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.Continued...