Bigger than the game
Francis Ouimet's legacy lives on a hundred years after his historic U.S. Open title
To get to Franklin Park, a public course in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood, Francis Ouimet and a friend walked a mile from his home across the road from The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., to the streetcar line that took them to the Brookline Village, where they transferred to a Roxbury crossing car.
It was 1906 and these were two teenage boys eager to play golf during the game's infancy in the United States.
At Roxbury Crossing, they changed to the Franklin Park car. At Franklin, they got off on the last streetcar and walked three quarters of a mile to the Franklin Park clubhouse.
The son of poor immigrants, Ouimet learned the game on a three-hole course he devised with his brother, Wilfred. They used old balls and clubs that they found at The Country Club. At Franklin Park, a nine-hole course that opened in 1896, they could play as many as 54 holes a day during the summer.
At The Country Club, Ouimet caddied for "Proper Bostonians" for 25 cents per round. In 1913, seven years after playing his first rounds at Franklin Park, Ouimet won the U.S. Open in front of these well-heeled scions of society at The Country Club. By defeating Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in an 18-hole playoff, Ouimet became the first amateur to win the championship.
A hundred years later it is still one of the greatest individual achievements in sports history and a seminal moment in the development of golf in America. Ouimet's monumental victory over two of the game's top players created a public demand in the U.S. for a game that was at the turn of the 20th century primarily the domain of the rich at private country clubs.
A year after winning at Brookline, Ouimet won the first of his two Amateurs at Ekwanok in Manchester, Vt. His second win came in 1931 in Chicago.
In recognition of the 100th anniversary of Ouimet's feat, The Country Club in Brookline is hosting the match play portion of the U.S. Amateur, which begins on Wednesday.
"I'm afraid some people won't believe me," Ouimet said years after his first Amateur win, "when I say that the greatest moment was winning my first Amateur Championship.
"I never really had thought of myself as an Open champion but as a young fellow who was brash enough to think I could win the Amateur. That was the title I really aspired to."
Yet for all of Ouimet's accomplishments as a player and an ambassador of the game, his most enduring legacy might be the Francis Ouimet Scholarship Fund, which was started in his honor in 1949 by the Massachusetts Golf Association to help caddies in the Boston and New England area attend college. In the organization's 64-year history, it has awarded more than $25 million to some 5,000 students.
For most athletes, their contributions to the game and the larger society end with their accomplishments on the field of play. Rarely are they able to leave something behind that future generations can put to good use for humankind.
Bob McDonald and Ellis Jones know the full extent of Ouimet's legacy. Separated in age by 54 years, these men -- one white, one black -- grew up in Boston in remarkably different times. But they share Ouimet, who emerged long before the city was racially splintered by the busing crisis of the 1970s.
McDonald was one of the first 13 recipients of the scholarship fund. Like Ouimet, McDonald caddied at The Country Club, where he started working in 1942 to help his mother after his father died when McDonald was just 10 years old. At The Country Club, he made $1.05 for 18 holes. No tipping was allowed.
"Without the Ouimet scholarship I would have never gone to college," said the 81-year-old McDonald, who used the money to attend MIT, where he graduated in 1953 with a degree in building and construction engineering. After attending business school at Harvard, McDonald went on to build a family-run construction firm that has $100 million annually in private-sector contracts.
McDonald first met Ouimet at a Christmas party in 1949, where the former U.S. Open champion gave a speech to the first class of scholarship recipients.
"Mr. Ouimet was a very modest and humble man," McDonald remembers. "He was a magnificent speaker and very casual. He could draw you in with his stories. And he was also a great singer."
McDonald said that Ouimet considered the scholarship fund his proudest achievement.
McDonald would later get to know Ouimet through their affiliations with the fund and at the various local golf clubs where they both played. Ouimet, who died in 1967 at the age of 74, played regularly as an honorary member with a group on the weekends at Charles River Country Club in Newton Centre, Mass., where McDonald was a member. Over the years, McDonald played golf with Ouimet a few times.
Ouimet always wanted to be treated as a regular guy. One day McDonald and Ouimet arrived at the club at the same time. On their way from the parking lot, Ouimet asked McDonald to do him a big favor.
"Sure, Mr. Ouimet," McDonald said.
"Would you please call me Francis?" Ouimet said.
Fifty years after McDonald became a Ouimet scholar, Jones began riding his bike from his home in Roxbury to the same Franklin Park where Ouimet first played in 1906 to take part in the caddie program. Jones didn't begin to learn about Ouimet until he started the program in 1999 as a part of the fund's efforts to attract inner-city youth to the organization.
"The example of Ouimet shows that no matter who you are or what your background is you can always make an impact on the world and the lives of others," Jones said.
In 2006, when Jones was a student at Elms College in Chicopee, Mass., he was given an opportunity through the fund to caddie for Tiger Woods during a practice round at the Deutsche Bank Championship in nearby Norton, Mass.
Jones first met the 14-time major champion in 1992 at a clinic at Franklin Park, when Tiger was in town to play in a junior tournament. At the Deutsche Bank, they reminisced about those times before Woods had become the best player in the world.
"It was like talking to one of my friends," Jones said of working for Woods.
But that brief encounter doesn't come close to matching the lifelong bonds that Jones has developed through the scholarship fund.
"Ouimet scholars have a very long and connected network," said the 27-year-old Jones, who works for the Xerox Corporation in the unclaimed property division in the Boston area.
"We all keep in touch with each other. I have had a chance to work with them in different settings all because we have this one love and passion.
"For a lot of kids, the program not only gave them an outlet, but it gave them exposure to people through caddying that they never would have met otherwise. They were able to meet people on the golf course that gave them recommendations later on for jobs."
From his humble roots as a caddie who became one of the decorated amateurs in the history of the game, Ouimet went on to become a successful businessman. In 1951, he became the first American to be named a captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Scotland.
His stature earned him invitations at golf clubs all over the world. The "Proper Bostonians" he had come to know as a caddie at The Country Club were now his friends and acquaintances.
Yet Ouimet never lost the humility, decency and genial nature that he learned while carrying golf bags for 25 cents.
He is the embodiment of the virtues that he passed on to Ouimet scholars like McDonald and Jones.
Few if any of the players at the U.S. Amateur got their starts as caddies. Junior golf academies and college golf programs now churn out many of today's best golf talents. A Ouimet scholar is more likely to turn out like McDonald or Jones than like Woods or Phil Mickelson.
That's why we still celebrate Francis Ouimet 100 years after he shocked the world, because his win was always bigger than golf. No one has been able to duplicate the national impact of Ouimet's feat in 1913, but many have gone on because of his scholarship fund to become heroes to their communities and families.
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