The longtime owners of the house where Francis Ouimet was raised appreciate their shrine

June 11, 2013

The first pilgrim was a gentleman with a camera. With cars and trucks whooshing and whistling behind him, he entered through a gate in the stockade fence and stepped right up onto the tiny porch at 246 Clyde Street, Brookline, Mass. He rapped on the door.

Inside, the Wielers looked up from whatever they were doing.

The Wielers (pronounced Wheelers) can’t say precisely what they were doing because this happened in 1989, shortly after Jerome, Dedie and their eight-year-old son had moved into the skinny clapboard house across the street from The Country Club. They just remember that their thoughts flashed to the usual supplicants: Jehovah’s Witnesses, cookie-laden Girl Scouts, magazine-subscription pests.

“I opened the door,” Jerome remembers, “and there was a gentleman with a camera who asked, ‘Do you have any idea whose house you’re living in?’ And at that point I was able to appear somewhat knowledgeable. I said, ‘Well, yes. Francis Ouimet, winner of the 1913 U.S. Open.’ ” The stranger then asked if he could snap a photo of the front door. “And I said, ‘Sure, no problem.’ He took his picture, thanked me effusively and moved on. It was kind of neat.”

It was also a harbinger. The Wielers had unwittingly bought a house connected to the creation myth of American golf. It is the house that Francis Ouimet lived in from the age of four; the house from which, 16 years later, he crossed the street to make history by defeating the British stars Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in a very damp 18-hole playoff. Golf nuts had been knocking on the door of 246 Clyde Street for decades, and there had always been a Francis sibling or a Ouimet heir to answer their questions.

“We weren’t golf nuts,” says Dedie. “We were told that someone named Francis Ouimet lived here, and he had done something fantastic. But it wasn’t until we had settled in that Jerome did some research and discovered the true story.”

“And I was blown away,” says Jerome. “It’s like discovering that you’re related to somebody famous. It’s like” — his eyes gleam mischievously — “we’re descended from golfing royalty.”

Actually, nobody in this story belongs to the purple-robe set. Francis Ouimet caddied at The Country Club from age 11, and he often accessed the golf course through a hole in the fence along Lee Street, which borders the club on the east side. The Wielers are solidly middle-class. Jerome, whose white hair and beard evoke Ernest Hemingway in his marlin-fishing prime, recently retired as a data analyst and department head at Boston Children’s Hospital. Dedie, whose nickname conjoins her given names of Doris and Edith, is chief quality and corporate compliance officer at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. Neither of them has had more than an occasional look-in at the 1,300-member Country Club, which has facilities for curling, tennis, swimming, paddleball, ice skating and skeet shooting. “Back roads on a motorcycle, that’s our passion,” says Jerome, who has roared through thousands of miles of New England countryside on his 1986 Harley-Davidson FXRS Sport with Dedie clinging to his waist.

Nevertheless, when the Wielers closed on their house in December ’89, they essentially wed themselves to The Country Club, which has been the venue for a near-record 15 USGA championships. (Merion Golf Club, site of next week’s U.S. Open, leads with 17, but TCC will keep pace when it hosts the U.S. Amateur in August.) What’s more, the golf world — to which the Wielers emphatically do not belong — is celebrating the 100th anniversary of Ouimet’s shocking victory. That should trigger a fresh wave of camera-wielding pilgrims.

“People come to the door from all over,” Jerome said recently, while checking on some minor renovations to the home’s interior. “I don’t mind chatting because their enthusiasm is contagious.” He draws the line, though, when a stranger asks to see the upstairs bedroom that Francis shared with his older brother, Wilfred, the room immortalized in the putting-after-midnight scene from the movie The Greatest Game Ever Played. “That’s sort of intrusive to us. The first time it happened, I said, ‘This isn’t a museum, this is our house. We live here.’ ” Jerome laughed. “Now we kind of take it in stride.”

Not every pilgrim is stopped at the door. Some years ago a bespectacled writer talked his way in, and some time later we had the book version of The Greatest Game. Its author, Mark Frost, went on to produce and write the movie; but as often happens in Hollywood, the Ouimet house, built in 1887 on what was then a dirt road, didn’t get to play itself. That role went to a dwelling in Montreal. “I had a brief hope that they would do the movie in our house, and we’d get it redone without having to pay for it,” Dedie jokes. “But that didn’t work.”

