Read an Excerpt
The Greatest Game Ever Played Harry Vardon, Francis Ouimet, and the Birth of Modern Golf
By Mark Frost
Hyperion Books Copyright © 2002 Good Comma Ink Inc.
All right reserved. ISBN: 0786869208
It begins with the simplicity of a fairy tale.
A small boy, combing through fields of grass for buried treasure, uncovers a magical talisman: a gleaming white ball, pristine, perfectly round, untouched by wear. Two words emblazoned on its cover: VARDON FLYER. That name, so suggestive of powerful, confident, dreamlike flight, burns itself into the boy's impressionable psyche. After seven- year-old Francis Ouimet races home to place the ball in the dented tin box that guards his growing cache of riches, the VARDON FLYER immediately becomes his most prized possession. A gift from an unknown god named Vardon.
Geography may be destiny, but in the case of Francis Ouimet, destiny may have been more a result of real estate. The day before Harry Vardon's twenty-third birthday in 1893 - the year he entered his first British Open Championship - Francis DeSales Ouimet was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, a sleepy Boston suburb. Four years later, his family purchased a modest little two-story clapboard house directly across from The Country Club, on a dusty dirt road called Clyde Street.
Francis's father, Arthur Ouimet, a French-Canadian Catholic immigrant, depended on oddjobs to make ends meet; occasionally he'd find them as a coachman or gardener for The Country Club's affluent members. After six generations in Quebec, Arthur was the first of his family to leave Montreal, fleeing the oppressive thumb of the English-Protestant majority to seek his fortune in America; what he found instead was heart- break. Uneducated, his English clotted with a thick Quebecois accent, the best Arthur could manage in Massachusetts was a life of menial labor governed by the subtle but still profound prejudices of the nineteenth-century Boston gentry. Bostonians called this wave of immigrants "Frenchies," consigning them to servile positions that the city's second-generation Irish no longer considered suitable to their rising station.
After establishing himself on Brookline's lower margins, at the age of twenty-eight Arthur Ouimet fell in love and married a beautiful Irish girl named Mary Mahoney. Three years later Mary died in childbirth and their sickly child, named Joseph after Arthur's father, followed her in death only ten weeks later. The disaster scarred Arthur for life; from that point forward he was described only as a cold, hardworking man with a hot and ready temper. He married again in 1888, to another Irish lass, twenty- seven-year-old Brookline native Mary Ellen Burke. Although she was a warm, loving, and infinitely patient woman, for Arthur this second marriage exuded less romance than an air of nineteenth-century practicality, creating a family in order to solidify his economic standing. Within eight years Mary gave him four children: Wilfred, the oldest by three years, then Francis, a daughter, Louise, and finally Raymond, the youngest, born in the house on Clyde Street that Arthur had bought that year. Haunted by nightmarish visions of sliding back down into abject poverty, Arthur had nevertheless put enough aside to buy some of the vacant land behind the house as well. They raised chickens, grew vegetables, sank their own well. Arthur drummed into his children the hard necessity of contributing to the family's welfare; his oldest son, Wilfred, began to caddy at The Country Club not long after the Ouimets moved into their new home.
The house on Clyde Street sat directly across from The Country Club's seventeenth fairway and green, the sight Francis woke to every morning outside his second-floor bedroom window. Soon after they moved in, his mother used to routinely find Francis, at the age of four, standing across the street, staring at players on the fairway through a stand of beech trees. He didn't know how, he could never later even adequately explain why, but from his first glance, Francis found the forms and rituals of the game mesmerizing. Golf seeped into his young mind; it may be no exaggeration to say Francis was America's first golf addict who grew up with the game. His family's earliest recollection of the boy would be right at home in a nineteenth-century tall tale, befitting the kind of legends told about Mike Fink or Paul Bunyan; he walked around the house crying for his brother Wilfred's first golf club. When he finally got his hands on it - a cut-down driver, nearly as tall as he was - Francis spent countless hours swinging that club in their backyard. He began attending the one-room Putterham Schoolhouse the following year, and discovered a trespassing shortcut that traversed The Country Club's fairways. Francis soon developed an uncanny eye for locating lost golf balls on his daily commute and by the age of seven had amassed that precious trove he kept in the old gingersnap tin under his bed.
