America’s First Great Golfer: Francis Ouimet

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With all due respect to Bobby Jones, the title of “father of amateur golf” in the United States belongs to Francis Ouimet (pronounced wee-MAY).  Ouimet’s stunning victory in the 1913 United States Open spurred the growth of golf in America and a love affair with the sport that continues today.

Ouimet was born in May, 1893 in Brookline, Massachusetts during a time when golf in America had few players, no public golf courses, and only the wealthy could afford to play. He grew up in a working class family. The family moved across from the 17th hole at The Country Club of Brookline when Ouimet was four years old, and he showed interest in the game at an early age.  By 11, Ouimet had secured a job as a caddie at The Country Club.  Using old clubs and balls, Ouitmet taught himself how to play the game.  His natural ability earned him the reputation as one of the best high school golfers in the state.  Ouimet’s father believed golf and school offered very little future for his son and told Francis to find a job.  Francis landed a position in a dry goods store before landing a job with a sporting goods store owned by baseball hall of famer George Wright, one of the original players on the franchise now known as the Atlanta Braves.  Wright encouraged Ouimet to continue playing golf.

In 1913, Ouimet won his first tournament of any significance, the Massachusetts Amateur Open.  That win propelled him to the United States Amateur Open where he lost in the quarterfinals at the Garden City Golf Club in New York City in September.  Soon afterwards, Robert Watson, president of the United States Golf Association, asked Ouimet to play in the United States Open later that month at The Country Club of Brookline, a course Ouimet knew very well.  The U.S. Open that year changed its playing date from June to accommodate the schedules of the first and second ranked golfers in the world at the time—British greats Harry Vardon and Ted Ray.

Ouimet had never played in a U.S. Open but found himself tied with the two British stars after 72 holes.  In one of the greatest upsets in sports history, Ouimet beat Vardon and Ray the next day in the rain during an 18-hole playoff.  A 20-year old amateur beat the two best golfers in the world—Ray by six strokes and Vardon by five. Ouimet’s stunning victory became the catalyst for the growth and popularity of the game in the United States.

Players from England and Scotland had dominated the sport in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century.  In America, mostly members of private clubs played the game during this time and very few public courses existed. According to the World Golf Hall of Fame, about 350,000 Americans played golf in 1913. Ten years later, over two million Americans played golf and private and public courses sprang up across the country to keep up with the demand.

Ouimet won 27 tournaments as an amateur, including the 1914 and 1931 U.S. Amateur Opens.  He came close to winning several other U.S. Amateur Opens during the 1920s, but many of those championships belonged to another great amateur, Bobby Jones.  Ouimet was the first person to win both the U.S. Amateur Open and the U.S. Open.  Also, Ouimet played on the first eight Walker Cup teams and was Captain of the next four. His teams compiled a record of 11-1.

Because of his ambition to move up into the middle class, Ouimet remained an amateur his entire life and focused his attention on the business world.  Golfers in Ouimet’s era found it difficult to become wealthy playing golf.  How times have changed!

Only ten years after winning the U.S. Open, Ouimet had become a banker and stock broker.  In later years, he became a successful financial adviser.

In 1949, a group of Ouimet’s friends started the Francis Ouimet Scholarship Fund.  The Fund gives college scholarships to young caddies in Massachusetts.  To date, more than 5,100 young men and women have received over $26 million in scholarship money.

Ouimet, in 1955, received the Bob Jones Award–the highest honor given by the United States Golf Association in recognition of distinguished sportsmanship in golf. The World Golf Hall of Fame inducted Ouimet along with Jones, Vardon and six others into its first class for men in 1974.

The “father of amateur golf” passed away in Newton, Massachusetts in 1967 at the age of 74. Cheers to the great Francis Ouimet, America’s first golf hero!

 

A Brief History of Golf

 

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Millions of people play golf every day around the world. Young and old, men and women, enjoy the game that traces its roots as far back as 100 BCE in Rome. Through the magic of television, live streaming on the internet and other forms of media, people today see the majestic beauty of Augusta National, the ancient links of the Old Course at St. Andrews, the splendor of Pebble Beach or any one of the hundreds of courses on which today’s professionals showcase their super human skills. Certainly, golf course design, the technology, and the players have come a long way since the nascent years of the game. The following will examine some of the history behind the game of golf, specifically its development into what we know as golf today.

The earliest form of golf can be traced to ancient Rome where people played a game called paganica around 100 BCE. Players hit a stuffed leather ball with a bent stick. During the Song Dynasty (960 CE to 1279 CE) in China, participants played chuiw an, which was played with several clubs and a ball.

A 1261 manuscript of Flemish poet Jacob van Maerlant referred to a game with a ball and club. The reference may have been to the Dutch game called colf or kolf during which four players hit balls over a certain distance with the winner being the one who reached the starting point of one of the other players. Some colf or kolf games lasted multiple days.

