- The Washington Times - Monday, September 15, 2003

The way it was

It was a surreal sight. The skinny local golfer was just 20 years old, his tiny caddie half that age. And now the little kid was giving the big kid advice on how to beat the best players in the world.

“Keep your head down,” Eddie Lowery kept telling Francis Ouimet as they walked around the Country Club of Brookline (Mass.) during the first round of the U.S. Open on an overcast September day in 1913. But the little kid wasn’t always that cool — or brash.

“It’s my impression, from things my father told me, that there were several moments when Francis had to quiet him down because he was so charged up,” Cynthia Lowery Wilcox told a magazine writer decades later.

Whatever. Ouimet finished the tournament in a tie with English giants Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, then booted their backsides in a playoff the next day to become the first amateur to win the Open. He shot a 72 to Vardon’s 77 and Ray’s 78, and legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice called Ouimet’s round “the shots heard ‘round the world.”

When he completed it with a par on the 18th hole and handed Lowery his putter, golf was on the way to becoming both a major spectator sport and a game played by millions to varying degrees of frustration. That autumn some 350,000 Americans — most financially “well-to-do” in the vernacular of the day — were playing the old Scottish game; a decade later, 2million had taken it up. Ouimet’s astonishing triumph had that much effect on the multitudes in an era when there was no radio, no television, no newsreels.

In one sense then, Francis and Eddie were responsible for giving us Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen, Byron Nelson, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Annika Sorenstam — all those who today loom large on the links and make what is possibly the world’s most difficult sport appear so easy and so beautiful.

“Francis has to be looked at in the context of the period, but to my mind he stands head and shoulders above all the champions who followed,” said Mark Frost, Ouimet’s recent biographer in “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”

When it comes to producing a significant change in the nature of his game, Ouimet ranks with such icons as Babe Ruth in baseball, Red Grange in pro football, George Mikan in pro basketball and Maurice Richard in hockey — guys who left their sport far different than they found it in terms of public acceptance. And the skinny kid from New England was the earliest of them.

That was a remarkable year, 1913 — the last before World War I plunged the planet into political cataclysm. Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated as 28th president of the United States. The 16th Amendment introduced Americans to the income tax. The Federal Reserve System was created. The first Model-T rolled off Henry Ford’s innovative assembly line. The Department of Labor was established. Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford were born, increasing a U.S. population of 92million. People still died of diseases like polio, diphtheria and smallpox, decreasing it.

In the games people played and watched, Knute Rockne and Gus Dorais demonstrated what a devastating weapon the forward pass could be as obscure Notre Dame shocked mighty Army 35-13 in football. Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics captured their third World Series in four years although Walter Johnson went 36-7 with a 1.14 ERA for the Washington Senators, the American League runners-up.

There was, of course, no NFL, NBA or NHL.

Nothing else in sports, however, had quite the impact of what today might be called “The Francis and Eddie Show.”

To play in the U.S. Open, Ouimet merely crossed his street in suburban Boston to the Country Club of Brookline. He had not planned to play in the Open, but USGA president Robert Watson convinced him to try. Yet all the attention was focused on Britain’s legendary Vardon, who won the tournament 13 years earlier in his only appearance, and the long-hitting Ray.

As the golfers splashed through the final stages of the fourth round in a steady rain, the upstart Ouimet was the only one with a chance to catch the two Britons, who were in the clubhouse at 304. He needed a birdie on either of the last two holes. On No.17, he hit his approach to 15 feet, then sank a downhill, curling putt to tie for the lead. After parring the 18th, he was carried off on the shoulders of excited fans.

In the next day’s playoff, Francis — and Eddie — changed the world of golf forever.

Born to a working class family in 1893, Ouimet got his introduction to golf toting bags for country club members at 25 cents a round. He learned to play in a pasture behind his house, sometimes sneaking onto the Country Club course before dawn to try a legitimate course. After his stunning Open victory, he won the U.S. Amateur in 1914 and 1931. He played on the Walker Cup team from 1922 to 1934 and was non-playing captain from 1936 to 1949.

Golf’s Hall of Fame elected Ouimet as a charter member in 1944. Seven years later, he became the first non-Briton elected captain of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Scotland. He founded a scholarship fund for caddies that eventually distributed $400,000. When Ouimet died of a heart attack at age 74 in 1967, his place in the annals of the game was secure.

Ironically, little Eddie Lowery shared in the sport’s signal moment by accident. His brother Jack, Ouimet’s regular caddie, had been told by a truant officer to be in school or else the week of the Open, but Eddie had been given no such warning. So according to author Frost, Eddie took three streetcars to Brookline and told Francis 10 minutes before tee time that Jack wasn’t available. Francis thanked him for coming and started to walk away.

“I could caddie for ya,” Eddie said.

Ouimet shook his head. “You’re shorter than my bag. You can’t do this.”

“Yes, I can.”

Finally convinced, or perhaps just desperate, Ouimet capitulated. On the first hole, Frost says, “Francis’ hand was shaking so badly he could barely get the ball on the tee. And he duck-hooked his first shot 40 yards into the grass.”

Eddie grabbed Ouimet by the tie and said brashly, “Now look, Francis, ya gotta settle down. We’re not going anywhere unless you focus.”

This might not be precisely what was said — who knows? At any rate, Ouimet was on his way to fame if not fortune — he never became a pro player — and little Eddie rode along as “the kid who carried the bag.”

Like Ouimet, Lowery became a successful businessman long before his death at age 81 in 1984. And when the USGA celebrated its centennial in 1995, images of Ouimet and Lowery were featured on a commemorative medal as significant symbols of the sport they loved.

Better ones would be hard to imagine.

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