Francis and Wilfred began their playing careers on the seldom traveled dirt surface of Clyde Street in front of the Ouimet home, digging out holes with the heels of their boots at the base of two streetlamps a hundred yards apart, knocking balls endlessly back and forth. Before they made much headway as players, they turned themselves into golf course architects. When their father brought home a new lawn mower to use on his gardening jobs, the boys waited until Arthur was away at work, then appropriated the mower to hack a primitive three-hole course out of the overgrown cow pasture behind their house.
The first hole required a hundred-yard carry off the tee over a creek to a small oval green. The second provided a breather, a fifty-yard par three. The third returned back across the creek to a circular green they stamped into their own backyard. Before long that home green required no mowing at all; they trampled it so often, they wore out the grass. Tin cans from the family kitchen served as cups. Their equipment consisted of Wilfred's one club and Francis's hoard of lost balls. He was fortunate The Country Club continually replenished his supply because their training ground demanded unerring accuracy; it consisted more of hazard than fairway - marsh, gravel pit, swamp, high weeds. Hitting any ball more than a few yards off line into the unknown wilderness meant kissing it good-bye. Francis said later that as a result of learning the game on this primitive lay- out, every real course he subsequently played, no matter how ragged the fairways or threadbare the putting surfaces, felt as luxurious to him as White House lawns and green felt billiard tables.
Francis found little companionship at first for his mysterious attraction to the game; American golf was only five years older than he was, making him both prodigy and pioneer. The same could be said for the club across the street that sparked and nurtured his obsession; only a handful of courses in the United States predate The Country Club and few that came into existence afterward ever took to the game with equal alacrity. Because they opened their doors in 1882, The Country Club at Brookline makes an airtight argument for itself as sui generis; they were a club and it was in the country, hence its members became the first American organization to use the now generically applied name for private sporting establishments. But they didn't start out playing golf. Although The Country Club immediately attracted a solid, prosperous membership of Boston Brahmins, the Scottish game was still six years away from setting down roots in New England soil; horse racing and riding at hounds were The Country Club's original organizing interests. The hundred acres they acquired for that purpose centered around a half-mile racetrack called Clyde Park that had been in continuous operation since the 1860s. The legal structure of The Country Club allowed its members to assume financial responsibility for an annual racing season that filled the track's grandstand with spectators from miles around at fifty cents a head; with that income underwriting their ambitions, facilities for target shooting, archery, tennis, polo, ice-skating, and curling soon followed. A simple two-story roadhouse and former hotel on a bluff overlooking the heart of the property became their clubhouse, and over the years expanded in all directions into the genteel, rambling, pale yellow mansion that still plays host to its members today.
In March of 1893, two months before the birth of that boy who'd soon be scavenging her fairways, in response to increasing member curiosity The Country Club added a rudimentary six-hole golf course that leapfrogged back and forth around the racetrack. Built in its entirety for the modest sum of fifty dollars spent on a few bags of grass seed, sand for primitive bunkers, and nine tin cans for holes. When early enthusiasts conducted their first exhibition of the game that spring, golf at The Country Club made an astonishing debut, hinting at the magic to come. The first shot struck off the first tee by a Mr. Arthur Hunnewell ran like a scared rabbit ninety yards to the green and dove neatly into the cup for a hole in one. Since no one knew any better, the small crowd who had turned out to watch the proceedings didn't even react; since they'd been given to understand that putting the ball in the hole was the whole point of the exercise, they just assumed this was business as usual. Arthur Hunnewell played golf passionately for another thirty years. He never scored another ace in his life.
Excerpted from The Greatest Game Ever Played by Mark Frost Copyright © 2002 by Good Comma Ink Inc.
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.