Forget Me Not: Why isn't Eddie Lowery, Francis Ouimet's celebrated caddie at the 1913 U.S. Open, in the Hall of Fame?
This past summer was a season to celebrate Eddie Lowery and Francis Ouimet. At the U.S. Open, there was much fanfare marking the 100th anniversary of their rags-to-riches triumph at the 1913 Open, when the 20-year-old amateur Ouimet beat the best pros of the day with a massive assist from his pint-size caddie, Lowery, age 10. A new book, Francis and Eddie, emerged to tell the tale from a fresh perspective. And there was yet more pomp in August at the U.S. Amateur, held at the site of their impossible victory, The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. But behind all the salutes, a slight remains. Though Francis and Eddie are honored together on a bronze plaque in the clubhouse at The Country Club, and though they live on side by side in a sculpture that welcomes visitors to the World Golf Hall of Fame, inside the Hall the pair part company. Ouimet was inducted in 1974, but Lowery remains on the outside looking in.
Over the past decade Peter Butler, a retired insurance executive, has led a grassroots campaign to get Lowery into the Hall. Butler has moved back to his hometown of Dubuque, Iowa, but for much of his life he resided in Pebble Beach, where he was neighbors with Lowery's widow, Margaret. Butler has a thick binder of letters from notable members of the golf establishment supporting Lowery's candidacy, which began with a formal nomination by Byron Nelson, the only time the golfing gentleman deigned to wade into the politics of the Hall.
If the 1913 U.S. Open is the single most important moment for establishing golf in this country -- two million people picked up the game in the decade that followed -- Lowery might warrant consideration for the Hall of Fame strictly for his prominent role in history. Yet he went on to an extraordinary life in golf, beginning with a victory at the 1919 Massachusetts Golf Association Junior championship. He won the state amateur in 1927 and was runner-up in 1931 and 1933.
Part of the mythology of the 1913 Open is that both Francis and Eddie were from the wrong side of the tracks; Lowery never finished high school, but he became a millionaire as an automobile entrepreneur and was a member at some of America's greatest golf clubs, including Augusta National, Cypress Point, San Francisco and Seminole. He served on the USGA executive committee, working tirelessly to improve the science of turf management. Lowery chaired the 1956 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship and served as president of the Northern California Golf Association and later the International Seniors Amateur Golf Society. He was a fixture at the Crosby Clambake, often pairing with the semi-retired Nelson. (They won the 1955 pro-am.) Behind the scenes Lowery served as a gatekeeper for the coveted amateur invitations. He was a mentor to many aspiring golfers, including Tony Lema, Bob Rosburg, Harvie Ward and, most famously, Ken Venturi. In 1956 Lowery brought together four friends to orchestrate what has become one of the game's greatest pieces of folklore: The Match at Cypress Point, which pitted Venturi and Ward against Nelson and Ben Hogan. Lowery died in 1984, at 81, but his legend has lived on thanks to the book The Greatest Game Ever Played and the subsequent movie adaptation. On the page and the silver screen, Lowery was the most memorable character in the tale, which isn't surprising to anyone who has looked at the iconic photo of Francis and Eddie amid a throng of admirers taken in the giddy moments after their U.S. Open victory. Ouimet is on the shoulders of the crowd, nearly cropped out of the picture. Your eyes always go to the center of the photo, where Lowery stands with a bag slung over his shoulder and a look of startling self-assurance. Years after their victory Ouimet made plain his feelings when he inscribed a copy of the photo to Lowery: "This is the boy who won the 1913 Open."
Given his myriad contributions to the game, Lowery would be right at home in a Hall of Fame that in recent years has become diversified with course architects, members of the media, a former President (George H.W. Bush, whose involvement with the sport was largely ceremonial) and, in the case of 2013 inductee Ken Schofield, the former commissioner of the European Tour, a B-list bureaucrat. "It is unconscionable that they've kept Eddie out of the Hall all these years," Butler says. "It defies logic or reason."
In fact, the Lowery candidacy hinges on a half-century-old court case, the byzantine Hall of Fame voting process and the very notion of whether a caddie belongs in the Hall.
Edward Edgar Lowery was the fifth child born to a working-class Irish-American family in Newton, Mass. His older brother, Jack, was supposed to caddie at the Open for Ouimet, the son of a gardener at The Country Club. On the day of the first round, the Lowery boys cut school, but only Eddie was crafty enough to elude a truant officer. Eddie talked his way onto the bag, then immediately set Ouimet at ease. "My little caddie...not much bigger than a peanut, was a veritable inspiration all around," Ouimet later wrote, "and a brighter or headier chap it would be hard to find. His influence on my game I cannot overestimate."
Ouimet ultimately got into an 18-hole playoff against the legendary Harry Vardon and long-hitting Ted Ray, the reigning British Open champ. Before the playoff a Country Club member tried to persuade Ouimet to ditch Lowery for a more seasoned caddie, with a fistful of dollars as an added inducement. Ouimet stood by his guy.
Ouimet would win two U.S. Amateurs and become a beloved member of the golf establishment, captaining six Walker Cup teams and being honored as the first American to serve as captain of the R&A. But Lowery had to blaze his own trail. He landed a job as the caddiemaster at Woodland Golf Club in Auburndale, Mass., and he later fell into a profession almost as disreputable as caddying: He became a sportswriter, for the Boston Traveler. This led to a gig in advertising, where he began to make real money. In 1937, Lowery moved to San Francisco to take a management position at Van Etta Motors, and in the ensuing years he bought the company and turned it into the largest Lincoln-Mercury dealership in the country.
