Despite U.S. Open victory, Ouimet remained gracious, humble

At a time when golf was dominated by the Brits and the game was only for the elite, Francis Ouimet and his 10-year-old caddie, Eddie Lowery, scripted an incredible story by winning the 1913 U.S. Open.

Given the width of separation – 120 years from his birth, nearly 100 years from his epic U.S. Open triumph and almost 46 years since he died – few people alive can say they met Francis Ouimet.

So how is it that so many can’t forget him?

Ouimet was of niblicks and mashies, spades and spoons – instruments foreign to nearly all of us. But he also was of dignity and grace, conscience and character – qualities still at the core of our being.

What he accomplished on those September days in 1913 – a 20-year-old who walked across the street from his home to The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., where he had caddied just a few years before, to not only play in the U.S. Open but to win it – is why Ouimet’s memory is still feted.

But it is what he did for the next 54 years that hits at the essence of the man. He never lived off his celebrity.

• • •

It is no question to ask a lady, but then Barbara McLean laughs.

She says she is 92, and while “I can’t get around like I used to, from the neck up, I’m fine.”

Her father was “just Dad, a very, very modest man,” and for most of their childhoods, Barbara and sister Jane – both of whom live on Cape Cod – never knew the grandness of what Francis Ouimet had accomplished as a young man.

At a time when golf was dominated by the Brits and the game was only for the elite, Ouimet and his 10-year-old caddie, Eddie Lowery, scripted an incredible story. In the aftermath of their playoff triumph over the greatest players of the day, Britons Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, it has been said that 2 million people began playing golf in the United States, and Ouimet has been hailed as the “Father of American Golf.” A true American sports icon.

But to McLean, Francis Ouimet was the man who greeted them in the mornings at breakfast and sat at the dinner table in the evenings. “Always, he would ask, ‘How was school today?’ He never talked about himself,” McLean said.

Later, when she attended a local college, McLean said she would drive with her father from their home in Wellesley to the public-transportation stop. “He took the train to work; I took the car to my college classes. I should have been the one taking the subway.”

• • •

Kids turn pro before they can shave. Parents re-mortgage homes to turn their kids into athletes. It’s our world, so how are we expected to comprehend and appreciate the time in which Ouimet lived?

No media blitz, no agent, no endorsement deals. A national hero, yes, but then he melted into society, seamlessly and proudly. Ouimet served a few years in the Army, married Stella Sullivan in 1918 and opened a sporting-goods store with his brother-in-law, Jack Sullivan.

Never a wealthy man, Ouimet was extravagantly rich in friends. Many reached out to him, including Charles Francis Adams, a self-made man who was awarded the Boston Bruins NHL franchise in 1924. Adams brought Ouimet into the organization in 1931, naming him president of the Boston Tigers, a minor-league team that played in the Canadian-American Hockey League. Ouimet’s first action: Reduce ticket prices.

In the late 1930s, Ouimet was part of a syndicate that bought stock into Adams’ ownership of the National League’s Boston Braves. They sold their interest in 1944.

All the while, Ouimet had gravitated into the world of investments. He worked for Harrison & Bromfield, then for White, Weld & Co., until 1954, when at age 61, he joined Brown Brothers Harriman.

John Sears sat at a desk next to Ouimet and is one of the few people alive who can say he knew the man and played golf with him.

“He was the most wonderful person on the golf course,” said Sears, some 40 years younger than Ouimet and later a notable Boston politician. “He was a grand soul but never wanted to be treated like one.”

A favorite Sears story points to how Ouimet never was ashamed of where he came from. At dinner one night with Sears and Herbert Jaques, a renowned New England industrialist and former USGA president, Ouimet had the attention of a young waitress.

