Francis Ouimet, America's First Golf Hero: Part I
August 11, 2013
By Rhonda Glenn
The 20th of September was a damp, dreary day at The Country Club, a citadel of golf in Brookline, Massachusetts, along the western rim of the old city of Boston. Water dripped from the massive trees lining the fairways, and golf balls plugged in the sodden turf. The rambling clubhouse, with its graceful porches and dormer windows, towered over the course like a gloomy sentinel. On this dank Saturday, Francis Ouimet made the United States finally fall in love with golf.
Ouimet was a shy and unlikely hero. In the years to come, he would discuss his great victory with reluctance, seldom with the press and never with his family. He never discussed golf, said Barbara McLean, Ouimet’s daughter. Not to my knowledge. Not in my presence. He never discussed golf. It was, ‘What did you do in school today?’
In 1913, the modest, gangly youth with the long face was in the eye of a perfect storm: Before World War I, British golfers were dominating the golf scene and the American game had yet to pick up a head of steam. Of the 17 U.S. Open champions dating to 1895, a dozen were born in Scotland and three in England. Only Johnny McDermott, a native of Philadelphia, had managed to crack the British stranglehold. In 1911, McDermott had been the first American to win the national championship. He had repeated in 1912.
McDermott, however, is not among the major characters in this story. Those roles are filled by Ouimet, the impeccable Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. While McDermott did compete in the 1913 U.S. Open as defending champion, he was showing signs of emotional decline. He was competing on borrowed time. Tragically, he would fall victim to schizophrenia.
There were 160 players entered in the championship, only the second time the field had reached triple digits. Many were working-class American professionals, but a few came from as far away as France and Great Britain. Ouimet had only to walk across the street.
One year later, Ouimet, now 17, wanted to enter the 1910 U.S. Amateur. To compete in the national amateur championship I had to belong to a recognized golf club … I put in an application for junior membership in the Woodland Golf Club … I was elected to membership in Woodland, paid my dues ($25 he borrowed from his mother), then got busy to find myself a job, Ouimet recalled years later.When Francis was 4 years old, his French-Canadian father and Irish mother had purchased a house in Brookline on Clyde Street, across the street from The Country Club’s 17th hole. The Ouimets struggled to make ends meet, and Francis soon began working as a caddie at the club. The youngster taught himself to play golf, using his brother’s clubs and golf balls he found on the course. It wasn’t long before he was the best high school golfer in Massachusetts. He organized a golf team at Brookline High and was its star player. When his father insisted that Francis quit school and do something useful, he left Brookline High.
Soon after, he landed a position at the sporting goods concern Wright and Ditson. When he turned 20, Ouimet’s persistent practice paid off. He won the 1913 Massachusetts Amateur and, in early September, advanced to the second round of match play in the U.S. Amateur at Long Island’s Garden City Golf Club.
His play caught the eye of USGA President Robert Watson, who issued him a personal invitation to play in the 1913 U.S. Open. But Ouimet faced a dilemma familiar to amateurs of modest means – he had to return to work. Watson persisted, arrangements were made with Ouimet’s employer and the young man entered the U.S. Open.
Despite Ouimet’s splendid regional reputation, in that field he was nearly anonymous. It showed. On the first tee he was so nervous that he topped his tee shot, which skittered just 40 yards down the fairway. Most spectators tromping around The Country Club that week favored the American defender McDermott, the brilliant Englishman Vardon or the long-hitting Ray, Vardon’s countryman. The French player Louis Tellier was another favorite, as was his brother-in-law, English professional Wilfrid Reid.
Vardon was golf ’s first superstar and the most famous player of his generation. At 43, the then five-time British Open champion possessed a fluid, powerful swing. With Ray, Reid and noted British journalist Bernard Darwin, Vardon was on an American tour sponsored by Lord Northcliffe (Alfred Harmsworth), a blustery English newspaper magnate who owned the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror and the Times of London. Lord Northcliffe had dispatched Vardon, Reid and Ray overseas to challenge emerging American golf talent. Darwin was sent along to write about it. The 1913 U.S. Open played a central role in Darwin’s story.
A solid 5-foot-9, Vardon had enormous hands that enfolded the club perfectly in what became known as the Vardon grip. With a smooth, upright swing, his ball flight was higher than most, giving his approach shots greater carry and a softer landing. He won almost at will. His peaceable temperament made him a favorite, but it was his competitive reputation and golf swing that truly attracted crowds. He did it so easily.
