Monday, September 20, 2010

September 20, 1913: The caddie from across the street

BROOKLINE, Mass. - Imagine growing up across the street from a golf course, so close that stray shots going toward the 17th green could end up on your front porch.

Imagine that this proximity gave you the advantage of being able to caddy at that club starting at a young age, a job that allowed you to play the course whenever you wanted. It's quite an opportunity, because at this time in America, golf was played only by the rich, not by a low middle-class family like yours.

Eventually, you improve your play enough to get some regional notice, all because of your opportunity to caddy at this great course across the street from your house. Then, the U.S. Open, the national championship, is played at that course. What an opportunity! Think of all the great players you'll get to watch.

Except instead of watching, you're playing.

Francis Ouimet was fortunate to grow up across the street from The Country Club in Brookline. His time caddying and practicing there made him a very accomplished young golfer, and when he won the 1913 Massachusetts Amateur at the age of 20, he seemed to have a bright future. But even he had to be surprised when Robert Watson, the president of the USGA, personally asked Ouimet to play in that fall's U.S. Open at his home course. Of course, the answer was yes.

There must be something to be said for home-course advantage in golf, because Ouimet had the week of his life, ending regulation play tied with Harry Vardon and Ted Ray on top of the leaderboard. Vardon and Ray, two Englishmen, were considered the two top golfers in the world at that time, so for Ouimet to be mentioned in the same breath with those two was accomplishment enough.

But then, the 18-hole playoff started, and Ouimet shocked the world. The 72 he shot was five shots better than Vardon and six clear of Ray, and the most improbable U.S. Open champion in history was crowned. He was the first amateur champion of the event, and only the second American to ever win the national championship.

Ouimet's win had a resounding effect on American golf. What was once seen as a sport played only by Europeans or by the elite suddenly became a game for the masses. At the time of his victory, the vast majority of American courses were private; within a decade, public courses were everywhere and the number of American golfers had tripled.

Ouimet remained an amateur his entire career, winning the U.S. Amateur in 1914 and 1931. A third-place finish in 1925 was the closest he ever came to winning the U.S. Open again. But it didn't matter. His win in 1913 was one for the ages, and one that would never be forgotten.

From left: Harry Vardon, Francis Ouimet, and Ted Ray before the playoff

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