Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 16, 2022

Memories Abound, With More On The Way

A NOTE TO READERS:  On Sports and Life will be attending the men’s United States Open this weekend.  The next post will be on Monday, one day later than usual.  Thanks for your support.

Though it might seem odd, while walking the layout at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, as 141 professionals and 15 amateurs make their final preparations for the 122nd Men’s U.S. Open Championship, what comes to mind is a movie.  Even more unexpected is that the film scene running through one’s head is not from “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” the well-received 2005 flick about amateur Francis Ouimet’s stunning victory on these grounds in the 1913 national championship, a win that ignited golf’s popularity in this country. 

Rather it is from an older movie about a different sport, the classic 1989 fantasy “Field of Dreams.”  That film climaxes with a soliloquy that many baseball fans know by heart, even though it is merely a bit of movie script.  James Earl Jones, in the role of reclusive author Terrence Mann, speaks of the cultural influence of the Great Game, and says in part, “The memories will be so thick, they’ll have to brush them away from their faces.”  That is the recurring thought, for one is indeed tempted to try and physically fan away the images of golfing history that appear at so many locations around this ancient venue.

One materializes right over there, just across the fairway of the 17th hole, in the crook of the dogleg on the par-4 hole.  Populating that hard turn to the left, as seen from the tee, are four bunkers waiting to capture drives that arrogantly seek too much of a shortcut across the bend in the fairway.  One of those bunkers did its defensive best against England’s Harry Vardon in 1913, swallowing his attempt to intimidate the 20-year-old Ouimet.  By that September Vardon had earned the title “champion golfer of the year” five times with triumphs in the Open Championship and had claimed this country’s national prize in 1900.  He and fellow Jerseyman Ted Ray were expected to outclass any of the American entrants, especially a spindly amateur who first traversed the course as a shortcut to school from his home directly across Clyde Street from the 17th. 

But there was Ouimet, tied with the English pair after three rounds, and still tied after all 72 holes of regulation, forcing an 18-hole playoff.  By the time the threesome came to the penultimate hole, Ouimet was at even par for the round and clinging to a one-shot advantage over Vardon, with Ray effectively eliminated at plus-5.  With the honor on the tee from a birdie four holes earlier, Vardon launched his drive down the left side and over the trees, which in that day blocked any view of the landing area.  Ouimet knew that if Vardon’s ball had carried the bunkers, it was likely sitting in the middle of the fairway with just a short pitch to the green and a possible birdie.  But the local hero and Eddie Lowery, his 10-year-old caddy, chose not to take the bait.  Ouimet took the longer route, hitting safely straight down the middle of the fairway, and his potential disadvantage turned golden when the golfers arrived at the landing area to find Vardon’s ball deep in one of the sand traps while Ouimet’s was sitting pretty on the short grass.  Minutes later it was the local amateur scoring the crucial birdie while England’s finest recorded a bogey that all but decided the outcome.

On the same green where those scores were made, more recent history arises.  There is Justin Leonard facing a 40-foot putt for birdie, with many other members of the 1999 U.S. Ryder Cup team looking on.  It is the final day of the biennial matches, one that began with the host team in a deep hole, trailing the visiting Europeans 10-6.  No team had ever won the Cup from such a deficit at the start of the Sunday singles matches.  Yet despite being clad in the ugliest golf shirts in Ryder Cup history, the Americans rallied, winning the first seven matches to storm into the lead.  Still when Europe captured a couple of late games, the outcome remained in doubt.  Team USA needed Leonard, who had trailed Jose Maria Olazabal on the front nine, to at least tie his match.  The American whittled the Spaniard’s advantage bit by bit over the inward nine, until the two were knotted on the 17th green.   That set up the moment that seemed so utterly unlikely when the day began, as Leonard rolled in his cross-country birdie effort, setting off a wild celebration.  When order was eventually restored and Olazabal proved unable to match his opponent from 25 feet, the U.S. comeback was complete.

Other memories arise all across the rolling property.  A long walk from the 17th is the composite hole formed for major championships by having contestants play down the 1st fairway of the Primrose Nine to the 2nd green of The Country Club’s newest nine holes, if a routing opened in 1927 can be called such.  The hole will feature as the 13th this year, but for the 1963 U.S. Open it played as number 11.  Julius Boros safely navigated it in par during that year’s playoff, while Jacky Cupit made bogey and Arnold Palmer returned a disastrous triple.  And yes, there they are now, the crowd of fans who proudly called themselves Arnie’s Army.  Suddenly deflated, they trudge after their hero to the next tee, knowing that his dream of a second national title has just come a cropper.

More history will be made this weekend of course.  The old course, built decades before managing massive crowds of spectators was a factor in golf course design, will be a mob scene in places.  At those spots most fans in attendance will see less than someone sitting at home.  But there are two aspects of The Country Club that even the finest high-definition flatscreen won’t convey. 

The first is its sheer size.  Such an expansive layout dedicated to golf, along with the club’s other recreations – it was founded, after all, a decade before the first holes were laid out, with a focus on horse racing – could never be developed in a modern urban setting.  Yet The Country Club’s rambling yellow clubhouse is little more than six miles as the crow flies, or about a two-hour drive in typical Boston traffic, from Fenway Park, Faneuil Hall, the Boston Common, and other landmarks in the heart of the city.  That speaks to the age of a club that was one of the five founding members of the USGA.  In 1882, what are now the densely packed neighborhoods of Brookline, Chestnut Hill, and West Roxbury that surround The Country Club were but country outposts, and a multi-hour trip from the downtown of a much smaller Boston was not a joke about traffic jams but the reality of rural roads and the transportation options of the time.

The course’s other notable characteristic is its rugged simplicity.  Oh sure, viewers will see the rock outcroppings and knee-high fescue.  But many will miss the ragged edges of the bunkers and the sloping false fronts of several greens, and, because television flattens landscapes, fans at home will not appreciate the steep hills and canted fairways that heavily affect club choice while producing frequent blind shots.  The Country Club is a reminder that long before golf course architects shaped the land to their desires, a links simply reflected the ground on which it was built.  It is golf in its natural state, a place where memories live forever.

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