Francis Ouimet: The Father of American Golf
“There are only two types of player—those who keep their nerves under control and win championships, and those who do not.” -Harry Vardon
The story of Frances Ouimet is one inextricably linked to the development of American golf. Although he would never admit it, it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that without Ouimet, golf might never have become what it is today.
Before Ouimet etched his name on the sporting landscape, golf in America was more of a curiosity than a mainstream sport—a foreign pursuit where the best players were all British ex-patriots, professionals were considered lower class citizens, and amateurs were those privileged few who need not work for a living.
After Ouimet, the sport became a national phenomenon. Top professionals were revered for their talent and given the opportunity to the reach the very top of society, and the amateur game was open to all classes—and all because of one 20-year-old’s ability.
Frances Desales Ouimet (pronounced we-met) was born on May 8th 1893. The son of a French-Canadian immigrant father and an Irish immigrant mother, Ouimet was born into the lowest echelons of American society.
Considering the elitist nature of golf at the time, you couldn’t have picked a more unlikely hero.
Indeed, only Ouimet’s home circumstances ever even led him to be introduced to the game of golf. Living in Brookline, not far from Boston, only the well-worn tracks of Clyde Street separated his house from the newly founded Brookline Country Club—one of the first American clubs to embrace the game.
When he was sent out to work by his father, the Country Club was the obvious destination.
There, Ouimet began his love affair with the game of golf. Caddying for the club’s burgeoning group of members, the impressionable Ouimet breathed in the atmosphere—everything about the game enchanted him. Before long the youngster was dedicated to the game, taking every opportunity to learn all he could.
Perhaps too young to realize how rare his discovery was, Ouimet knew instinctively that this was the thing he was born to do.
With an enviable ability to mimic the actions of others, Ouimet’s game was soon of an equal standard to the gentlemen whose bags he carried. Yet, now at a point where there was nothing more he could learn from the aristocrats who played in front of him, Ouimet’s progress stagnated.
As a result, it was another lucky encounter that would have a profound effect on the boy’s life.
Harry Vardon was undoubtedly the premier golfer of his era. The Englishman, born in Jersey on the 9th May 1970, won seven major championships in his illustrious career, and to this day is still rightly regarded as one of the greatest players the game has ever seen.
For Ouimet though, it was Vardon’s appearance in a Boston sports store in 1900 that changed his outlook on golf. Allowed to skip school to see Vardon by his mother—a strong woman who did all she could to shelter Ouimet’s perennially cheery demeanor from his oppressive father—the seven-year-old was blown away by the demonstration Vardon put on that day.
Walking back from the shop with Vardon’s precise swing firmly imprinted in his mind, Ouimet had already identified the areas where he could make significant improvement.
The thought alone excited him.
Although neither man knew it then, both men would meet again in altogether different circumstances just 13 years later.
By another of the funny coincidences that characterizes this story, the two men would meet again for the US Open in 1913, held at—where else—Brookline Country Club.
Ouimet, having spent the intervening years lurching from satisfying his father’s desire for him to earn a living wage and his own desire to make his mark on amateur golf, had been invited to play in the tournament by the USGA, who—having been impressed with his ability in winning the Massachusetts State Amateur—were desperate for a local-interest story.
Vardon, on the other hand, was making his first voyage—quite literally—to the US since his successful trip in 1900. Financed by the nationalistic Lord Northcliffe, Vardon and fellow Jerseyman Ted Ray (a great player in his own right, he had won the British Open the year before) had been instructed to bring the US Open trophy back to Britain, and thus cement the island’s place at the top of the sporting tree.
The American competitors, on the other hand, were charged with preventing such an event from occurring—the foreigners couldn’t be allowed to come over and take their national championship.
It was under this backdrop then, that Frances Ouimet took his bow in the arena of a professional event. A normal character would be understandably overawed—but Ouimet was about to prove he was no normal character.
To fully do justice to the events of the 19th US Open would take many thousands of words and, even then, many intriguing aspects would still be missed out. Yet, while there were many characters that played supporting roles in the week’s events, the story of the tournament basically revolved around just three—Ouimet, Vardon, and a young boy named Eddie Lowery.
Eddie Lowery’s presence in this story is perhaps the most unlikely element of all, in a story full of unlikely events. Barely four feet tall, the 10-year-old had idolized Ouimet from afar and, after an unforeseeable and improbable series of events, found himself caddying for his hero in the biggest competition either man had ever seen.
It seemed like destiny had brought them together, as the wise beyond his years Lowery turned out to be the perfect partner for Ouimet’s game. His mantra—“you keep your head down, I’ll watch the ball”—and instinctive ability to do the right thing at the right time, led Ouimet through the tournament’s four rounds—all the way to an unlikely playoff.
