Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 19, 2013

In The Footsteps Of Francis And Eddie

A NOTE TO READERS: As previously noted, this post was delayed in order to provide complete coverage of the U.S. Amateur Championship.

The first thought when the big shuttle bus made its lumbering turn onto Clyde Street in the moneyed Boston suburb of Brookline was that the driver had lost his way. This leafy residential lane, with its imposing homes half-hidden by tall fences and stone walls, seemed an unlikely location for a golfing mecca. But there down on the right was the unassuming driveway marked by an equally modest sign, the entrance to the historic links known simply as The Country Club.

Established by a group of Bostonians in 1882 as a place for horse racing and socializing in what was then rural countryside outside of the city, The Country Club was eleven years old before three members laid out the first 6 golf holes on the premises. A year later Scotland’s Willie Campbell was made club professional, and he oversaw an immediate expansion to 9 holes, and a few years later to 18. As golf’s popularity grew tensions arose between the club’s golfing members and those more interested in the ponies. Eventually the golfers won out and by the 1930s horse racing in Brookline was a thing of the past.

In 1894 The Country Club was one of the five charter members of the U.S. Golf Association. It hosted its first USGA national championship, the Women’s Amateur, in 1902. Since then it has been the venue for fifteen more USGA events, including two more Women’s Amateurs, both a Boy’s and a Girl’s Junior Amateur, two Walker Cups, three U.S. Opens and as of last week, six U.S. Amateur championships. It was also the site of the 1999 Ryder Cup.

Of all of the championship drama played out on the course’s fairways and greens, none had a greater impact on golf in this country than the 1913 U.S. Open. The USGA moved the Open from June to September that year to attract English titans Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, who were planning a fall exhibition tour through the U.S. Vardon had won the U.S. Open in 1900 and was a five-time winner of the Open Championship at home; while Ray was the current holder of the Open Championship’s Claret Jug. As the qualifying rounds began, the question for the sporting press in England and to a large extent even in this country, was not whether one of the two Englishmen would triumph, but merely which one.

That conventional wisdom appeared prescient when Vardon led after the first 36 holes of the tournament were played on Thursday, September 18th, with Ray just two shots behind. Four shots adrift and attracting little notice was an American amateur, Francis Ouimet. The 20-year old Ouimet lived with his parents on Clyde Street across from the 17th hole in what was then a considerably less tony Brookline, and growing up he had been a regular caddie at The Country Club. His local knowledge of the course proved invaluable when the final two rounds of the tournament were played in steady rain on Friday. Overcoming the adverse conditions Ouimet fired an even par 74 in the third round that moved him into a tie for the lead with the two Englishmen. Trailing by one when he came to the 17th in his final round late in the day, Ouimet sank a 20 foot birdie putt to restore the three-way tie and force a playoff the following day.

In that playoff the rail-thin amateur, with the diminutive 10-year old caddie Eddie Lowery toting his bag, stunned the sports world by thrashing the two Britons. Ouimet’s two-under par round of 72 was five shots better than Vardon and six ahead of Ray. The unlikely triumph was front page news across the country and is widely credited with spurring the growth and popularity of golf in this country.

To commemorate the centennial of that singular moment for American golf the USGA brought the Amateur Championship back to The Country Club. At the beginning of the week 312 golfers played two qualifying rounds to narrow the field to just 64 who would advance to single elimination match play. Of that number thirty percent were non-Americans, representing eleven different countries. By Friday the field was down to 8 quarterfinalists, including just three Americans. While non-Americans have won the Amateur, including four times in five years between 2005 and 2009, there was at least one American in the final in each of the previous 112 events. But by Friday evening the four semifinalists were two Australians, a Canadian, and an 18-year old Englishman.

