green at the 140-yard 10th, and Ouimet was nearest the hole. When first Vardon then Ray three-putted and Ouimet managed his par, he gained the edge for the first time. They all made pars on the 11th and headed for the 12th tee.
Despite the drizzle and mud, Ouimet was having a day most golfers can only dream about. His drives were long and pure, his approach shots well struck and his putting smooth and precise. Ouimet had been outdriving Vardon regularly, and on the twelfth he outdrove Ray as well, wrote Herbert Warren Wind in The Story of American Golf. Ouimet was the only one to reach the green in two strokes, hitting a superb shot to within 10 feet of the hole. Vardon was short of the green and Ray was down an embankment. They could do no better than bogeys, while Ouimet made a par 4 to take a two-stroke lead.
But Vardon birdied the 13th on a nifty 9-footer to pick up a stroke on the young amateur. Then, on the par-5 14th, Vardon showed the first signs that his game was cracking. When he was hitting the ball well, Vardon preferred to hit a fade. Now he was losing shots to the left. He hooked his drive into the high rough, then hit a shot out and then hooked his approach shot.
Veteran golf reporter Linde Fowler sensed that Vardon was worried and that Ray seemed restless – he could make no headway. Ouimet, however, was so cool that on one hole, when a spectator incredibly cornered him to ask for advice on his own golf game, he patiently answered the questions.
All three players parred the 14th hole. Ray took himself out of it on the next hole when he took two shots to escape a bunker and double-bogeyed. He was now four strokes behind Ouimet and three behind Vardon. With only three holes left to play, Ray was finished, and Ouimet said later that he knew it. Vardon, meanwhile, was rattled. Sensing doom, the self-assured golfer who never smoked on the course lit a cigarette.
Ouimet and Vardon took sure pars on the short 16th. Ray had another bogey. They walked to the 17th tee, the trailing crowd growing more unruly.
Vardon had the honor on the 360-yard, par-4 dogleg left, and he played a brave tee shot that was intended to hug the corner and give him a shorter shot to the green. It was risky and Vardon flinched, hooking the ball into the bunker that guarded the dogleg. From a poor lie, Vardon couldn’t go for the green and had to play short. His third shot wasn’t close. He bogeyed.
Many times Ouimet had walked the 17th hole as a caddie. He could, in fact, gaze down its fairway from his front porch. The day before he had birdied the hole to seal a spot in a playoff. Now, with two holes to play and a three-stroke lead, he drove to almost the exact spot where he had hit his tee shot on the Friday. Lowery handed Ouimet his mashie, which is the equivalent of a modern-day 5-iron, and he hit one of the best approach shots of his life. He was 18 feet from the hole.
His putter had not let him down all week. Now he had to get down in two to carry a three-stroke lead to the final hole. Ouimet drew back his putter, made a smooth stroke and, sure enough, the ball dropped.
Ouimet never let up. His good drive on the home hole was followed by an iron shot to the green, but his approach putt left him with a good 4-footer for par. Lining up that short putt, for the first time he realized he was going to win, and he began to shiver all over. Steadying himself, he made the winning putt.
The crowd who had slogged around the course in the drizzle, worn out from playing every shot with Ouimet, still staggered by the boy’s nerveless poise and his brilliant golf, reeled around the eighteenth green and the clubhouse in the gayest stupor many of them ever experienced in their lives, wrote Wind.
Spectators hoisted the young American and his caddie to their shoulders. Ouimet spotted fellow golfer Jerry Travers in the crowd and urged him to pass the hat among his followers to collect some cash for the hard-working Lowery. A photograph of Ouimet on the shoulders of gleeful supporters, with young Lowery in the foreground, captures the moment when this country began to look to golf.
I think it was just this way, Ouimet said years later, that Vardon and Ray rather expected me to crack, not having the experience for things like this as they had, and when the time went on and I did not crack, but went along with them, I think it had an unfavorable effect on them.
That conclusive birdie putt on the 17th hole, Wind later wrote, Perhaps more than any other single shot was the one heard round the world.
British domination was over. The era of flamboyant American professional Walter Hagen began with his U.S. Open victory the following year. Hagen’s supporting cast over the next few years included Americans Jerry Travers, Gene Sarazen and Chick Evans. Ted Ray, the towering Englishman who played such a key role in this 1913 championship, would return to win the 1920 U.S. Open, but Ray would be one of only two British players to win the U.S. Open until Tony Jacklin’s victory in 1970.
As the years went by, the famous story of the 1913 U.S. Open remained a landmark of the game of golf. Among the leading players in that saga, Ray played in the British Open as late as 1937, when he was 60 years old. He died in London in 1943 at the age of 66, largely unnoticed due to World War II.
Harry Vardon won his sixth British Open in 1914, but, for Vardon, golf never again seemed quite so easy. Fashioning shots to fit American turf, Vardon believed, got him into bad habits. In 1920, at 50, he led the U.S. Open by four strokes with seven holes to play before bad weather and a shaky putter left him tied for second behind Ray. Vardon died in London in 1937. He was 66.
Francis Ouimet’s life continued to be extraordinary. In 1914 he set sail for Europe, and while his quest to win that year’s British Amateur was unsuccessful, he enjoyed the hospitality of Ray, who offered to show him the sights. On this trip, Ouimet enjoyed many convivial evenings in the company of Ray and Vardon. That summer, upon his return to the United States, Ouimet won the 1914 U.S. Amateur. Four years later he married Stella Sullivan. They had two daughters. Ouimet stayed in the sporting goods business and, in 1931, again won the U.S. Amateur. He played on the first eight USA Walker Cup teams and was captain of the next four. In 1951, Ouimet became the first American to be elected captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Scotland.
When he was named captain of the Royal & Ancient, he was overwhelmed with the honor, said Barbara McLean, his daughter. My sister said he was really taken aback with that.
In late August 1967, Ouimet, now 74, was coming home from work when he felt weak. Gasping, he stopped to lean against a building for support. It was a hot night, and he kept to his plan of going to his daughter’s house in Wellesley for dinner. But he wasn’t himself, and shortly after dinner he went home. At around 2 a.m., he telephoned his daughter and was quickly taken to a hospital. He had suffered a heart attack and, a week later, on September 2nd, Francis Ouimet died.
His funeral at St. Paul’s Church in Wellesley Hills was sparsely attended, said his daughter Barbara. It was, after all, Labor Day weekend, and most of Ouimet’s friends were out of town. They would not learn of the great man’s death until days later.
What Francis Ouimet did for American golf in that dramatic week 100 years ago cannot be overstated. Most importantly, his feat popularized golf in this country. Over the decade that followed his astonishing victory, the number of American golfers tripled. In the year of the 1913 U.S. Open, 350,000 Americans played golf. One decade later, public golf courses had popped up from coast to coast and 2 million Americans were playing the game Ouimet loved.