“A Heart of Oak and Nerves of Steel”: A Look Back at Golf’s Greatest Upset and the Local Hero of the 1913 U.S. Open
This year's U.S. Open marked the 100th anniversary of one of golf’s most memorable moments: the incredible performance of a 20-year-old amateur in the same event in 1913. Francis Ouimet’s win—the most unexpected victory in golf and perhaps all sports—can be relived in the pages of America’s Historical Newspapers.
Ouimet, a native of Brookline, Massachusetts, had grown up in poor economic circumstances and in 1913 was working at a neighborhood sports store. As the reigning Amateur Champion of Massachusetts, Ouimet was qualified to compete in the 1913 Open. Yet no one expected him to do well; the two best players in the world—British professionals Harry Vardon and Ted Ray—were competing. Vardon had won five British Opens and the 1900 U.S. Open. In the spring of 1913, he and Ray were barnstorming the United States, playing exhibition matches. Many expected their tour to conclude with one of them winning the U.S. championship.
Vardon and Ray didn’t know that Ouimet had grown up right across the street from The Country Club of Brookline, where the 1913 tournament would be played. Even if they had known Oiumet had caddied there and knew the course intimately, they probably wouldn’t have been worried; they had the experience the local youngster lacked.
The scene was set for a thrilling championship due to the large number of talented golfers that came to compete. The Boston Journal reported on September 15, 1913:
The quality of golf to be witnessed on American links has greatly improved in the last ten years. The figures to be gleaned from the national tournaments are proof positive of this. But Vardon and Ray are both capable of playing championship golf every day of the week.
Before the Open could start, the large field had to be winnowed through two days of qualifying rounds. Half the golfers played on Tuesday, the second half on Wednesday, and the top 32 golfers from each day would play in the tournament. The tournament itself would be on Thursday and Friday, with 36 holes played each day. On September 8, 1913, the Boston Journal explained:
One week from tomorrow close to 150 of the best golfers in the United States and Canada, together with three of England’s best and a Frenchman of the front rank, will gather at Clyde Park for the first day’s play in the preliminary for the open championship of the United States Golf Association....
Not since a championship was first played in this country has it been necessary for the association to hold qualifying rounds, but this year with Vardon, Ray and Reid from England, and Louis Tellier from France, added interest has been taken, with the result that a record-breaking field entered....
Last Thursday Harry Vardon stated in a talk with some friends that, while the course at the Country Club was a good one it was by no means the hardest he had yet encountered in this country. That may all be true, but despite that fact there are many who consider the course at Brookline as on a par with the best in this country and the equal of many abroad. When play finally starts in the championship, the tees will have been set back so that a full 6600 yards will be found in the round. In addition several new traps have been put in since some of the competitors saw the place and in many ways improvements have been made which makes it an even harder course than some imagine.
An article on the same day in the Salt Lake City Evening Telegram noted the participation of amateurs, but not Ouimet:
This year’s open championship of the United States Golf association, which will begin next Tuesday on the links of the Country club [sic] at Brookline, Mass., promises to be thoroughly international in character. There are 175 entries on the list.
This event never has been won by an amateur, but several prominent nonprofessionals have entered this year, including the four time winner of the amateur national title, Jerome D. Travers of Upper Montclair, N.J.; James G. Anderson, Braeburn, Mass., the runner up to Travers last Saturday, and W.C. Fownes, Jr., of Pittsburg, a former national champion.
Ouimet survived the qualifying rounds to play in the tournament. On Sept. 17, 1913, the Boston Journal praised his performance, although he was behind Vardon after the first 36 qualifying holes.
A slight attack of rattles, not five minutes in duration, cost Francis Ouimet, the wonderful young Brookline amateur, the greatest honor that might ever come to him in a golf tournament, and allowed Harry Vardon, many times champion of Great Britain, to head the field of professionals and amateurs in the first half of the qualification for the open championship of the United States at the Country Club yesterday. Vardon led Ouimet by a single stroke at the end of 36 holes. He scored 151 to 152 for Ouimet.
By leading the field at the end of 18 holes, Ouimet achieved a distinction that has never before been the lot of an amateur in the open championship of the U.S.G.A., and surely no amateur, in this country at least, has ever headed the wonderful Vardon in a championship contest.
So it was on to the tournament.
On Sept. 19, 1913, the Morning Oregonian led their story about the first day this way:
Playing golf of a caliber seldom seen in America, two of the trio of English professionals forged to the front today in the first half of the 19th annual open tournament of the United States Golf Association, and at dusk led the field by a margin of two strokes.
Harry Vardon and Wilfrid Reid turned in cards of 147 for the first 36 holes. Edward Ray divided second place with Herbert Strong, of the Inwood Club, of Inwood, N.Y., each having 149....After the leaders came a long list of professionals, broken here and there by the name of a prominent amateur.
Francis Oiumet had the honor of showing the way for the amateurs with a card of 151, which placed him in a tie...for fourth place...
Two rounds and one day of play remained. At the end of it, Ouimet had tied Ray and Vardon. On Sept. 20, 1913, the Colorado Springs Gazette reported:
An American youth—a stripling scarcely out of his ‘teens—carved a niche for himself in international sporting history here today....As the result of his exhibition of nerve and golfing skill he will be America’s sole representative in 18-hole three-ball medal play off of the tie which exists tonight...