That disappointment aside, the Wielers think the Montreal interiors performed creditably, failing only to replicate the odd footprint of their five-walled living room. “Tinkering around the edges is O.K.,” says Jerome, waving off the movie’s other minor inaccuracies, which include an invented girlfriend for Francis and a 17th hole that doglegs right instead of left. “Now, if they had cast Leonardo DiCaprio as [10-year-old caddie] Eddie Lowery, that would have been a real problem.” Touring the real Ouimet house takes imagination, but the Wielers have that in spades. Caressing a mahogany newel post, Jerome says, “It’s fun to imagine that Francis Ouimet put his hand on this as he was bolting down the stairs and out the door.” In the same spirit Dedie points to her newly ­remodeled kitchen, saying, “If you want to see Francis ­Ouimet’s chimney, it’s right here in this wall.” (Translation: You can’t.) Then, walking up the narrow-treaded, twisty staircase, Jerome says, “It’s sort of like being on the USS Constitution. You realize how short the sailors were in those days.”

Two of the three upstairs bedrooms face the street, but the room on your right — probably used by Francis’s younger sister, Louise — is no bigger than a walk-in closet. (The Wielers use it for storage.) The other bedroom is big enough for a couple of twin beds, two double-hung sash windows and a legend.

“So, I’d like to show you the famous view from Francis’s bedroom,” Dedie says, conjuring up the classic depiction of the child caddie staring longingly out the window at The Country Club’s 17th green. “Unfortunately, the trees have had a hundred years to grow, the road has become a four-lane street, and there are power lines and a parking lot across the way.” She bends slightly to peer out. “We don’t really see the green at all. We just see a nice tree line and a great sunset every day.”

It’s hard to measure the impact of a golf-course view on a child. Their own son, the Wielers admit with a trace of shame, slept in the bigger, east-facing bedroom in back, and thus missed out on tournament stardom. But neighbors told them early in their residency that Wilfred Ouimet was actually a better golfer than his little brother until he started hitting the bottle. “We have no idea if there’s any truth to that,” says Jerome, “but now, whenever I think of Francis, his brother is there as a spectral presence.”

No tour of the Ouimet property is complete without a visit to the tiny backyard, which slopes away and narrows to a point defined by two chain-link ­fences. Today it’s a warren of trees, vines and newer houses, but at the dawn of the 20th century it was a swampy pasture fed by a brook. The Ouimet boys built a three-hole golf course there, placing the tin-can cup for the opening hole on the other side of the brook. The hundred-yard carry was too much for little Francis, who hit countless balls into the stream. “The day he finally landed a ball on the far side of that brook,” writes Frost, “was the proudest of his eight years on earth.”

The brook is gone, but the trough where it once babbled remains, roughly 75 yards from the kitchen windows. “I can’t throw a football from here to there,” says Fred Waterman, The Country Club’s historian, who has joined the tour. “That would have been a big carry for an eight-year-old hitting a beat-up Haskell ball. He would have had to pound that brown ball back into shape after each use.” Moving from the particular to the general, Waterman adds, “You know, if Francis hadn’t lived across the street, he’d never have won that Open. It makes you wonder how many other youngsters there were who didn’t live across the street from a tennis court or a country club or a pool.”

It’s this feeling that their house has something to say about American values that keeps the Wielers from making more substantial improvements. “There’s a sense of custodianship or stewardship,” says Jerome. “Francis was such an interesting human being; not simply a golf phenom but a genuinely decent person. And the fact that he remained an amateur and never exploited it economically, I find that fascinating.”

So while the Wielers have replaced every pipe, widened the archway to the kitchen, removed an unsightly window between the dining and living rooms, replaced the tree-trunk basement supports with lally columns, and installed modern fixtures and countertops, they have stuck with the basic layout. “We toyed with the idea of taking a closet and bathroom out to restore the kitchen to its original dimensions,” Jerome says, “but if we ever want to resell, having only one bathroom these days doesn’t fly.” Asked if they’d ever alter the clapboard exterior, he shakes his head. “Knowing that Francis Ouimet lived here gives it the aspect of a shrine.”

Not that they haven’t been tempted. The living room, with its off-center fireplace and windows, defies conventional furnishing. The traffic noise is relentless, and occasionally the whole world seems to converge on the golf course across the street, as happened during the 1999 Ryder Cup, when Justin Leonard capped an improbable U.S. comeback with a birdie bomb at the 17th. Worst of all, skidding cars have crashed through their flimsy fence on four occasions, stopping within an eyelash of their side deck. But the Wielers soldier on.

Dedie remembers opening The Greatest Game for the first time and seeing a century-old photograph of seven-year-old Francis and his parents in front of 246 Clyde Street. “I thought, Oh, my God, should I be proud or embarrassed that the house looks exactly the same?”

Time has answered her question.