As the US Open returns to the scene where Francis Ouimet achieved the impossible in 1913, Steve Carroll recalls the incredible tale of how the amateur stunned the world and transformed a sport
“He was one David against two Goliaths. 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.”
You can still feel the sense of disbelief clattering through Bernard Darwin’s typewriter.
It is only fitting that golf’s finest writer was on hand to chronicle what will always be regarded as one of the sport’s fairy tale moments. ‘The Greatest Game Ever Played’.
Even with the passing of more than a century, this story does not get old in the re-telling. Neither does the sense of wonder at the achievement.
A boy amateur, barely 20, took down two of the greatest players who have lived – and sparked a frenzy for golf that utterly transformed the game in America.
Francis Ouimet paved the path for Bobby Jones, for Gene Sarazen, and the all-time greats that came afterwards – Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Arnold Palmer, and Jack Nicklaus.
Without his miracle, none of what followed would ever have been possible. And what an earth-shaking feat it was.
In the summer of 1913, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray had been a two-man wrecking ball around the fledgling golf courses of the United States.
Vardon, then the five-time holder of the Claret Jug, and Ray, the Open champion of 1912, were nearly unstoppable on the exhibition and tournament circuit.
Such was their allure, the USGA moved the US Open at The Country Club, in Brookline, to September so they could take part.
And even with John McDermott, the first American-born player to win the national championship and the back-to-back defending champion, going for a treble, the two Jersey players were still expected to prevail.
But though they could not know it, their greatest threat from the home contingent was not McDermott, or even an emerging Walter Hagen, but a youngster barely out of his teens and who lived scarcely a putt from the Brookline fairways.
“I have often wondered,” wrote Ouimet in his book A Game of Golf, “what my golfing activities would have amounted to if my father had not bought a house bordering on The Country Club.”
Francis played a constant game of hide-and-seek – with the members, the greens team, and anyone else trying to chase him off – as he learned the game.
He became a caddie at the club when he was 11 and so obsessed was he with golf that his mother, disturbed by noises in his room after dark, would open the door to his slumbers only to find him practising his putting – a scene beautifully played out in the Disney film lionising Ouimet’s success.
He’s been portrayed as the come-from-nowhere figure in this incredible drama and while what he achieved was impossible, he was still well-known enough that USGA President Robert Watson – looking for a local amateur to take part in the championship – invited him to play.
He’d finished second in US Amateur qualifying a couple of weeks previously and had given Jerry Travers, who won his fourth title that year, plenty of trouble in the match play stages before going down 3&2.
So if that had put him on the radars of the most knowledgeable, the Boston boy’s display in 36 holes of qualifying at Brookline elevated him across the news pages.
Ouimet blasted into the American consciousness, shooting 74 and 78, a total that was only bettered thanks to a Vardon bomb on the final green.
In the second day’s scoring, Ray claimed the 36-hole course record, firing a pair of 74s, and Ouimet found himself fifth overall. It was an incredible performance, but the two stars from across the Atlantic were still top of the pile.
At so many points during his subsequent championship challenge, the bubble could have burst. He topped his drive like a hacker on the first hole of the main competition and began 6-6-5 as nerves threatened to derail him from the off.
Inspired by his 10-year-old caddie, Eddie Lowery, with whom Ouimet would form a lifelong friendship, he somehow composed himself to shoot 77 and 74 and get into the hunt. Who, though, was in front?
Imposingly there was Vardon at the summit, his 75 and 72 matched by Englishman Wilfrid Reid.
Ray, who was developing a phobia of The Country Club’s thick foliage following an opening 79, broke the course record in the afternoon – his 70, and total of 149, keeping him two back.
As Ouimet himself would say when recounting his triumph in The American Golfer magazine later that year: “Fortune has to deal kindly with any golfer in winning a championship.
“There are times when things seem to go right with a player and others when everything goes wrong.”
He certainly got a huge slice of local luck when the final day’s two rounds began with the Brookline course saturated with rain that plagued the players most of the day.
Not Ouimet. He’d spent years successfully dodging detection when creeping onto the fairways by playing when no one else would. The rain-soaked conditions, the balls burying in rough and green alike, were manna from heaven.
Summoning up a 74, in circumstances we just can’t countenance today, was incredible and would prove the best round of the day.
In the final 18, though, the young American finally blinked. As Ray recorded a 79, and Vardon matched it with Ouimet not even close to the turn, he allowed himself to dwell on the enormity of what he might achieve.
And almost ruined it.
“Right there I made a mistake,” he said in an article in Golf called ‘Open Championship Impressions’. “For I began to play safe.”
Ouimet, who felt he could have posted the required 78 to win with his eyes shut, had faltered – dropping shots all over the course.
But inspired by a spectator who exclaimed, close enough for him to hear, that he’d blown up – he plotted a comeback made for film scripts.
It’s said that as he came to the 17th, some 10,000 spectators were lining the layout and roaring him on. When he slammed in a birdie and then cajoled a short putt to creep in at the last to post 79, he had managed the impossible. He had tied Vardon and Ray on 304 strokes. An 18-hole play-off awaited.
One David against those two Goliaths. “It would be nonsensical for me to say that at the start of the play-off I felt confident of defeating Vardon and Ray,” recalled Ouimet in The American Golfer.
And yet he kept up, clawing back an early shot deficit to Vardon as the trio refused to be split even through nine holes of the extra round. All three reached the turn having each carded a 38.
Ouimet grew in confidence with every stroke. Ray’s cat-and-mouse game with the course finally ended when he took a six the 15th.
Vardon, one behind on the penultimate hole, then tried to shave the corner at the dogleg only to find the bunker that now forever bears his name. Pitching out sideways, a five, to Ouimet’s three, meant the title was at the young man’s mercy.
He took it with aplomb, writing himself into golfing immortality, and kick starting a craze with the sport stateside that continues to this day.
It’s because it’s a tale that’s impossibly addictive – the underdog upsetting the odds against titanic rivals. That’s why nearly 110 years after the fact, those time-worn, grainy, black and white photographs of Ouimet holding up a lucky horseshoe and grinning so hard it looks like his face might stay that way, and the trio of Ouimet, Vardon and Ray joining hands together in the aftermath of battle, continues to stir emotions.
For it’s as important as Jack’s 18, as seminal as Hogan’s one-iron at Merion, and as symbolic as Tiger’s sensational breakthrough at Augusta. It will remain so for as long we remain fixated on hitting small balls around big fields.
The 1913 US Open playoff scorecards
Images courtesy and copyright of the USGA Digital Archive
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