“She was really hovering over him, and Mr. Jaques asked Francis if he should tell the woman to stop bothering him. Francis smiled and said, ‘Bothering me? I’m thrilled to death to see my sister.’ ”

Born May 8, 1893, to Arthur Ouimet, a French-Canadian immigrant, and Mary Ellen (Burke), of Irish descent, Francis Ouimet had two brothers and a sister. In a world without conveniences, the Ouimets had even less.

Arthur Ouimet didn’t care that Francis had won the State Amateur or made it to the second round of the U.S. Amateur weeks earlier. When the 1913 U.S. Open rolled around and Francis was being pushed to enter, the father sternly said no.

Yet young Francis not only played, he produced “the most significant U.S. Open,” in the eyes of David Fay, former executive director of the USGA.

Ouimet trailed Vardon by four strokes through 36 holes, but a third-round 74 pulled him into a three-way tie. Ouimet, Vardon and Ray shot fourth-round 79s to set up the playoff.

The scores are etched in eternity: Ouimet, 72; Vardon, 77; Ray, 78.

Ouimet had enlisted the services of Jack Lowery as his caddie, but the 12-year-old was hauled in by a truant officer. Lowery’s 10-year-old brother, Eddie, who managed to escape the officer, was hired and received a warm endorsement on that final day, when a club member insisted Francis Ouimet employ a real caddie.

Ouimet smiled. “I’ll stick with Eddie,” he said.

• • •

Sweet symmetry entered the Ouimet story a few years ago, when Caitlin Wallerce went on a job interview at the Boston office of Brown Brothers Harriman. Venerable doesn’t begin to describe this institution; it dates to 1818, the oldest private bank in the United States. Never during the interview nor for years after she had been hired did Wallerce mention why walking past or into BBH’s most private board room, the “Francis Ouimet Room,” filled her with enormous pride.

The great man was her great-grandfather.

“My mother (Sheila Macomber) and my grandmother (Barbara McLean) have told me stories, so I know what kind of person he was,” Wallerce said. “He was true to himself.”

BBH is where Ouimet guarded financial investments for Ken Venturi, Lowery (who became a multimillion-dollar auto dealer in San Francisco) and so many other friends who had entrusted him.

Never did he fail them, but neither did he flash his achievements. Sears marveled at that about Ouimet. He knew of the legendary golf career – the 1913 epic, of course, as well as the 1914 and 1931 U.S. Amateur titles; the nine semifinal appearances in the national amateur; the 1914 French Amateur victory; the six Massachusetts Amateur crowns; 12 Walker Cups as player or captain; and the third-place finish in 1925, when he played in his sixth and final U.S. Open.

Human dignity made Ouimet special, Sears said, and it’s why luminaries such as Bobby Jones stayed close.

Jones had lost to Ouimet in 1920, their inaugural meeting in the U.S. Amateur, but the next three matches were decidedly in favor of Jones (1924, ’26, ’27; twice by 11-and-10, once by 6-and-5). Yet just as a rising pro out of New York named Gene Sarazen turned to Ouimet for mentorship, so, too, did Jones.

“I can remember those times when I’d answer the phone and tell my father that Mr. Jones was calling, his eyes would light up,” McLean said.

His friendships extended to the White House, too, because in the 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower asked Ouimet to come out to Palm Springs, Calif., for some golf. The late Stokley Towles, a former BBH partner, recalled that story in “The Communicator Yearbook.” It seems Ouimet’s request was turned down by company partner Louis Curtis, who said: “I do not recall that the firm does any business with the president of the United States.”

When the White House relented and sent Air Force One to Boston, Ouimet went. “But I’m sure they made him take a day off,” Sears said, laughing.

Later, when Ouimet was made the first American-born captain of the R&A, it was Eisenhower who produced the painting of Ouimet in the red jacket.

Jones, Sarazen and Walter Hagen were three of the first four men inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Ouimet, who died in 1967, rounded out the brilliant foursome, a testament not only to how he had played the game but for how he had lived his life.

“He was the great boy,” wrote Herbert Warren Wind, “who became a great man.”

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