Ted Ray was seven years younger. He idolized Vardon. Like Vardon, Ray was born on the Isle of Jersey, and he caddied and learned the game at the same course where Vardon had first played. The big, hefty Ray was known for his prodigious power, but he could never crack the famed threesome of Vardon, John Henry Taylor and James Braid, the players who dominated the game for 20 years and whom Darwin called The Great Triumvirate. In 1912, however, Ray’s stock went up when he won the British Open, which brought him attention in the United States.
In 1913, American enthusiasm for golf was getting a huge boost from the U.S. Open. With the glittering presence of overseas players, an estimated 10,000 spectators turned out for the early rounds. By Saturday, the turnout would double.
After qualifying rounds on Tuesday and Wednesday, 49 players teed it up for the first two rounds on Thursday. The co-leader – the dapper and sturdy Reid – was a surprise. Reid had previously won the French and Swiss Opens, but nothing of this magnitude. His precise iron shots and fine play over the first 36 holes boosted him to a tie with Vardon at 147, three over par and two strokes ahead of Ray. American professional Macdonald Smith and Long Jim Barnes were another stroke behind, followed by Ouimet and newcomer Walter Hagen at 151. Tellier came in at 152.
With Ouimet’s name near the top of the leader board, club members scoffed at his caddie, 10-year-old Eddie Lowery. The boy knew he would not be paid for lugging an amateur’s clubs, but the excitement of it was more than enough remuneration. The perky, positive lad had skipped school for the privilege and, as the U.S. Open unfolded, somehow managed to remain one step ahead of his distraught mother and the truant officer.
By the time the third round began, rain had been falling since midnight, and the ball often plugged in the muddy fairways and wet rough. Scoring suffered on the waterlogged course. Vardon fired a 78 and Ray a 76. Ouimet had a comparatively good 74. After 54 holes, the Massachusetts Amateur champion was tied for the lead with the great Vardon and Ray at 225.
That afternoon, Ray went from bad to worse, finishing with a dispiriting 79 and a 304 total for the 72 holes. The score looked vulnerable. Vardon had teed off behind Ray and finished his round while Ouimet was only on the fifth hole. Vardon, like Ray, had shot a 79, and they were tied at 304.
I played rotten, and to make matters worse, Harry went out and did the same thing, he said.
In the miserable conditions, high scores prevailed – Reid, for example, shot 85-86 to plummet from contention – but without any public scoreboards, none of the players knew what was happening on the course. Ouimet was the only American still in the fight. He needed a 78 to win, a 79 to tie and had gone out in 43. At the short par-3 10th, he frittered away two more strokes, scuffing one shot barely 20 feet and then three-putting from 8 feet. Ouimet would have to play the last eight holes in one under par to tie. He was going in the wrong direction.
While threading his way through the gallery, Francis overheard a spectator whisper, It’s too bad he’s blown up. It was just what the amateur needed. The challenge spurred him to play some of the best golf of his life. By the time he reached the 17th tee, he needed one more birdie to tie.
The famous hole was a 360-yard par 4, a dogleg left that curled around a cluster of fairway bunkers. Ouimet’s tee shot found the fairway and Lowery handed him his jigger, the equivalent of today’s 4-iron. Ouimet made a smooth swing and knocked his ball to within 15 feet of the flagstick. He later said that he reminded himself to be sure to give the putt a chance. He struck the ball firmly. When it hit the back of the hole and dropped in, he was tied with the English players. All he needed was a par on the home hole to force a playoff.
Ouimet thought he would have a birdie putt to win, but his approach shot checked up short of the green and his chip was only fair, leaving him with a 4-footer for a par to tie. He rolled it in.
The incredible had happened: An American, barely older than a boy, an ex-caddie who lived across the street from the hallowed club, had tied two of the biggest stars in the game for the National Open championship. In modern-day terms, it was as if a British schoolboy were in a playoff for the British Open with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, an unknown amateur going up against two of the most famous players in the world. In America, a nation of novice golfers, it was even bigger than that.
Tomorrow: Part 2 of America’s First Golf Hero
Rhonda Glenn, recently retired from the USGA Communications department, was a contributing author to "Great Moments of the U.S. Open."