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Game Changer

Nearly 100 years after amateur Francis Ouimet shocked the golf world with his U.S. Open victory in Brookline, his achievement remains singularly impressive and unmistakably wonderful

Francis Ouimet

Ouimet poses with Ted Ray and Harry Vardon at the 1913 U.S. Open.

February 4, 2013

He had been a caddie and a student, but by 1913 Francis Ouimet was something other than a sporting-goods salesman at Wright & Ditson in Boston. See for yourself, in the pages of the Brookline (Mass.) directory. Among the town's residents -- teachers and carpenters, widows and blacksmiths, dentists and horsemen -- was a listing for a family at 246 Clyde Street, across the road from The Country Club.

Ouimet Arthur gardener h Clyde opp Country Club
Francis golfer bds Clyde opp Country Club

That September, when the U.S. Open was held at The Country Club, British stars Ted Ray and Harry Vardon and the rest of the world would find out just what kind of golfer the 20-year-old son of Arthur Ouimet really was.

John G. Anderson, a Boston golfer and golf writer already knew. Several years earlier he had witnessed Ouimet's golf skills in a match between Brookline High and the Fessenden School, where Anderson taught. En route to winning the 1913 Massachusetts Amateur, Ouimet went 2-3-3-3-3 to beat Anderson, 3 and 1, in the semifinals. "If there ever was a born golfer," Anderson wrote during Open week, "it is this boy."

No matter that Ouimet's first golf was played on makeshift holes in the pasture behind the family home with older brother Wilfred, that his first golf balls were ones members at The Country Club had misfired, that his father discouraged his pursuit of the game or that his early forays to play a real golf course, Boston's public Franklin Park, were four-hour round trips on foot and by streetcar.

"Sometimes," Ouimet said years later, "I believe the real satisfaction comes from the struggle, not the reward."

That was a template for his striving, for every underdog who would follow, for an America that, in 1913, was still trying to prove it had the chops for this new game from the old country. But what occurred that monumental week would shape a century as the United States ascended into a golf power, eventually usurping the land that exported it across the Atlantic. Dreamers beget dreamers -- from Ouimet to Gene Sarazen, Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones to Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead, on to Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Tiger Woods.

First, though, there had to be a spark to ignite the flame.

"The result is impressive almost beyond belief," The (Brookline) Townsman wrote of a silent motion picture, "Les MisÚrables," playing at the Tremont Temple, in its Sept. 20, 1913 edition.

An outdoor performance that day would merit the same review.

The man who invented golf writing, Bernard Darwin, who would chronicle the U.S. Open for The Times of London, wondered before a shot was struck "whether Americans have a national genius for doing things young." Certainly the U.S. Open champion of 1911 and 1912, professional Johnny McDermott, the first American-born winner of the national championship, had been a testament to the prowess of youth and how golf was catching on in America having won both his titles before his 21st birthday.

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"If this country is to maintain her position at golf," Darwin, an Englishman, wrote, "her leading players, both amateur and professional, will certainly be ill-advised to think that there is nothing to be learned from the players in the United States."

Yet McDermott's national titles had come without having to defeat Vardon, by now a five-time British Open champion and the finest stylist golf had seen, or Ray, a burly, long-hitting talent who won the 1912 British Open prior to his 1913 sojourn with Vardon to the U.S. There the two titans would play many exhibition matches before and after the Open -- which had been shifted to the fall to accommodate their barnstorming.

Despite his respect for American golfers, Darwin, filing a story from Brookline two days before the first round of the U.S. Open, figured McDermott as the lone threat to deny the two British stars. "I confess that I cannot in my mind's eye see any man in this field, save only McDermott, beating Ray or Vardon over four rounds," he wrote. "McDermott is, of course, a really fine player and is perfectly capable of winning. I may be wrong as to the others, but at present I shall stick to my opinion."

Even though he struggled to a pair of 88s practicing at Wellesley CC Sept. 14, Ouimet, one of a record 162 entrants, qualified easily for the 66-man field with a 36-hole score of 152. Ouimet had a dynamic and powerful full swing -- at least once he outdrove (Long) Jim Barnes during qualifying -- and owned valuable local knowledge of The Country Club from his many caddieing loops and surreptitious shots that sometimes led him to being shooed away from where he didn't belong.

The Open was Sept. 18-19, 36 holes a day over the 6,245-yard course. Far from playing as if he were out of his element in the first round, Ouimet -- with pint-sized 10-year-old Eddie Lowery as his caddie -- shot a 77, T-17 and six behind the 71s of Macdonald Smith and Alex Ross but safely sandwiched between favorites Vardon (75) and Ray (79). In the second round the American amateur and the British pros all improved, Vardon assuming a second-round tie with Wilfrid Reid at 147. Ray's 70 took him to T-3 at 149. Ouimet's 74 had him within striking distance at 151.

Reid and Ray got into a fight that night at dinner about the British taxation system, Ray drawing blood when he punched his smaller countryman twice in the face. Reid disappeared from contention the next day with rounds of 85-86. In dreadfully wet conditions, Vardon and Ray, in different groups finishing more than 90 minutes ahead of Ouimet, shot 78-79 and 76-79 to finish 72 holes at 304.

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