Golf has long maintained an unsteady association with elitism, often seen as a game started by wealthy players in private clubs meant to keep everyone else out. This was certainly true of early American golf, where courses up to the early 1900s were exlusively members-only private affairs. In fact, the very first country club in the country was established by some of Boston’s wealthiest men in Brookline, Massachusetts in 1882. It was at that historic club, aptly named The Country Club, that the future of golf in America changed in 1913. That was when a working class amateur golfer and son of immigrants Francis Ouimet became the first amateur and the second American to win the U.S. Open. The win would inspire the American public to take up the game as public courses became more common and people of various backgrounds tried their hands at the sport. In many ways, 1913 marks when golf became part of the larger American culture where it remains today.
Ouimet was the American-born son of French-Canadian immigrants that settled in Brookline, Massachusetts. The location of their house plays central to the story of Ouimet: it was located right across the street from the Country Club. As a child, Ouimet and his brother would scavenge for lost balls in the woods around their house and practice using improvised clubs. Ouimet would later recall playing golf as a child on a homemade course that was part of cow pasture they had mowed. Ouimet took a job as a caddie at the tender age of 9 at the neighboring Country Club. This new job gave Ouimet the chance to play the game more regularly while studying the techniques of the members. He was even allowed to play the course if members invited him, earning more important tips. Ouimet recalls that during his teenage years he would often get up early to practice on the course before going to school. As an extra precaution, he would play barefoot in order to not risk damaging the damp course. He also began playing at Boston’s sole public course at Franklin Park, a 2-hour trip by streetcar.
Through all this Ouimet continued to improve his game, something recognized by members and staff at the Country Club. However, Ouimet was forced to quit school at 16 and begin working full time as golfing was relegated to a hobby, or so it would seem. In reality, Ouimet began working at the Boston sporting goods store of legendary baseball player and golf enthusiast George Wright. Wright, a local celebrity, was instrumental in setting up Franklin Park’s public golf course and was one of the few stores that sold golf equipment in the Boston area. Ouimet began competing in amateur tournaments as a teenager, eventually winning the Massachusetts Amateur Championship in 1913 aged 20. After the win, Ouimet’s boss helped finance his trip to the Nationals where he caught the attention to the USGA, who extended an invitation to Ouimet to come to the U.S. Open.
The story of Francis Ouimet’s win would be incomplete without discussing his caddie, Eddie Lowery. Eddie was a street smart Irish kid who at 10 years old served as Ouimet’s caddie during the legendary tournament. Eddie and his older brother Jack had played hooky and intended to watch the opening rounds of the tournament. After his brother Jack was caught by a truancy officer, Eddie proceeded on to The Country Club without him where he met Ouimet. Amazingly, despite his short stature, he convinced Ouimet that he could caddie for him, with Ouimet perhaps seeing a bit of his past self in little Eddie. Over the ensuing rounds, Ouimet would credit Eddie with continually providing encouragement and keeping him focused while playing against some of the best golfers in the world. When Ouimet later had the option of choosing a more experienced caddie he chose to stay with Eddie. It was a decision that would soon pay off.
1913 U.S. Open
Francis Ouimet, though an accomplished amateur, still had to contend with qualifying before he could tee off in the proper U.S. Open. Ouimet had the advantage of being very familiar with the course and could even see his childhood home from the 17th hole. The process to qualify involved playing 2 rounds of golf on the same day. Ouimet played well enough to finish 5th in the 36 hole qualifier, thus earning a spot in the tournament. At this point, the tournament was played over 4 rounds but crammed into only 2 days. Ouimet was in a respectable tie for 7th with future legend Walter Hagen after 2 rounds, 4 strokes off of the leaders. A 3rd round rally saw Ouimet jump up the leaderboard to a three-way tie with Harry Vardon, the legendary British golfer who already had 1 U.S. Open win and 5 Open Championship wins, and reigning Open Championship winner Ted Ray. Ouimet had been playing consistent golf all week, and as conditions deteriorated into rain and wind Ouimet kept the pace. With little Eddie Lowery by his side, Ouimet matched Ray and Vardon to earn an 18-hole playoff the following day.
The playoff captured the attention of the Boston public, as the tale of the young American amateur from modest means appealed to the largely working class city. Few seriously expected the 20 year old Ouimet to handle the pressure of playing next to Vardon and Ray but thousands turned out to see the round. After the front 9 the trio were still tied. On the 10th hole, Ouimet would move ahead for the first time all weekend. He would not relinquish the lead as he not only kept his nerve but improved his lead to 3 strokes. After finishing the 18th hole, Ouimet and Eddie were lifted on the shoulders of the crowd and carried back to the clubhouse.
Ouimet’s win was covered extensively in the press, and golf instantly became more popular with the American public. Cities began establishing more public courses and the game saw the number of golfers triple in the coming decade. Remarkably, Ouimet never went professional. He never again won the U.S. Open, but did claim a further 5 Massachusetts Amateurs, 2 U.S. Amateurs, and played in 8 Walker Cups. He would later marry and raise a family and remain in the sporting goods business. Eventually he would start the Francis Ouimet Scholarship Fund for Massachusetts caddies. Ouimet passed away in 1967 at the age of 72. During his funeral one of the pallbearers was his former child caddie Eddie Lowery, who remained close to Ouimet the rest of his life. Lowery would become a leading amateur golfer in his own right following the 1913 U.S. Open. He would win the 1927 Massachusetts Amateur before focusing on his business career, eventually becoming a millionaire through work in advertising and car dealerships in California. He became known for supporting amateur golf in his new hometown of San Francisco before passing away in 1984. His estate has since funded a Ouimet Scholarship in his name.