100 years after Ouimet’s historic Open win, his spirit is alive and well at Brookline

June 5, 2013

There is a locked room on the third floor of the clubhouse. Framed prints and century-old photographs lean six-deep against the walls and the metal shelves. Five tall file cabinets bear strips of masking tape, and scrawled on each strip is a single word: ARCHIVES. The corners are hidden by old directional signs, hickory-shafted clubs, and even — with apologies to Citizen Kane — a beat-up old sled.

"It's sort of a mess," says club member J. Louis Newell, trying to maneuver around a discarded floor lamp. "Other than that, I'm not embarrassed by it."

Newell, who caddied at The Country Club in the 1940s and served for years as chairman of its library and archive committee, paws through a row of leather-bound ledgers and then snorts in frustration.

"What are you looking for, Louie?" Dick Lundgren, the current chairman, glances up from an open file drawer.

"That golf ball of Ouimet's. A Spalding Dot, made in Chicopee, Massachusetts." Newell keeps searching. "It's around here somewhere." A minute later, he finds an old tan golf bag, a lightweight relic with no clubs poking from its musty depths.

"That bag was given to us a few years ago," explains Lundgren, a former club champion. "It's undocumented, but it's represented as being Ouimet's."

This being The Country Club of Brookline, Mass., anything belonging to, pertaining to, or thought to be remotely tangential to Francis Ouimet is important — but never more so than this year, the 100th anniversary of the lifetime amateur's victory in the 1913 U.S. Open. And while most serious golfers know Ouimet the way children know Mother Goose, only a Country Club member can walk you over to Ouimet's childhood home, needle you when your ball lands in "Vardon's Bunker," or introduce you to 82-year-old John Sears, one of the few remaining members (along with Newell) who can say they played casual rounds with Ouimet.

"It's a story that has never died," says John L. Hall II, the club's most recent past-president. "It put American golf on the map when this skinny kid — a caddie! — came out of nowhere to beat the two best pros in the world."

Albert "Sandy" Tierney, chairman of the 2013 U.S. Amateur Championship, which The Country Club will host in August, says, "Ouimet's win was a seminal moment in American golf."

You can hardly blame these Bostonians for preening over Ouimet. For while the president of Cherry Hills can rightfully boast about Arnold Palmer's final-round dusting of Hogan and Nicklaus at the 1960 U.S. Open, a TCC member can counter that their man inspired a book and a movie titled The Greatest Game Ever Played. Likewise, the historian at Merion Golf Club, site of this month's U.S. Open, might move you to tears with his reenactment of Hogan limping to victory in 1950, but a Brookliner will remind you that golf's preeminent writer, Bernard Darwin, not only covered the 1913 tournament for the Times of London — he was also Ouimet's scorekeeper.

It's beyond debate. No American golf venue has a better backstory than The Country Club. And few can tell that story as well as its members.

Here's Fred Waterman, for example, walking us along the club's eastern boundary to the end of Clyde Street, where the old Ouimet house still stands. "Francis and his brother used to play golf in the pastureland down behind this house," Waterman says, asking us to mentally erase the surrounding houses and four lanes of traffic whizzing past. "I don't know how many trees there were back then, but he was supposed to have had a second-floor bedroom, giving him a good view of the course."

Waterman, 60, is a writer and former wire-service reporter. He's also the club's historian, which lends authority to his patter: "This was the only house on this side of the street in 1896, when the Ouimet family moved in. Francis was four years old… Golf had only begun across the street in 1893. Horse racing and boxing were the two main sports of the time… Francis was a quiet and thoughtful young man, but he was also magnificently coordinated. And now there was a game that rewarded those qualities…"

The wonderful detail, for Waterman, is the fact that the Ouimet house faced the par-4 17th hole, which played an outsize role in deciding the 1913 Open. Francis, by then a serious 20-year-old, had two chances left to make birdie and attain a playoff with the great British professionals, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. Soaked to the skin from two days of relentless rain — and with Vardon and Ray among the thousands following him — Ouimet played a driver and an iron to 15 feet and then holed the putt, triggering a riotous celebration. "The fact that he grew up across the street," Waterman continues, "and could see from his window the most important hole he'd ever play in his life — I think that's magnificent.

"What's the saying? First you have to dream?" He looks back at the house. "This is where he dreamt."

