In Memory of Francis Ouimet’s “Shots Heard Round the World”

At 360 yards with a sharp dogleg left, the 17th hole was no brute. A birdie could be had, and he needed one desperately. His second shot, piercing through the cool grey sky, settled fifteen soggy feet from the hole. Surveying the putt, he knew it was now or never. Feet squished in the turf as he took his stance. Just give it a chance. The putter swept back and forward into the ball, and it clicked off toward the hole. The line and pace down the slippery slope were perfect. The large crowd held its collective breath as the ball curved right and rolled quickly toward its target. Slow down! It struck the back of the cup hard, bounced into the air, and disappeared from sight. An explosion of ecstatic shouts, whistles, and applause reverberated through the moist autumn air, and may well have shaken a few leaves off the trees.

Twenty-year-old Francis Ouimet had done it! He was tied for the lead in the U.S. Open with Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. A hard-earned par on the last forced a playoff, a fitting conclusion to a story few people would believe had it not really happened. “In years to come it will become more famous,” declared the American Golfer. “Not a soul who witnessed it, including Vardon and Ray, will ever forget.” Nor shall we.

A century is a long time, a hundred years of yesterdays and memories long since forgotten. The participants in this battle entered their eternal sleep generations ago, but the events of those three days in September, 1913 at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts will always be remembered by those who love golf.

The Bible tells us that “time and chance happen to them all.” Mr. Oumet’s time was married to that place, to that championship. How else can one explain an unknown amateur, with one modest Massachusetts State Amateur title to his name, beating men who had won British Opens and competed in major championships since young Francis was a child? It was simply meant to be.

As Ouimet noted later, “fortune has to deal kindly with any golfer in winning a championship. There are times when things seem to go just right with a player and others when everything goes wrong.” Pretty much everything went right for him, and it all began across the street from that fateful 17th green. “I have often wondered,” Francis wrote in his book, A Game of Golf, “what my golfing activities would have amounted to if my father had not bought a home bordering on The Country Club.”

His opportunities in the game were certainly blessed by his proximity to the course, which in later life he would consider hallowed ground. His older brother Wilfred got a job caddying at the club, and Francis became enamored with the game on his walks back and forth across its green fairways on his way to school. Hunting for golf balls in the tall grass along the way was a fun and beneficial fringe benefit. Francis and Wilfred laid out a 3-hole, homemade course in the cow pasture behind the house, and Francis practiced every chance he got. His father Arthur was not a golfer and looked down on the game, and his mother Mary thought he “had gone crazy because golf was the only thing” he seemed interested in. Parental feelings notwithstanding, he never wavered from his path.

At eleven, Ouimet joined his brother as a caddie and was able to see many great golfers play in tournaments at the club – Jerome Travers, Willie Anderson, and Walter Travis among them – practicing aspects of their techniques he deemed useful. A kind member, Samuel Carr, gave the young boy some discarded clubs; a driver, lofter (similar to a 7-iron), midiron (2-iron), and putter, and more fully armed, Francis kept building his game. Rising at 4:30 or 5 a.m., he’d play a few holes at The Country Club “until a greenskeeper drove me away. Rainy days, when I was sure no one would be around, I would do the same thing.” Francis formed a golf team at his high school, and at sixteen won the Boston Interscholastic championship. When the U.S. Amateur came to his home club in 1910, he tried to qualify, but failed by one stroke. He tried again the following two years, but again failed, each time by a single agonizing stroke. He’d keep trying.

By the time 1913 rolled around, Francis had earned a certain reputation in his home state. In June he won the Massachusetts State Amateur, closing out his semi-final match by playing the last 6 holes in an incredible 6 under par. Two weeks before his tussle with Vardon and Ray, he finished second in qualifying at the U.S. Amateur in New York, then gave eventual winner Jerry Travers a game fight in their second round match before losing 3&2.

People in the know were impressed with Francis. The tall, angular-faced lad with the ready smile had a cool, even temperament that complimented his shot-making and putting skills. Bernard Darwin, the famous British golf writer, affirmed at the time, “Mr. Ouimet stepped at a bound into the forefront of American amateurs.” He had talent, but how far would it take him?

Time and chance then took the stage. The first bit of luck was getting into the field for the U.S. Open. Based on Ouimet’s good performance in the U.S. Amateur, Robert Watson, president of the USGA, encouraged him to play. “He thought I should enter,” recalled Ouimet years later. “I argued with him about the folly of such a thing, and he won the argument.” The main draws were undoubtedly Vardon and Ray. The stoic Vardon, 5-time British Open champion, at age 43 was still the game’s consummate ball-striker, but erratic on the greens. The burly 36-year-old Ray, winner of the British Open in 1912, was one of the game’s longest hitters, but also possessed a wonderful short game. “If only Harry could putt like Ted,” people whispered.

