We find ourselves at the midpoint of the 122nd annual United States Open Golf Championship being held at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts. While the professionals are playing for millions and the entire golf world is watching the happenings at this year’s National Open, The Country Club is as noted for its championship pedigree as it is for being the site of this weekend’s major championship.
In 1988 Curtis Strange outlasted Nick Faldo in an 18-hole playoff to win his first of two consecutive US Opens. In 1963 Julius Boros survived a three-way playoff with Jacky Cupit and Arnold Palmer to win the Open at The Country Club. However, our story today is about the 1913 United States Open, The Country Club, Francis Ouimet, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray.
Golf was not front page sports news in 1913 America. It was considered a game for the wealthy and the sport’s top performers were of English and Scottish decent. There were fewer than 300 golf courses in America and less than 20 percent were open to the public.
While the US Open was America’s golf championship, it was a veritable newbie when compared to the British Open. The 1913 Open was scheduled for The Country Club in June, but the USGA willingly moved it to mid-September when the top two golfers of the era, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, said they would enter the National Open if it would be moved to the autumn. Vardon and Ray had scheduled an exhibition series of matches throughout the East and South and said a date change would result in their participation. This would be like Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas getting the USGA to change the dates of this year’s US Open to accommodate their big-money made-for-TV exhibitions. The USGA was all-in because the mere presence of the world’s top two golfers would enhance the spectator gate, the main source of the prize fund for the US Open and revenue for the USGA.
Ray had won the previous year’s British Open. He was the John Daly of his era, hitting prodigious tee shots that went 260 yards. Vardon was the Tiger Woods of his time with six wins in the British Open and a US Open triumph in 1900, the only time he entered the event. He was an accurate golfer who wrote instructional books, promoted his overlap grip that became known as the Vardon grip, and endorsed a Spaulding golf ball called the Vardon Flyer.
The US Open was very different in those days. There was no qualifying. Enter and you’re in. It was a 72-hole tournament with 36 holes played on Thursday, a cut down to the low 54, and then 36 holes played on Friday. If there were a tie, an 18-hole playoff would ensue on Saturday. The first-place prize was $300. A total of 66 golfers were in the field that Thursday morning of Sept. 18. They had paid an entry fee of $5. The Country Club, one of the five founding members of the USGA, played to a par of 73 and was stretched out to 6,225 yards. Its earliest moment on golf’s center stage had been back in 1902 with the playing of the US Women’s Am.
After 36 holes the cut was drawn at 19-over-par. Wilfred Reid of England was tied atop the leader board with Vardon at 1-over-par. Ted Ray and Englishman Herbert Strong were two strokes back. Four strokes back and tied for seventh place was the American twosome of Walter Hagen and Francis Ouimet. Hagen was a brash 20-year-old who would win the Open the following year and end up with 11 majors. Ouimet was a 20-year-old amateur who was the reigning Massachusetts Amateur champion. His big advantage was that he had caddied and played at The Country Club. He lived across from the 17th fairway at 246 Clyde Street.
It rained steadily on Friday and Ouimet jumped up the scoreboard with a third-round 74 to go to 6-over-par. Ray shot 76 and Vardon shot 78 to tie Ouimet. Hagen shot 76 and was two strokes back. The weather got worse and all three of the leaders shot 79 during the fourth round to remain in a three-way tie atop the leader board. Hagen shot 80 and ended up in a four-way tie for fourth with Macdonald Smith, Big Jim Barnes and France’s Louis Tellier. A playoff was scheduled for the following day and anticipation was high with the two best golfers of that time competing with the working class kid from across the street.
The rain remained and all three golfers shot 38 on the front nine before a large weekend crowd of spectators. Ouimet made par on the difficult 10th hole to go one up on Vardon and Ray. Ouimet parred the 12th to go two up on the famous duo. Vardon got one back with a birdie on the 13th to get within one of Ouimet. Going into the 17th hole, Ouimet was still playing par golf while Vardon was one back and Ray was now five behind after a triple bogey at the 15th. For the second day in a row, Ouimet birdied the 17th hole just across from his childhood home. Vardon bogeyed 17 after hitting his tee shot in the left sand trap. Ouimet would par the 18th hole to waltz to a five-stroke win over Vardon and win by six over Ray. He had carded a 1-under-par 72 for the day. Because he was an amateur golfer he would receive no prize money.
Ouimet’s win would become the biggest historical moment in the burgeoning American golf scene. A “common” American had defeated Britain’s top two golfers and in the process would give the game an enormous boost. It was front page news throughout the English-speaking world. There wasn’t much money in pro golf and Ouimet would always remain an amateur. Yet his impact upon the game would go beyond the enormity of his win at The Country Club.
Ouimet would go on to win a pair of US Amateurs in 1914 at Eckwanok in Vermont and in 1931 at Beverly in Chicago. He would win the Western Am at Midlothian in 1917, win six Mass Ams, play on eight Walker Cups teams, and mentor many golfers, most notably career grand slam winner Gene Sarazen. He would set up the Ouimet Scholarship Program for caddies, and was the first American captain of the Royal and Ancient of St. Andrews. He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974, seven years after his death at age 74 in 1967. To this day, his win is considered the most significant moment in American golf and it was featured in a best-selling book by Mark Frost and a top movie called “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”
Vardon and Ray would go on to play approximately 20 exhibition matches over the next month. They would win every one of them. When they were at East Lake in Atlanta, the gallery for that match included an 11-year-old. His name was Bobby Jones, the future amateur great.