Ouimet, Francis DeSales

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OUIMET, Francis DeSales

(b. 8 May 1893 in Brookline, Massachusetts; d. 2 September 1967 in Newton, Massachusetts), amateur golfer whose stunning victory in the U.S. Open Championship of 1913 made him the first American hero in his sport.

Ouimet (pronounced wee-MET) was the fourth of five children of Arthur Ouimet and Mary Ellen Burke. His father, a Canadian immigrant, worked as a coachman and gardener, while his mother, a Brookline, Massachusetts, native of Irish descent, was a homemaker. Ouimet grew up in Brookline across the street from The Country Club, the first country club in the United States. His first encounter with the game that made him famous came when he cut across Country Club fairways on his way to grade school and found golf balls in the rough. He and his older brother Wilfred exchanged the balls for a few clubs at a local sporting goods store and learned to play on a three-hole "course" Wilfred had set up in a cow pasture. After the likable Ouimet turned eleven and became a caddie, he accumulated more golf equipment from kindly club members. He also got the opportunity to observe the techniques of some of the finest amateur and professional golfers as they played in tournaments at The Country Club. Although club members sometimes allowed Ouimet to join them for a round, he more often slipped onto the private course to hone his game out of the sight of greenskeepers early in the morning and on rainy days, or took the trolley into neighboring Boston to play with friends at the Franklin Park public links.

At Brookline High School, Ouimet chose to play golf rather than baseball. He helped organize the school's golf team and won the individual match-play competition in the Greater Boston Interscholastic Golf Championship in 1909. Ouimet left school shortly thereafter, he wrote, because he had "devoted too much time to golf."

After his failure to qualify for match play by one stroke at the U.S. Amateur Championships of 1910, 1911, and 1912, Ouimet blossomed as a competitive golfer in 1913. In June he captured the first of his six Massachusetts State Amateur titles. Then, after qualifying for the U.S. Amateur at Garden City, New York, in September, the cool New Englander with the fluid swing impressed observers with his fine play in a narrow second-round loss to Jerry Travers, who was considered the best match player of his day. Travers went on to win his fourth Amateur.

Having exhausted his vacation time from his job at Wright and Ditson, a Boston sporting goods firm, Ouimet initially declined to participate in the U.S. Open Championship two weeks after the Amateur. But Robert G. Watson, the president of the United States Golf Association (USGA), convinced him to enter, and his employer allowed him to play.

Ouimet and the rest of the Americans in the 1913 U.S. Open field were considered supporting players in what was expected to be a showcase for two highly acclaimed British professionals. Harry Vardon, a five-time British Open champion and winner of the 1900 U.S. Open, and Ted Ray, the long-hitting 1912 British Open titlist, were playing exhibition matches on a U.S. tour sponsored by Lord Northcliffe, the publisher of the Times of London. Their presence at The Country Club lent prestige to an event that had up to that time attracted scant attention.

Brimming with confidence after his strong showing at the Amateur, Ouimet managed the difficult Open course and wet conditions well enough to surpass all other challengers and tie the heavily favored Vardon and Ray at eight over par 304 for 72 holes. After his game seemed to fall apart in the cold, steady rain that plagued the fourth round, the twenty-year-old rebounded remarkably, playing two-under-par golf on the last six holes to catch his British rivals, who had finished long before. The key stroke during this brilliant run was a slippery downhill putt of some twenty feet for a three on the par-four seventeenth hole. So great was his concentration that Ouimet did not hear the honking and yelling of motorists in a traffic jam on an adjacent street when he rammed home his birdie.

In the ensuing eighteen-hole playoff, the youthful amateur was composed and on top of his game, while the seasoned professionals seemed nervous and out of sync. Hitting accurate iron shots and putting superbly, Ouimet grabbed the lead from his more erratic opponents on the back nine and held it. When Vardon made a late run to move within a shot of Ouimet, the latter holed another crucial birdie putt on the seventeenth to virtually close out the tournament. Ouimet's round of 72 (two under par) easily outdistanced Vardon's 77 and Ray's 78. According to Bernard Darwin, the correspondent of the Times of London, the American "slowly but surely … wore his men down and finally he battered and trampled them."

The story of the young Bay State David's defeat of golf's reigning Goliaths spread across the country, headlined the New York Times, and evoked national pride, sparking new interest in a game heretofore scorned as "foreign" or the province of the social elite. In the humble, clean-cut Ouimet, an immigrant's son, a former caddy, and a workingman of modest means, America found a genuine hero. In the ten years that followed his Open heroics, the number of golfers in the United States exploded from less than 350,000 to 2 million. The 1913 U.S. Open also marked the beginning of golf as a popular spectator sport in the United States. While previous tournaments attracted small crowds in the hundreds, between 3,000 and 5,000 tramped around The Country Club in foul conditions following Ouimet in the dramatic final round, and over 10,000 watched the next day's playoff contest. In addition, the galleries in Brookline proved more demonstrative and vocal than the usually reserved audiences of the past.

