From 1913 US Open victory a century ago, Ouimet built a sport and a legacy

  • Article by: JIMMY GOLEN , AP Sports Writer
  • Updated: June 15, 2013 - 3:30 PM

BROOKLINE, Mass. — At the entrance to the Putterham Meadows golf course stands a statue of 1913 U.S. Open champion Francis Ouimet. Also in bronze, dwarfed by the bag he carries, is the 10-year-old caddie who walked all 90 holes by his side.

It is fitting that the two are together, for Ouimet's loyalty to Eddie Lowery is as much a part of his legend as the playoff victory over British stars Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. And it's fitting that the statue is at the municipal track rather than The Country Club, where the Open took place 100 year ago, because the victory by the blue-collar American is credited for a golfing boom that spread the sport beyond its cloistered realm of gentlemen and foreigners.

"Mr. Ouimet changed the game. He showed people of the world that golf is a sport that is driven by values," Jack Nicklaus said in a video that was played at the 100th anniversary gala for the Francis Ouimet Scholarship Fund.

"The game in America would not be what it is today without Francis Ouimet's influence," said Nicklaus, who first met the 1913 Open champion when the tournament returned to The Country Club on the 50th anniversary of his win. "I knew then that I was meeting a true American hero."

As the world's top golfers tee off at this year's U.S. Open at Merion in Ardmore, Pa., The Country Club is gearing up for the end-of-summer U.S. Amateur and the 100th anniversary of Ouimet's landmark victory. In 1913, with Lowery on his bag, Ouimet crossed the street from the house in which he lived with his parents to beat the barnstorming British pros at the course where he used to caddie.

Taking advantage of a last-minute invitation, Ouimet took time off from his job at a sporting goods store to play in the Open, which had been delayed until September to accommodate Vardon and Ray. (Vardon was then a five-time British Open champion — he would win another the following year — and Ray had won in 1912.)

The 20-year-old American was 17th after the first round and eighth after 36 holes before shooting 74, the best score of the third round, to enter the final round tied for the lead with Vardon and Ray. The two British pros teed off early, and Ouimet needed to play the final six holes at 2 under to make the playoff. (Walter Hagen, then an unknown, missed the playoff by one stroke.)

Ouimet made his final birdie on No. 17 — across the street from his house — and managed a par on the final hole of regulation to force an 18-hole playoff the next day.

With what was said to be an unprecedented crowd of 10,000 fans out to watch one of their own, Ouimet took the lead when the pros each three-putted the par-3 10th hole. Still trailing by a stroke at No. 17, Vardon gambled and landed in a bunker when he tried to cut the corner, making bogey while Ouimet birdied to pull away.

The unheralded American beat Vardon by five strokes and Ray by six to become the first amateur ever to win the U.S. Open, a victory that laid waste to the notion that golf was a game for gentlemen — and foreign ones, at that.

The sport's popularity grew quickly following the Open: Gene Sarazen reportedly heard the news while caddying with Ed Sullivan and said, "A caddie won! Maybe I could be like him!" Ouimet himself was a mentor to Sarazen and Bobby Jones, and he gave credibility to the PGA of America when he attended its first meeting in 1916.

Only about 350,000 Americans played the sport at the time, and more than 2 million picked it up over the next decade, according to figures supplied by the Ouimet Fund. The number of golf courses grew from 700 to 5,600 by 1929, with many of the new ones municipally owned and open to a new range of player.

"It really gave American golf its first shot in the arm," said Ben Crenshaw, who captained the U.S. Ryder Cup team at The Country Club in 1999, when Justin Leonard sank the 45-foot putt on the 17th hole that turned the tournament in the Americans' favor.

In the tumultuous post-putt celebration, Crenshaw found Leonard: "I just looked at him and said, 'Francis.'"

"After our team staged a furious rally to win the Cup, I brought two things back with me," Crenshaw wrote in the forward to Ouimet's autobiography when it was republished in 2004, "a miniature bronze of Francis Ouimet and Eddie Lowery from the Ryder Cup caddies, and the eerie feeling that Francis Ouimet's spirit guided Justin Leonard's putt into the 17th hole that electric afternoon. No one can convince me otherwise."

And Ouimet was on Gil Hanse's mind when he was hired to renovate The Country Club for this year's U.S. Amateur. The bunker on the 17th hole that Vardon found — only about 180 yards from the tee — is not in play for the modern golfer.

Still, he left it alone.

"That was the one thing that was untouchable," Hanse said.

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