'The Greatest Game Ever Played'

Francis Ouimet, captain of the American Walker Cup team, drives off the third tee in the doubles competition of the Walker Cup matches at St. Andrews, Scotland, on May 11, 1934. AP

Long before Tiger Woods prowled his way into cultural stardom.

Long before Annika Sorenstam triggered an international chorus of "You go, girl!" by teeing off with the men.

Back before Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan and Bobby Jones.

Before golf was a game where millions of fans watched million dollar putts, there was a skinny 20-year-old kid who started it all: Francis Ouimet. The greatest American sports hero you've probably never heard of.

"Francis has to be looked at in the context of his period," author Mark Frost said. "But to my mind he stands head and shoulders above all the champions that follow."

Frost knows a good yarn when he hears one. He's a Hollywood writer and producer with hits like "Hill Street Blues" and "Twin Peaks" on his resume. He's also a golf junkie whose planets aligned when someone told him about Francis Ouimet.

"I felt like a guy who had found a goldmine that no one else knew about," he said. "I called the USGA and spoke to the head librarian. And I said, 'Has anyone ever written a book about this story?' He said 'No. Not to my knowledge.' I was there two days later and started writing that night."

He didn't stop writing until he had finished "The Greatest Game Ever Played," which tells the story of Francis Ouimet and the birth of golf in America.

If geography is indeed destiny, Francis Ouimet's destiny was sealed the day his parents moved into a small house in 246 Clyde Street, Brookline, Massachusetts — just outside Boston in 1896.

"At the time it was the only house in the neighborhood," Frost said. "It was all countryside, open countryside, right across the street there just happened to be a country club."

It was one of only a handful of private clubs in America that just before the turn of the century imported a popular game from Great Britain. Golf had arrived in America, and young Francis Ouimet was captivated.

"It was a game nobody played, but he was almost mystically drawn to it," Frost said. "To see a kid almost hypnotized at the age of four, he'd stand over there for hours watching people play and swinging this little golf club of his to the point where he came back and built a little 2-hole course behind his house in an open pasture there."

As a teenager, Ouimet worked as a caddy at the club — learning the nuances of the game while playing as often as he could. Then in 1913, he heard the news that the 18th United States Open was to be played at the country club. The two greatest players in the world – and his two idols – Harry Varden, who won the British Open five times, and Ted Ray, who had just won the British Open, were coming from England to compete.

Ouimet knew every last blade of grass on the course. So he entered the tournament. Ouimet barely qualified at the age of 20. But, he competed in the tournament.

Day one got off to a bad start. Ouimet was unable to find his caddy. A boy named Jack Lowery had been warned by a truant officer not to skip school for the open. Looking around, Ouimet spotted Jack's 10-year-old brother, Eddie Lowery.

"Eddie takes three street cars, skips school, shows up at Brookline and runs up to Francis," Frost described the scene. "It's about 10 minutes to [Ouimet's] tee time. [Eddie] explains that Jack isn't coming cause he had to go back to school. And Francis says, 'Well, thanks for coming to town,' and starts walking away. And Eddie says, 'I could caddie for ya.' And Francis says, 'Eddie, you're shorter than my bag, you can't do this.' And Eddie ends up convincing Francis that he's the guy who should carry his bag in the open."

They headed off to the first tee — the 20-year old unknown amateur and his 10-year-old caddie. People laughed at the unknown Ouimet and his midget caddie, according to Frost.

"It kinda made him mad," Frost said. "He thought, 'You know, we'll show them. And as it turns out Eddie is exactly the guy that Francis needed by his side. It's like 'Casablanca,' it's the start of a beautiful friendship."

Most spectators went to see the Brits, Vardon and Ray. Only a few close friends were there to see Ouimet. Frost says maybe that was a good thing.

"His hand was shaking so badly he could barely get the ball on the tee," he said. "And he duck hooks his first shot about 40–yards into the grass."

It was a terrible first shot, but gave ten year old Lowery a chance to do for the first time what he'd do through out the tournament: Keep Ouimet in the game.

"[Lowery] almost grabs him by the tie and says, 'Now listen, Francis, you gotta settle down. We're not going anywhere unless you focus and get your mind back on this next swing,'" Frost said.

And then, Francis Ouimet – unknown and unheralded – caught fire. For the rest of the day, he matched Vardon and Ray – the greatest golfers in the world – shot for shot.

The newspaper reporters smelled a story: a local boy giving the Brits a run for their money. David taking on not one Goliath, but two giants. Boston began buzzing. Something amazing was happening at the country club.

"People who knew nothing about golf were suddenly hanging onto the back of crowded street cars, rushing out from Boston to get to Brookline in order to see this phenomenon," Frost explained. "And by the time Francis got to the back nine in the forth round of the open, some accounts say as many as 15 to 20,000 people had gathered on the course, which is by far the largest crowd ever to watch a golf match in this country."

One person who wasn't there was Ouimet's mother. She was too nervous to watch her son play. Instead, she sat at home listening as her son move within one stroke of Vardon and Ray.

"On the day he catches them … his mother had been sitting on the porch across the street and hearing these roars come over from the club as he started to make his comeback," Frost said. "And she knew somehow that Francis was involved in what she was hearing."

What she was hearing was Francis Ouimet with Eddie Lowery at his side catching the two men in spectacular fashion. They came to the second to last hole. With Ouimet needing to sink a long putt to tie.

"It starts to gain momentum as it gets close to the hole," Frost described the scene. "It hits the cup and actually pops up in the air … and then drops back down into the hole."

Every single person around this hole who's been holding their breath for the last 20 minutes exploded, according to Frost.

The next day Ouimet faced his two heroes in a three-way play-off. Ted Ray faded early and Vardon — one stroke behind Ouimet with two holes to go — gambles and lands in a sand trap.

After a Vardon drive to a bunker, he was finished. And one hole later, Ouimet was the 1913 U.S. Open Champion.

"His victory ends up on the front page of every newspaper across the country," Frost said. "Overseas it's an even bigger story because he's defeated the two British giants who've dominated the sport the last four years."

It is at that moment, according to Mark Frost, that America's love affair with golf was born.

In this day and age, a victory like that would guarantee saturation coverage. But 90 years ago, that wasn't how it worked.

"This is 1913, it's pre-movie cameras; it's pre-radio," Frost explained. "It's print, which is the only media that people can read or hear about these kinds of things. So, the impact of the victory, although huge at the time, tended to fade over time."

And there was another reason. Francis Ouimet didn't want to be remembered.

He never turned pro. He played for the pure love of the game, according to Frost.

CBS News correspondent Jim Axelrod said one golf writer may have put it best: "Golf could not have been more fortunate in finding its first great champion." Whether he would have liked it or not, is not a bad way for Francis Ouimet to be remembered.

He played for the thrill of competition, and the sense of going out and testing himself, and seeing what he was capable of, according to Frost.

In the end, he wanted to answer that question for himself. And he got the answer he was looking for, which was enough for him.

  • Rome Neal

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