Around California, Lowery became known as Mr. Golf, a ubiquitous presence in club championships and big-money games. Wherever he went he arrived in a new Lincoln and dressed like an old-world banker, in a suit and tie, a fedora and shiny shoes. He ran with the best golfers of the day and counted Hollywood royalty among his close friends. He and Bob Hope traveled together to compete in the 1951 British Amateur.
Lowery was a member at Thunderbird Golf Club in Palm Springs and occasionally teed it up with President Ford, who would later write a letter of support for Lowery's Hall of Fame candidacy, saying, "His story is a great American story, reminiscent of Horatio Alger, but with an emphasis on golf."
Just as Ouimet forever altered the trajectory of a caddie's life, Lowery enjoyed reaching out to up-and-comers. Venturi was his most prized protégé -- Lowery arranged a membership for him at the Cal Club and gave the future U.S. Open champion a job as a car salesman, though most afternoons were spent playing golf with the boss. Venturi's son Matt has vivid memories of Lowery from his youth. "He was rough on the outside but a softy on the inside," Matt says. "If you didn't know Eddie he could come across as a curmudgeon, but he had a good heart and helped out so many people in the game."
Lowery played the same avuncular role for Harvie Ward, the 1952 British Amateur champion and 1955 and 1956 U.S. Amateur champ. Lowery lent Ward $11,000 to help him move to the Bay Area in 1953, arranged a membership for him at San Francisco Golf Club and set him up in a cushy sales job. As it turned out, it was a little too cushy. A 1955 union grievance charged that Ward made $1,100 a month for sales he did not complete. An arbiter ruled for the union, and Lowery was forced to pay damages. Things would only get messier for both of them.
In 1955 Lowery was indicted by a San Francisco grand jury for tax evasion. A key aspect of the case was the $50,000 a year Lowery claimed for promotional expenses tied to golf. Under oath, Lowery testified that, among many other things, he paid for Ward's expenses to the 1952 British Amateur and a handful of domestic tournaments, as well as Ward's dues at SFGC. The case generated a considerable amount of publicity, and one can only imagine the heartburn among the USGA blue bloods -- at the time, Lowery was serving on the executive committee. He resigned under pressure, and although three hung juries failed to reach a verdict on Lowery's tax-evasion case, the ax fell on Ward in June 1957 when the USGA put him on probation for violating its rules for amateurism. Barred from competition for a year, Ward was unable to chase a third straight U.S. Amateur title at -- drumroll -- The Country Club.
A chastened Lowery retreated from his public roles in golf. Those who want him in the Hall of Fame believe that he's still paying the price for his trespasses with Ward. Don Callahan became friends with Lowery while serving as the head pro at Thunderbird, and he has been Peter Butler's wingman in the Hall of Fame letter-writing campaign (along with Monterey based historian Neal Hotelling). "We've sensed a lot of resistance from the USGA," says Callahan. "Those old boys just can't let it go. It was a technicality. The punishment doesn't fit the crime."
Every year, when the new crop of inductees is announced, the World Golf Hall of Fame trumpets the corresponding vote percentages, which give the process an air of democracy. This is clever propaganda. About 100 voters do cast ballots to elect contemporary players, but numerous inductees (like Bush and Schofield) have come from the lifetime achievement category, in a shrouded process that seemed inspired by papal conclaves. The induction protocols have generated so much criticism in recent years that in October it was announced there would be no class of 2014; the Hall's brain trust will conduct a thorough review of how it decides who deserves a place alongside the likes of Ouimet.
It remains unclear whether Lowery will be helped or hurt by the new system. He had been discussed off and on for years under the lifetime achievement category but never garnered a recommendation from the vetting sub committee. No wonder. One member of the committee (to whom we have granted anonymity out of pity) says, "I don't know who he is." After a little play-by-play he allows, "When you mention the 1913 U.S. Open it jogs my memory a bit, but that's all I know about him."
Undeterred, this would-be golf expert still opined on Lowery's unworthiness for the Hall of Fame, which has yet to find room for a single looper: "I have great affinity for caddies, but I don't know one caddie who has hit a golf ball in competition. They can be a good sidekick, but ultimately it's a test of nerve and skill, and a caddie has nothing to do with that. I don't think it's enough just to caddie for one victory, no matter how significant it was."
Another member of the committee, Rand Jerris, oversees the USGA Museum and has a keen understanding of Lowery's place in the game. He declined to comment on any Hall of Fame machinations but was happy to dispel the notion that the USGA is opposed to Lowery's candidacy. Says Jerris, "What happened with Ward was an unfortunate incident, but that was a long, long time ago. I can say unequivocally that the USGA has no resentment or ill feeling. We're grateful for his contributions to the U.S. Open, to the executive committee and to the game at the grassroots level. We would be delighted to see Lowery recognized and celebrated for his many achievements in golf."
Whether or not Lowery ever gets the call, it's hard to know what he would make of all the fuss. He was a complicated man, and some of his closest friends never heard him mention the 1913 U.S. Open. For all his wealth and glittering memberships, Lowery's final resting place is modest and unassuming. He chose to be buried in El Carmelo cemetery, which abuts the municipal golf course in Pacific Grove, Calif. It is known as "the poor man's Pebble" for its cheap green fees and lovely views of Monterey Bay. The plaque on Lowery's grave is small and simple, recessed into the grass, bearing only his name and the years he was born and died. All around the unmistakable sound of golf balls being struck echoes through the ghostly cypress trees. It is surely a sound that Lowery enjoyed during his long golfing life. May he rest in peace.