When the spectators realized that in this homebred amateur, born and brought up on the edge of the County club course, rested America’s chance of winning the championship, they lost that placid attitude that ordinarily marks the golf galleries and rooted and cheered Ouimet in a manner typical of baseball and football games.
The scenes that attended Ouimet’s march over the last four holes have never been equaled on an American or European golf course.
Enthusiasm ran the gamut from despair to elation. When Ouimet’s second shot on the 18th hole landed dead on the edge of the home green, 5,000 spectators massed themselves in a gigantic ring of breathless humanity about Ouimet and his playing partner, George Sargent. The American youth need to hole out in one to win and in two to tie. He gazed long down into the bowl where the cup lay, dried his hands and made a 35-foot putt that just missed the hole and rolled three feet beyond. A sigh arose from the crowd and all was still again. Ouimet gently tapped the ball again. Slowly it rolled to the edge of the hole, curled around the lip for an inch or so and then dropped in for the four which tied him with Ray and Vardon.
Instantly a tremendous yell went up. The gallery swept past ropes and guards and closed in on Ouimet in a solid phalanx. He was lifted to the shoulders of the advance guard and carried toward the club house surrounded by several thousand cheering, yelling golfers who forgot their golf in the enthusiasm of being just Americans cheering an American victory. Many, not realizing that Ouimet was an amateur, thrust bills of large denominations at him only to be met with a smile and a shake of the head...
This joyful reaction to Ouimet’s putt was achieved by his merely tying the two Englishmen. The three playoff-bound golfers had each scored 304 strokes for 72 holes—an average of 76 strokes each for 18 holes.
A final day was needed for an 18-hole playoff, which Ouimet won, scoring 72, five strokes better than Vardon and six better than Ray.
A photograph on the front page of the Sept. 21 Sunday Herald (the Boston Herald’s Sunday edition) captured the elation of his “admirers carrying him off the course.” The accompanying article by Walter E. Murphy began:
From caddy a few years back to conqueror of Harry Vardon and Edward Ray of England, two of the greatest golfers that ever lived, was the unparalleled and deserved triumph of Francis Ouimet of the Woodland Golf Club yesterday at The Country Club in the play-off of the tie for the open championship of the United States Golf Association. It was victory for an amateur that is unprecedented in the history of competitive golf.
Ouimet’s total for the 18 holes was 72, Vardon’s 77 and Ray’s 78. The win of the American boy sets forth one of the most notable chapters in the narrative of international competition between the United States and England...
Ouimet won absolutely on his merit. It was no fluke, no flash in the pan. He used his head as well as he played his strokes. The fact that a gallery of about 7000 men and women on all sides of him did not concern the player in the least. When in front of the two Englishmen with but one stroke lead, he went after every hole. He knew his own power better than did any of his partisans. He analyzed every situation at a glance and adapted his game perfectly to the occasion, until near the close of the match it may be said that Vardon broke up. His great game left him. The hero of a thousand tournaments confronted by a lad with a heart of oak and nerves of steel...
Ouimet’s victory increased interest in golf in this country. More people took up the game, and more courses, both private and public, were built.
His stunning win did not completely change Ouimet’s life. He remained an amateur golfer and continued to compete. In 1914 he successfully defended his Massachusetts Amateur title before winning the U.S. Amateur title. He won the U.S. Amateur title again in 1931, after Bobby Jones retired from golf. In 1951 he was named Captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, the first non-Briton to be so honored.
Ouimet continued living in Massachusetts, eventually becoming a banker and stock broker. Nearly three decades after his dramatic win, Oiumet and his caddy, Eddie Lowery, “now a successful San Francisco business man,” sat with the sportswriter Grantland Rice to discuss the game. Lowery had been ten years old that weekend in Brookline. He had skipped school to caddy the final two rounds, as he explained in this interview which appeared in the Seattle Daily Times on Dec. 12, 1940:
“As I recall it,” Eddie said, “the three were all even as they passed the turn. I could see a worried look on the faces of both Vardon and Ray. They had expected 20-year-old kid to crack wide open. But here he was cooler than ever. He didn’t watch their drives. He just kept playing his own game. Then on the tenth hole both Vardon and Ray took three putts and Ouimet was out in front. They all played fine golf the next few holes, and then big Ted Ray was the first to break up. This left the battle between Francis and the great Harry.
“It was Vardon who finally couldn’t stand the strain and the fast pace any longer as he, too, cracked and Francis with a birdie picked up two more strokes. He was still as cool and still unruffled as if he was playing a dime Nassau with two old pals.”
Rice concluded his story by calling the victory “the greatest single day American golf has ever known.”
In 1963, on the 50th anniversary of Ouimet’s win, the U.S. Open returned to The Country Club of Brookline. Once again there was a three-way tie. Julius Boros defeated Arnold Palmer and Jacky Cupit to win at the age of 43. Ouimet, now in his seventies and known as “the father of amateur golf,” was alive to see the tournament return to the scene of his stunning victory, the course on which he had taught himself the game, only steps from his childhood home.