However, the modern game of golf can trace its roots to Scotland. In a 1457 Act of the Scottish Parliament, the game of gowf (golf) received its first mention. The Act prohibited the game because King James II saw it as a distraction from archery practice, necessary for the defense of the country.   Further mention of the game can be found in government documents in 1471 and 1491 banning the sport. By 1500, Scotland lifted all bans and within a couple of years King James IV purchased balls and clubs to play the game. At that time, balls were made of wood or hard leather while clubs were made of wood, mostly beech, holly, pear and apple. In 1724, various documents referenced balls stuffed with feathers.

Royalty provided the impetus for the spread of golf in Europe.  With King Charles I’s blessing, the game took root in England in the sixteenth century.  Mary Queen of Scots, while studying in France during this same period, introduced the sport there.  Interestingly, the term “caddie” comes from her French military aides, referred to as cadets.

The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers (HCEG) established the first rules of golf in 1744. Twenty year later, the Old Course at St. Andrews reduced its total holes from 22 to 18, establishing the format for today’s game.

By 1826, hickory, imported from the United States, became the wood of choice for club shafts in Great Britain. About 20 years later, the gutta percha ball became the ball of choice. The ball makers placed strips of gutta percha (dried sap from a Sapodilla tree) in boiling water then molded the ball by hand before submerging in cold water to harden it.

The first British Open Championship was played at Prestwick in 1860. The Royal Liverpool Golf Club established the British Amateur Championship in 1885–Hoylake hosted the first tournament.

Montreal established the first permanent golf club in North America in 1873, the Canada’s Royal Montreal Club, while in 1894 the United States Golf Association (USGA) was  formed in New York with five charter members—St. Andrew’s Golf Club of Yonkers, New York; Newport (Rhode Island) Golf Club; Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in South Hampton, New York; The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts; and the Chicago Golf Club in Wheaton, Illinois.  A year later, the Newport Country Club hosted the first United States Amateur Championship and United States Open.  The USGA maintains the official rules of golf for the United States and Mexico.

By 1900, persimmon became the wood of choice for club heads while aluminum became a popular alternative. Groove-faced irons, which promote increased backspin, entered the market two years later.  Around the same time, the rubber-cored Haskell ball joined the list of new equipment. This ball revolutionized golf because it traveled farther than the gutta-percha ball and cost much less to manufacture. Golf enthusiasm and participation soared to new heights. By 1910, 267 clubs claimed USGA membership.

In 1916, the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) was  formed and the first PGA Championship took place at Siwanoy Country Club in New York. Five years later the British team won the first Ryder Cup at Gleneagles in Scotland. However, the United States team won the first Walker Cup in 1922 at Golf Links of America in Southampton, New York.

Golf technology continued to evolve and the Royal and Ancient (R&A), the recognized stewards of the rules of golf for everywhere except the United States and Mexico, accepted steel-shafted golf clubs for the first time in 1929. The next year, Bobby Jones became the only person to achieve the Grand Slam of golf with victories in the United States Amateur, the British Amateur, the United States Open and the British Open. Not long afterwards, Jones was instrumental in designing Augusta National Golf Club, where the first Masters took place in 1934. In 1939, the Royal and Ancient indoctrinated the 14-club rule to promote individual skill and to prevent golfers from using an inordinate amount of clubs.

Women shared the golf spotlight with the men beginning in 1932 when the United States team defeated the team of Great Britain and Ireland in the Curtis Cup at the Wentworth Club in Surrey, England.   The United States Women’s Open was staged for the first time in 1946 at Spokane Country Club in Washington and four years later the Ladies’ Professional Golfers’ Association (LPGA) was formed.

Since 1952 the R&A and the USGA have worked together to produce a common set of rules for golfers worldwide called the “Rules of Golf.”  The rules are revised every four years.

More equipment changes followed World War II. Influenced by research in synthetic and composite materials, golf club manufacturing changed. In 1963, the casting method for manufacturing club heads was introduced.  This new technology lowered the costs of golf clubs, which led to increased participation in the sport. Graphite shafts hit the market in 1973, which were lighter and stronger than steel shafts. TaylorMade introduced the first metal woods in 1979. Callaway owns the honor of the best-selling golf club in history, the Big Bertha, which hit the market for the first time in 1991.

Golf has a long and rich history. The game may have its roots as far back as ancient Rome and China. Certainly, the game as we know it today can be traced to Scotland in the fifteenth century. As the technology changed over the years and equipment costs fell, more and more people began to play the game. Arguably, it is the one sport that people can truly enjoy well into their later years in life.  Play the game once and you will probably be hooked. Just remember to yell “fore!” after an errant shot.