A Great Game of Golf a Century Later

Ouimet at the 1913 U.S. Open. Public Domain

Originally published on August 5, 2013

A hundred years ago, American golf changed dramatically. Long an elite sport played mainly by rich men, it became the sport we know today, a game that anybody can play.

The game-changer was an 18-hole playoff among two Brits and a 21-year-old American born to immigrant parents. The competition that played out on Sept. 20, 1913, has been called “the greatest game ever played.”

Francis Ouimet came from a modest upbringing in Brookline, Mass. In high school the self-taught Ouimet became the best student player in the state. To learn more about his early years, follow this link to his Wikipedia page.

When Ouimet teed off at the U.S. Open in 1913, golf was a rich man’s sport in the United States. A story that ran in the Bend Bulletin in 1906 will give you an idea how it was perceived:

“Many people are firmly convinced that no exercise can really do you good unless it is expensive. Most of the enthusiastic golf players I meet would, I am convinced, lose an immense part of their faith in the healthy influence of the game if they could not manage to spend $5 a day over it.” Professor E.T. Minnich (The Bend Bulletin – June 22, 1906, page 7). This was a time when the average salary for workers outside the farm sector was just over $600 a year.

The 1913 U.S. Open was a game for the ages. The tourney had been postponed from July to accommodate Britons Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, who were widely acclaimed as the two best players in the world.

Two rounds were played on Sept. 18 and two more the next day. With Vardon, Ray and Ouimet tied after 72 holes of play, everything came down to an 18-hole playoff round played on Sept. 20. In a stunning upset, captured in the Walt Disney movie “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” Ouimet clinched the tournament.

The American amateur’s surprise victory was big news back East and in Europe, but Oregon newspapers were not all impressed. The Bend Bulletin didn’t even report the event. Bulletin owner and editor George Palmer Putnam was more interested in irrigation and good roads — projects that, ironically, would prove essential to the establishment of golf courses in Bend years later.

The Klamath Falls Evening Herald did report the story. The front page of the Sept. 20, 1913, edition carried a photo of Ouimet swinging, with the headlines: “Former Caddy Now Golf Champion” and “Twenty Year Old Player Is Now Title Holder.”

Because Ouimet was an amateur and a long shot, his U.S. Open victory captured the imagination of the American golfer, helping the sport gain mass appeal. In 1913, only about 350,000 people played golf in the U.S. A decade later, 2.1 million Americans were hitting the links. Even Bend got into the swing of things with the opening of the Bend Golf Club in 1925.

A century later, the legacy of Francis Ouimet can be felt on greens all over the United States.

“His feat was one of the best of all times,” says Awbrey Glen golf pro Tim Fraley. “It is your classic David-versus-Goliath [story]. It gives hope to us all, especially the budding college golfer or older skilled amateur.”