Although Ouimet gained lasting fame for his 1913 victory, he played in only five more U.S. Opens and only seriously contended in 1925 at the Worcester, Massachusetts, Country Club, finishing one stroke out of another playoff. Ouimet preferred to leave medal-play events like the Open, in which golfers had to play cautiously to protect their scores, to the professionals, and participate in mostly amateur match-play events where he could take more risks. Consequently, he came to regard his relatively obscure 1914 U.S. Amateur victory at the Ekwanok Country Club in Manchester, Vermont, which was accomplished with a 6 and 5 trouncing of Jerry Travers in the final, as a greater milestone in his career than his celebrated Open win. The Open win, gratifying though it was, had been something Ouimet never dreamed of accomplishing. The Amateur, on the other hand, had been his objective since boyhood.

When Ouimet and his friend and fellow golfer Jack Sullivan opened a sporting goods store in Boston in 1915, the USGA took away their amateur status. The controversial declaration that the selling of golf equipment made a player a professional was widely decried as unfair, but Ouimet accepted it. With his induction into the U.S. Army in 1918, the USGA quietly reinstated the popular Ouimet as an amateur. He married Stella Mary Sullivan, Jack Sullivan's sister, on 11 September 1918; they had two daughters.

Ouimet was discharged in 1919 with the rank of second lieutenant in the Quartermaster Corps. After returning to form on the links, he reached the final of the 1920 U.S. Amateur but lost to Chick Evans, an ex-caddy from Chicago who had been a major rival in the 1910s. And although he remained in the top rank of U.S. players during the 1920s, Ouimet never got beyond the Amateur semifinals in that decade. All in all, he reached the semifinals six times between 1923 and 1932. Three of his defeats came at the hands of golf's new superstar, Bobby Jones. In 1931, the year after Jones retired from competitive golf, Ouimet won his second Amateur title, beating Jack Westland 6 and 5 in the final at the Beverly Country Club in Chicago.

Chosen as a member of the first U.S. Walker Cup team in 1922, Ouimet became a mainstay of the eight-man U.S. aggregation that periodically competed in a series of matches against the best amateurs from Great Britain. He played in eight matches from 1922 to 1934, compiling an overall record of nine wins, five defeats, and two halves. As Walker Cup captain Ouimet led the U.S. team to victories in 1932, 1934, 1936, 1947, and 1949. His only defeat at the helm, in 1938, was the first ever suffered by the Americans.

The gentlemanly Ouimet, who left competitive golf in 1949, became a genuine golf icon in retirement. He was enshrined as a charter member of the PGA Golf Hall of Fame in 1949, and became the first American elected captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of Saint Andrews, Scotland, in 1951. Ouimet also lent his name to a highly successful caddie scholarship fund founded by the Massachusetts Golf Association in 1949 that continues to this day. For most of his adult life, Ouimet worked in the investment field. He headed the stock department of White, Weld and Company in the 1930s and 1940s, and was a broker with Brown Brothers, Harriman from 1954 until his death. A celebrated sportsman in his native New England, Ouimet also served as president of the Boston Bruins hockey team, vice president of the Boston Braves baseball team, and chairman of the Boston Arena Authority. He died of a heart attack and is buried in Holyhood Cemetery in Brookline.

Although overshadowed by players of succeeding generations, Ouimet remains a historic figure in golf. His astonishing performance in the 1913 U.S. Open inspired the great American golfers of the 1920s and 1930s, notably Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones, and Gene Sarazen. Bernard Darwin, who became the greatest British golf writer, noted that Ouimet's playoff triumph over Vardon and Ray "founded the American Golfing Empire."

The Ouimet Museum in Weston, Massachusetts, and the Ouimet Room at the USGA Museum and Library in Far Hills, New Jersey, have memorabilia on display relating to Ouimet's golf career. His books Golf Facts for Young People (1921), and A Game of Golf—A Book of Reminiscenc e (1932), contain important autobiographical information. For contemporary coverage, see the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, the Boston Post, the New York Times (all 16–21 Sept. 1913), and the Times of London (16–20, 22 Sept. 1913). Historical assessments of Ouimet and the 1913 Open are included in H. B. Martin, Fifty Years of American Golf (1936); Herbert Warren Wind, The Story of American Golf—Its Champions and Its Championships (1948); Elmer Osgood Cappers, Centennial History of The Country Club, 1882–1982 (1981); Stephen Hardy, How Boston Played: Sports, Recreation, and Community, 1865–1915 (1982); and Robert Sommers, The U.S. Open: Golf's Ultimate Challenge (1987). Useful articles are Lawrence Robinson, "Francis Ouimet: The Miracle 50 Years Later," Golf Magazine (June 1963), and Glenn Stout, "The Amateur," Boston Magazine (June 1988). Obituaries are in the Boston Globe, Boston Herald Traveler, and New York Times (all 3 Sept. 1967).

Richard H. Gentile