The two Australians facing each other in one semifinal were Brady Watt and 19-year old Oliver Goss. The two friends had played against one another four times in major events in the past 16 months, with Goss winning each match. On Saturday after the shuttle bus from the remote parking area deposited me at The Country Club’s entrance, I watched as Watt tried in vain to finally turn the tables. With Goss 1-up Watt stuck a brilliant approach on the par-4 14th hole to within a foot of the pin for a conceded birdie. But Goss then calmly rolled in a 35 footer to match Watt’s three and maintain his lead. The 1-up lead remained intact all the way to the 18th green, where a last desperation chip by Watt slid wide of the hole.

In the other semifinal Corey Conners of Canada took an early lead, but Matt Fitzpatrick rallied in the middle of the round to go 1-up after the 10th hole. Fitzpatrick won the British Boys Championship in 2012 and was the low amateur at the Open Championship last month at Muirfield. With his younger brother Alex carrying his bag, Fitzpatrick was still 1-up when the match came to the 17th. There Conners put his drive in the Vardon bunker at the corner of the dogleg, just as the British great had done in the playoff with Ray and Ouimet a century earlier. Forced to lay up from there, the Canadian’s third shot was an outstanding pitch close to the hole for a likely par save. But before he could attempt it Fitzpatrick calmly rolled in a 20 foot birdie putt to close out the match and advance to the final against Goss.

After another bus ride on Sunday I caught the two remaining competitors midway through the first round of the 36 hole final. Goss was 1-up through 10 holes, but three-putted the 11th to lose his advantage and begin a see-saw portion of the match. Fitzpatrick claimed the lead with a marvelous birdie putt across the two-tiered 12th green; but bogeyed the 14th to return the match to all square. One hole later the young Englishman reclaimed the lead with an approach shot from 220 yards to 3 feet for another birdie. The morning 18 ended in dramatic fashion with both players in trouble at the last. Faced with a 25 foot downhill putt to save par, Fitzpatrick found the heart of the cup. Moments later, Goss matched him by holing a par saving chip from off the green.

As the final 18 holes began Goss quickly got back to all square when a nervous Fitzpatrick three-putted the first green. But just as quickly Fitzpatrick reclaimed and then doubled his advantage when Goss played both the 2nd and 3rd over par. The 2-up lead lasted until the 9th hole when Fitzpatrick’s approach fell short and left into heavy rough. But as he had all day, the teenager from Sheffield, England, immediately rallied and reclaimed his 2-up lead at the 10th. At the par-4 14th both players surveyed putts to save par, Goss from 10 feet and Fitzpatrick from 6. The Australian’s slid by the hole for bogey. When Fitzpatrick’s rattled into the cup, he was up by three with just four holes to play.

So they stood on the elevated tee of the par-4 15th, where Fitzpatrick had closed out each of his first four matches. His drive split the middle of the fairway, while Goss found the left hand rough. Regularly outdriven by 20 yards or more, the slender Fitzpatrick hit first and his iron came up short, in the narrow fairway neck leading to the green. But Goss was unable to seize the opportunity when his own approach flew long. Choosing to putt from the fairway, Fitzpatrick ran his third 8 feet past the hole; while Goss’s chip came to rest 5 feet from the cup. With his younger brother helping him read the green, Fitzpatrick stepped in and sent his ball rolling slowly toward the hole. Curling along the slope of the green, the ball finally disappeared for a par four. When Goss missed his own par save moments later, an Englishman had won the U.S. Amateur for the first time since 1911.

The outcome served to remind that real life is always more remarkable than any work of fiction. One hundred years after a great American triumph no Americans played on the weekend at The Country Club. Where Francis Ouimet and little Eddie Lowery formed a friendship that lasted for life, another rail-thin amateur with his diminutive little brother toting his bag drove and chipped and putted his way to victory. Where a 20-year old American toppled two British giants, an 18-year old Englishman turned back all challengers. When USGA President Glen Nager handed Matt Fitzpatrick the golden Havemeyer Trophy, surely somewhere Harry Vardon and Ted Ray were joined in a chorus of “God Save the Queen.”

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