The two had been touring the U.S. since August playing exhibition matches and exciting crowds wherever they went, including an eleven-year-old boy in Atlanta named Bobby Jones. The strong field also included two-time defending champion Johnny McDermott, Mike Brady, Jerry Travers, Macdonald Smith, Jim Barnes, Jock Hutchinson, and Walter Hagen. Wilfred Reid, another strong English player, and Louis Tellier of France added to the international flavor.

The Country Club course they faced measured 6,245 yards, a hardy enough test in the days of hickory shaft clubs when a 250-yard drive was a monster. Francis successfully negotiated the two qualifying rounds, and did more than hold his own in the first rounds of the tournament proper. After smother-topping his opening tee shot about 40 yards into the rough and starting 6-6-5, his nerves smoothed out, and he shot rounds of 77-74. He trailed Vardon and Reid by four shots, Ray by two, and Barnes and Mac Smith by one.

Friday’s final double round was played under horrible conditions. Rain began to fall heavily at two o’clock in the morning and kept up throughout the day. Today, play would be called, but in 1913 they slogged on. Windswept rain soaked contestants to the bone, and made it difficult to hold onto their clubs and take a solid stance. It also saturated the greens to such an extent that long shots were prone to bury under the surface. There was no relief provided, and a number of players had to hack the ball out with mashies (5-irons) or niblicks (9-irons). The USGA took pity on the field in the final round, and allowed players to lift embedded balls on the greens. Francis had played in weather like this many times, and gladly accepted the challenge.

After three rounds Ouimet was still right there, shooting a par 74, tying Vardon (78) and Ray (76) at 225. The final round would validate Bernard Darwin’s assertion that never “was there a championship in which the fortunes fluctuated in so amazing a manner.” Ray was finishing up his round of 79 as Francis walked to the first tee. Francis began well, parring the first four holes. While playing the sixth he was told that Vardon had tied Ray with 304. “There are three or four still out there who will beat us,” Vardon told a British reporter, lamenting that his putting had let him down once again. Ray was beside himself. “I played rotten, and to make matters worse Harry went out and did the same thing.” But those chasing, including Hagen and McDermott, all came up short. The only hope for an American victory rested with Mr. Ouimet.

“I will admit that my pulse beat a trifle faster,” he recalled, “for I felt confident that I could turn in a round of 78. Right there I made a mistake, for I began to play safe.” He made double bogey at the fifth, then after finding out where he stood, went bogey, par, double, par, double – dropping seven shots in six holes. After the double bogey on the 140-yard 10th, he said to himself: “It’s done, forget it. Instead of dwelling upon the play at the tenth I began to figure what I would have to do on the remaining holes. Possibly I was so wrapped up in this calculation that I did not have a chance to get nervous.”

Walking to the 11th tee he heard someone in the gallery say, “‘It’s too bad, he has blown up.’ I knew he meant me, and it made me angry. It put me in the proper frame of mind to carry on. There was still a chance, I thought.” Champions find a way, and he steadied himself with pars on 11 and 12. “Standing on the 13th tee, I realized I must play those last six holes in two under par to tie.” After a good drive, he missed his second on the 320-yard hole and was left with a 30-foot shot from the fringe, but chipped the ball right into the hole for a three and “was still in the hunt.”

The cheers brought Vardon and Ray out to the 14th to watch him finish, “and a great finish they saw,” noted one reporter, “which impressed them enormously even if in the circumstances it did not exactly delight them.” Ouimet parred the 470-yard par-5 fourteenth and saved his par on the 370-yard fifteenth with a delicate pitch over a bunker that he played to perfection, leaving him a yard from the cup. Time was running out. The 16th was a short 125- yard par-3. A birdie from 18 feet seemed possible until he left his putt short – 9 feet short – but somehow he coaxed the next one in.

By the time he reached the 17th tee, an estimated 10,000 spectators had come out to watch him, a huge crowd for that time. Something special was happening, and they wanted to be part of it. Ouimet’s mashie second was struck well and opened the door to a putt. One thought filled his head as he looked over his 15-foot downhill, side hill winder – get it there! A car honked its horn repeatedly as he putted, a horn he never heard, so “thoroughly was my mind centered on the business of holing the putt.” He stroked it as firmly as any putt he ever hit and knew he holed it “the moment I struck it.” Bernard Darwin reported that amid the tumult of cheers, catcalls, and yells, the people appeared, “one and all, like madmen.”