Who would he meet in that playoff? Who else but Harry Vardon and Ted Ray.
Returning after two days intense competition on Saturday for the now traditional 18-hole playoff, Ouimet was the focus of a hugely supportive crowd. Conservative estimates suggest that over 15 000 fans descended on Brookline for the match, and none of them were rooting for the two Englishmen.
As the match got underway, the golf was of a typically high standard. No man gave an inch, and at the halfway stage there had still been no clues as to who was going to get their hands on the trophy.
Under extreme pressure, no one was cracking.
However, it would be the big-hitting Ray that would finally succumb. Undone—not for the first time in his career, or the last—by his prodigious power off the tee, the Jerseyman recorded a double-bogey six at the 15th to end his chances.
Starting with 84 hopefuls at the beginning of the week, the tournament was now down to just two.
Although they were only beginning to understand it, Harry Vardon and Francis Ouimet shared a great deal in common—later in life Vardon would admit that he saw something of himself in his young opponent.
Both men grew up on the borders of golf courses (infact, Vardon was evicted from his childhood home so a golf course could be built) and grew to love the game despite the disapproval of their fathers.
Fighting to overcome the oppression they faced, above all both men did all they could to become the best they could be at the game of golf.
With just three holes separating one of them from the US Open, however, the crucial facet that they both shared was one Vardon above all in competitive golf—they could both keep their nerves under control.
On this occasion, against all expectations, it was Ouimet who held his nerve the better. Coming to the 17th, Ouimet held a well-earned one stroke lead. Vardon, sensing that the tournament was slipping away from him and he was running out of time to rectify it, decided to take a risk off the tee. Taking a leaf out of Ray’s book, Vardon attempted to cut the corner of the dogleg, believing it would leave him with an easy birdie opportunity.
Unfortunately, he managed only to find the bunker protecting the dogleg—to this day known as “Vardon’s Bunker”—and could only make a bogey five.
Playing his own game, Ouimet made three.
Unfazed by his three-stroke lead, and oblivious to the joyous scenes around him, Ouimet strolled up the 18th in a trance, guided only by his caddy’s words of encouragement.
Still keeping his head down, Ouimet made one final par to secure an unbelievable triumph.
Just 20-years-old, in a US Open playoff against the two greatest players of his era, Ouimet had just shot a two-under par 72 to take one the trophy.
And all that with a 10-year-old caddie.
After Ouimet had been crowned champion, Ray and Vardon were both characteristically gracious in defeat. Perhaps, even amidst the thudding pain of their loss, both men had already realized how great the former caddie’s triumph was for the game they both loved so dearly.
Ouimet’s triumph sent shockwaves through the sporting world. In a way no other player had managed before, the young boy from Brookline had proven that American golf was now the equal of its more illustrious rival across the Atlantic and, more importantly, that anyone could achieve success if they tried hard enough.
If an amateur, and a former caddy at that, could win the US Open, who couldn’t?
Unaware of it at the time, Ouimet’s exploits served as inspiration for the likes of Gene Sarazen and Bobby Jones (who would win the Grand Slam in 1930), men who before 1913 would never have been able to join the golfing fraternity, let alone reach it’s summit.
Ouimet made that possible.
Even Vardon and Ray, along with the rest of the professional fraternity, eventually benefited from Ouimet’s success. For so long considered members of the social underclass despite their unrivalled success, Vardon and Ray would soon be given honorary memberships to some of the most prestigious clubs in England.
Considering in their entire career neither man had even been allowed inside the clubhouse of a golf course, this was a massive step. Belated though it may have been, it was a hugely symbolic gesture.
Ouimet, however, never personally experienced the many benefits his actions had brought to professional golf. Resolutely staying amateur throughout his career, Ouimet would go on to win two US Amateur Championships before devoting himself to his sporting goods business.
Always a great ambassador for the game of golf, Ouimet was voted as one of the four original members of Golf’s Hall of Fame. He was the first American captain of the Royal & Ancient club—the original governing body of the game—and went on to set up the Francis Ouimet Caddie Scholarship Fund, which still provides more than a million dollars a year in grants to underprivileged students.
Ouimet died on September 2nd 1967. Eddie Lowery, by now a self-made millionaire, was one of the pallbearers.
Gone but not forgotten, Ouimet’s legacy can be seen in many of the finer aspects of the game he loved.
To learn more about the 1913 US Open, read Mark Frost's The Greatest Game Ever Played: Vardon, Ouimet and The Birth of Modern Golf. It does more justice to the subject than I ever could.
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