Back at the clubhouse, the story is picked up by the retired publisher Bud Patten, a cheery septuagenarian who gets around with a cane. "Here's Harry Vardon," he says, drawing us into a corner of the living room, where hangs a portrait of the six-time British Open champ. But this Vardon, painted in 1900, is not the wily shotmaker who popularized the overlapping grip and entertained Americans with exhibition tours. This Vardon lounges in a Sheraton chair, his bow tie and velvet-trimmed smoking jacket giving him the air of a louche aristocrat.

"But if you look closely," Patten says, "what people miss when they walk by — he's wearing a toupee!" And it's true. There's a shiny patch of misaligned fur atop the Vardon dome. "But he was bald as a cue ball! He had no hair at all!" Patten points a finger at the bottom of the painting. "And notice his shoes. Not many golf pros wore shoes like that. They're slippers." The old publisher chuckles. "He's quite the dandy. He's quite a dapper guy."

The painting, Patten clarifies, was probably not Vardon's idea. It belonged to the golfer's family and was meant to reflect the fame and riches he had attained. "Vardon actually came from a very humble background," Patten says. "But this was after he'd made a lot of dough."

Next stop, the men's lounge in the Locker Building, where our friend Dick Lundgren stands before the familiar photo from the '13 Open, the one where Ouimet walks toward the camera with his 10-year-old caddie, Eddie Lowery, both of them in long sleeves and ties.

"Having been a caddie myself, and then a golfer who takes caddies, I think Lowery is the greatest story," Lundgren says. "And Eddie, you can see, was such an intense little fellow. He was so strong in his resolution to have Francis win that he pushed him and pushed him. I don't think Francis would have won without Eddie as his caddie."

There's an even better photo of the kid in the corner near the bar. He's at the center of a mob of jubilant males, a towel draped over his shoulders. Ouimet's autograph is on the photo, signed vertically over the towel, with the inscription, "This is the Boy who won the 1913 Open." What's striking is Lowery's expression; he is completely composed. It's a hint of the man he would become — a successful amateur golfer in his own right, a wealthy auto dealer, a confidant of Hollywood stars and touring pros, and a member of several ultra-exclusive golf clubs.

"I have to believe that Eddie was a very mature 10-year-old," Lundgren says. "The truant officer was after him, you know, because he was out caddying when he was supposed to be in school." He laughs. "Great story. To me, that's the essence of that Open."

Needing someone to finish the Ouimet story with an account of his playoff victory over Vardon and Ray, we turn finally to Tierney, the Amateur chairman. "Obviously, you'll want to go out to the 17th hole and Vardon's Bunker," he begins — but his testimony suddenly and unexpectedly leaps nearly a century ahead to the 1999 Ryder Cup at Brookline, where he carried the scoring standard for the pivotal match between Justin Leonard and José María Olazábal. "I was kneeling at the back of the 17th green when Leonard made that putt," Tierney says, conjuring up the image of the delirious American team, in their garish postcard shirts, leaping and shouting where Ouimet had once played stoically through.

"There's a lot of history on this golf course," he adds. "Arnold Palmer hitting out of the stump in '63, Curtis Strange winning in '88… "

But to hear it told with flair, we call Bud Patten over to the living room windows, which provide a distant view of the dogleg 17th. "People forget that it was really raining," he begins. "Puddles all over the place. Their wool suits were soaked with water, and their shoes must have weighed a bloody ton. Imagine playing in shoes that are that wet." He adds, "I've done that in Scotland."

Further setting the stage, Patten explains that Ouimet was a stroke up on Vardon with two holes to play and Ray no longer a threat. From the 17th tee, the desperate Vardon drove into a fairway bunker, while Ouimet split the fairway.

"It's the bunker on the right," says Patten, standing at the window. "Vardon stood there and studied that shot. Well, it was an impossible shot, because there's a major lip to get over and he was dead against the face. He could only knock it out sideways. But first, the man he's scrapping with, Ouimet, goes right out and knocks his ball on the green. Which was fabulous. Ouimet made birdie, and Vardon got a six, I think. Or was it a five?" Puzzled, Patten turns away from the window. "Well, you can look it up."

It was a five. All the scores are up there in The Country Club's third-floor storeroom, along with the tournament posters, a silver tray from the 1901 Spring Meeting, and an old scorecard with a six-inch diagonal line, used when the old stymie rule still applied.

"We'll get all this cataloged when we get the new room," says Lundgren, referring to a 700-square-foot museum and archive planned for the club's old stable.

"We're going to bring a professional in to run it," Newell says. "I'm really an amateur keeper of the club's archives."

Adds Lundgren with a knowing smile, "Like Ouimet was an amateur."

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