When Ouimet chipped up and sank a 4-foot putt on the final hole to secure his place in a playoff with Vardon and Ray, “there was a briskness and decisiveness about every movement, and whatever he might have felt, he did not betray it by as much as the movement of an eyelash.”

The crowd was euphoric, young Ouimet’s performance had been grand, a dream – but surely he’d blow sky high in the playoff. “That their boy hero, after a night to sleep on it, should go out in cold blood and beat, not one, but two champions, was too much to hope for,” added Darwin.

From Francis’s point of view, “it would be nonsensical for me to say that at the start of the playoff I felt confident of defeating Vardon and Ray. While I did not feel nervous, I did realize the formidable task in hand. Two things and one person, in particular, helped me amazingly. The person was my little caddie, Eddie Lowery; one of the two things was the appeal which he made to my patriotism; the other thing was my determination that Vardon and Ray should not be able to say that my tying them for the championship was a fluke, which I felt they could say if I ‘went to pieces’ in the playoff.”

On the first hole he made a 4-footer for a five to tie his fellow competitors. When it fell, “almost instantly any feeling of awe and excitement left me completely. I seemed to go into a coma.” After 6 holes Vardon was one up on Francis and two on Ray. This heartened Ouimet, who realized “my opponents were not infallible in their play.” They all turned in 38 strokes and Francis took the lead on the tenth with a par. “Once he got the lead I was very much afraid for our British representatives,” wrote correspondent Henry Leach, “and I think they were a little afraid too. No man ever looked less like cracking than young Ouimet.” By the 12th, Francis realized that “even against two such wonderful players there might be a chance of landing the title, with which thought I resolved that if they beat me it would be only by playing better than par golf.”

A hole later he was still one up on Vardon and two in front of Ray. A double-bogey at the 15th took Ray effectively out of it, but Vardon stayed one behind going into the penultimate hole. In need of a birdie, Vardon tried to cut the corner of the dogleg, and instead, found the bunker that now bears his name. When Francis saw where Vardon ended up, he felt, “for the first time in the match, that the title was mine and I felt absolutely sure of it when, after getting safely on the green in two, I sank the putt for a three.” A par on the last gave him a 72 to Vardon’s 77 and Ray’s 78. Victory! The multitudes rushed in and gathered up the beaming champion on their shoulders, as delirious cheers filled the air.

How did it happen? How could it happen – especially on the course Francis grew up on? Harry Vardon claimed he played the worst golf of his entire tour that week of the Open. What if he had played his best? The Sunday before the championship began, Francis played two warm-up rounds with friends at Wellesley Country Club, shooting a pair of wretched 88’s. What if he had done that in the tournament? What if he had failed to convert his putts on 17 and 18 that final round? What if ten-year-old Eddie Lowery, who Francis claimed was “a veritable inspiration all the way around,” had not been his caddy? Golf, like life, isn’t about “what ifs,” it’s about what happens at a particular moment in time.

Francis Ouimet won for the same reasons Bobby Jones won at Inwood in 1923, how Ben Hogan survived a near-fatal car crash and then won at Merion in 1950, how Arnold Palmer won at Cherry Hills in 1960 and lost at Olympic in 1966, how Larry Mize won at Augusta in 1987 and Tom Watson lost at Turnberry in 2009. Time and chance happened to them all. It was meant to be. It was golf.

Ouimet’s victory was a watershed moment. As Herbert Warren Wind put it, the luckiest thing “that happened to American golf was that its first great hero was a person like Francis Ouimet.” He wasn’t a rich kid; he wasn’t a hard-nosed professional. “Here was a person all of America, not just golfing America, could understand.” Ouimet, the ex-caddie, the working-class boy who quit high school to help support his family, the boy who played for the love of the game, remaining an amateur to his final days – the boy who grew into the man who mentored other great champions like Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen. No one-hit wonder! After this day he went on to win two U.S. Amateurs, the last in 1931, and was a member of eight Walker Cup teams. He was a gentleman, without scandal in his life, and the ideal of an American hero.

Harry Vardon wrote in his autobiography that Ouimet’s performance “was one of the finest exhibitions of courageous golf which I have ever witnessed.” He was also firmly convinced that it was from this victory that the seeds were sown for what “was to become the remarkable improvement in the play of golfers from the United States.” In 1913 fewer than 350,000 people played golf in the U.S.; ten years later the number had increased to 2,000,000. With Ouimet’s victory, America had graduated as a first-class golfing power. As one reporter put it, “Francis Ouimet, besides having achieved immortal fame among golfers, has done something splendid for the good of that game.”

Time and chance brought Arthur Ouimet and his family to that house on Clyde Street across from the 17th hole at The Country Club, and for that we can be forever grateful.

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