125 Years of Golf in America: Massachusetts April 17, 2019

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Ouimet’s Legacy Goes Far Beyond 1913 U.S. Open Win

By Ron Driscoll, USGA

 

Francis Ouimet, who grew up in suburban Boston, became an ambassador for the game, on and off the golf course. (USGA Archives)

 

John English was the longtime assistant executive director of the USGA, and the Massachusetts native met pretty much everybody of consequence in golf, first as the golf writer for a Boston newspaper and then in his role with the USGA.

Among those he knew well were Bob Jones and Francis Ouimet. Jones, the co-founder of the Masters Tournament, won a record nine USGA titles and was the inspiration for the Association’s highest honor. Ouimet won three USGA titles and was the first recipient of the Bob Jones Award in 1955.

“Bob Jones and Francis Ouimet would have been two of the priceless characters I have ever known, even if they had never played golf,” said English in 2010, shortly before his 100th birthday. “Bob Jones’ son lived in Pittsfield (Mass.), and I would often visit him there. He was very much like Francis: smart, dedicated and friendly, and sincerely interested in everybody.”

The men also played arguably the two biggest roles in the game’s establishment in the United States in the early 20th century. An unknown amateur, Ouimet earned an astonishing playoff victory in the 1913 U.S. Open over the game’s two biggest stars, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass.

Ouimet was a former caddie of modest means who grew up across the street from the club, and his improbable win captured the imagination of Americans, who began to change their perception of the game as an elitist hobby. The New York Times headline said it all: “Ouimet Win? Impossible.”

“It’s a story that, if you sent it to Hollywood, they wouldn’t accept it, because it’s too corny,” said Curtis Strange, who won the first of his two U.S. Opens at The Country Club in 1988, 75 years after Ouimet, and now works as an on-course commentator for Fox Sports. Of course, the story was turned into an award-winning 2002 book by Mark Frost, “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” which led to a Disney movie of the same name in 2005.

Although exact figures are difficult to ascertain, the number of golf courses in the U.S. more than doubled in the decade after Ouimet’s victory, and there was a five- to six-fold increase in those who took up the game. One of those he inspired was a young caddie named Eugenio Saracini, the son of Sicilian immigrants who would later be known as Gene Sarazen. The native of Harrison, N.Y., would go on to win seven major championships and become a lifelong friend of Ouimet’s.

Francis Ouimet (center) took down British stalwarts Harry Vardon (left) and Ted Ray in a playoff to win the 1913 U.S. Open. (USGA Archives)

 

In his 1927 book, “Down the Fairway,” Jones recalled his reaction as an 11-year-old to Ouimet’s victory. “That is the first golf I remember reading about in the papers,” Jones wrote, “and I began to feel that this was a real game.”

The handsome, outgoing Jones and the self-effacing Ouimet were part of the first Walker Cup Team for the USA in 1922, and Jones went on to dominate every important championship of the era. His successful pursuit of the Grand Slam in 1930 captured the nation and returned golf to the front pages.

For his part, Ouimet won two U.S. Amateurs, in 1914 and 1931 – which is still the record for years between victories. He also made the U.S. Amateur semifinals on six other occasions, four times meeting Jones in that round. Jones won three of those matchups en route to his record five U.S. Amateur titles, the last of which came in 1930, whereupon he retired from amateur golf.

Ouimet once joked of the 17 years between his two U.S. Amateur titles by asking, “Have you ever heard of a fellow named Jones?” Indeed, he also finished one stroke out of the 1925 U.S. Open playoff between Jones and eventual champion Willie Macfarlane at Worcester (Mass.) Country Club.

It is that reluctance to seize the spotlight or take the credit that endeared Ouimet to fans, writers and golf’s hierarchy. As Herbert Warren Wind, another Massachusetts native and an esteemed golf writer for whom the USGA’s book award is named, once wrote: “The luckiest thing that happened to American golf was that its first great hero was Francis Ouimet. He never allowed his successes to swell his head. He remained free from affectation. He was the great boy who became a great man.”

Ouimet was involved in the first 12 Walker Cup Matches for the USA, in an era when, as English put it, “amateur golf was in its ascendancy,” receiving far more attention than the pro game. Ouimet competed in eight of those Matches, two as playing captain, before captaining four more USA sides. Although his team won 11 of those 12 Matches, Ouimet was held in such high regard by those from Great Britain and Ireland that he was elected the first American captain of The R&A in 1951.

Ouimet also served on the USGA Executive Committee for several years, and when the U.S. Senior Open was established in 1980, the trophy was named for him. An amateur tournament in Massachusetts, the Ouimet Memorial, has been played since 1968, the year after his death. The 54-hole event has been won by players such as Brad Faxon, Fran Quinn, Frank Vana and 2017 U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Matt Parziale. Alison Walshe and Megan Khang are both multiple winners of the women’s division.

But Ouimet’s grandest legacy is the Francis Ouimet Scholarship Fund. It was founded in 1949 by friends who insisted that his name be attached to the initiative to drive attention and contributions. Today it is the second-largest golf scholarship fund in the country, having awarded nearly $36 million to more than 5,900 scholars, and its alumni include investment manager Peter Lynch, investment banker Roger Altman, and two-time U.S. Senior Open champion Allen Doyle.

The fund is fueled in part by the largest golf marathon event in the country, as well as an annual banquet that recognizes an honoree for lifelong contributions to golf. Recipients include President George H.W. Bush, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Nancy Lopez, Annika Sorenstam, Tom Watson and this year’s honoree, Johnny Miller.

Ouimet’s great-granddaughter, Caitlin Wallerce, told Golf Channel in 2013: “He wanted to help kids with their education and put them in a more positive environment. He wanted to get them involved in (golf), because it had such a positive effect and outcome in his life.”

As Ouimet once said of the fund, “Of all the honors I’ve had, I can’t think of one I prize more.”

Ron Driscoll is the senior manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at rdriscoll@usga.org.