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Centennial of American Golf's Biggest Moment
Even the most remarkable stories sometimes fade over time. They are forgotten, dismissed or overtaken by events that seem more compelling and timely. Not so with the fairytale story of Francis Ouimet, the amateur golfer credited with bringing the sport to the masses in America, paving the way for future pioneers like Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods.
As the 2013 U.S. Open championship is contested this week at Merion Golf Club outside Philadelphia, it's important to look back 100 years, to another iconic club in Brookline, Mass., and to a man who changed history.
Think about what the 20-year-old Ouimet accomplished in the 1913 Open when he defeated Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, the greatest professional golfers of their time. He was an amateur who grew up across the street from The Country Club, where some members didn't even want him competing in the tournament because they thought it unseemly to have this son of working-class immigrants, a former club caddie no less, representing their elitist establishment. His caddie was pint-sized 10-year-old Eddie Lowery, who skipped class and was barely able to lug Ouimet's golf bag.
At the time, Ouimet was employed as a sporting goods salesman. He had learned to play with golf balls that were hit at The Country Club and landed in the nearby woods or in his own backyard.
The likelihood of him winning the Open seemed impossible.
And yet he did win, in the most dramatic fashion possible by prevailing in a playoff, draining the tournament's biggest putt on the 17th green, from where he could look across the street and see his family's modest home. And when he was lifted onto the shoulders of jubilant spectators after his stunning triumph, Ouimet's picture was splashed across the front pages of newspapers around the world the next morning, Americans suddenly discovered that this sport, once reserved for the Scots, the British and only precious few upper-crust socialites, was available to every one of them - even a scrawny amateur barely out of his teens. Through the lens of Ouimet's upset, golf was "discovered" in the United States.
Jones, Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson and Hogan were all inspired by Ouimet's achievement. He showed it was possible, regardless of your upbringing or circumstances, to become a champion. Would we ever have heard of these men otherwise? Who knows? But there is little debate that the impact of Ouimet's win played a role in young boys taking up a game they would never have previously considered.
Thanks to author Mark Frost, who wrote the book about the 1913 Open, "The Greatest Game Ever Played," and wrote the screenplay for the 2005 movie of the same name, Ouimet's story is widely known these days.
I was fortunate last month to attend a centennial gala honoring Ouimet's victory. Held at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, the banquet was attended by more than 2,000 people. For anyone who might think that Ouimet's story has been over-hyped, consider this: Palmer was in attendance, and video tributes came from Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Crenshaw, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem and Peter Dawson - the chief executive of the Royal & Ancient Club of St. Andrews.
The night also celebrated the Francis Ouimet Scholarship Fund, which in Ouimet's opinion was his lasting legacy. Since its beginnings in 1949, the fund has distributed more than $25 million to underprivileged young golfers. This year's recipient, Julia McCarthy of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., provided the highlight of the evening with a moving, passionate, emotional speech about how golf and the Ouimet Fund has changed her life.
Despite his success in golf, Ouimet never turned professional. He went on to win two U.S. Amateur titles, play on and captain numerous Walker Cup teams, become the first American captain of the R&A, president of the Boston Bruins and vice-president of the Boston Braves, secretary and vice-president of the USGA, and earn a living as an investment banker. In 1940 he joined Jones, Sarazen and Walter Hagen as the first inductees into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Herbert Warren Wind, the great golf writer, once said of Ouimet, "He remained free from affectation. He was an instinctive gentleman. He was a great boy who became a great man. The more Americans learned about Francis Ouimet, the more they admired him."
Ouimet died in 1967 at age 74. But his impact on the game lives on in the hopes and dreams of every aspiring young golfer who can't afford lessons or to join a club, but still believes that anything is possible. A 20-year-old amateur proved that a century ago.
Rob Duca is an award-winning sports columnist who wrote for the Cape Cod Times for 25 years, covering golf, the Boston Red Sox, the Boston Celtics and the Boston Bruins. He is now managing editor of Golf & Leisure Cape Cod magazine and has written for a variety of other publications, including Sports Illustrated, the Boston Globe, Yankee magazine and Cape Cod Life.