By Kyle Phillips
Retired Executive Director for Education & Global Development for the PGA, based at the Belfry from 1999- 2017, and member of Axe Cliff Golf Club
Although it was 30 years before anyone outside of Scotland won the Open, and a further 31years before anyone outside of Europe was victorious, the period immediately after World War 1 saw a regular stream of winners from the USA.
This was a clear indication of their growing strength as a golfing nation, a strength which can be seen today with an American player winning each of the three majors played in 2020.
This interest in golf was largely sparked by British (mostly Scottish) professionals going over to north America in the last quarter of the 19th Century. They would play exhibition matches, tournaments and also taught interested locals from America and Canada.
Many of these professionals stayed and established a new life for themselves, just as they had come together in Britain in 1901 to form The Professional Golfers Association. As they set up shop in their new territories, they formed new national PGAs. The PGA of Canada was formed in 1911 and the PGA of America five years later.
The United States Golf Association (USGA), which was established to set the rules and organise tournaments, had been created in 1895 and historically have been the rule-makers for golf in the USA and Mexico, with the Royal and Ancient in Scotland (R&A) setting the rules for the rest of the world. While this could have been a recipe for disaster, the two organisations have worked together more and more over the years and in effect, the rules are now the same.
The USGA set up their own national championship in 1895 and this soon became known as the US Open. Not surprisingly, the first few years were dominated by Scottish professionals, but since 1910 it has largely been a real stronghold for their homegrown players, with only a few international players becoming champions.
As with the Open, while amateur players could enter, they had little success against the professionals and no amateur has won since 1930. However, they did have more success than in Britain with four winners, one of whom, Bobby Jones, won it on four occasions and remains the only amateur to have won both these major championships. Jones also remains the only player to have achieved a Grand Slam of all four majors in the same year. As an amateur his slam, was the Amateur Championship, the Open, the US Open and the US Amateur in 1930. He backed himself to do this with British bookmakers before the first tournament at odds of 50 to 1 and collected more than $60,000, far more than the prize money for the two Opens. Jones retired from competitive golf after this feat.
While Bobby Jones came from the type of privileged background largely associated with amateur golfers in that period, another amateur, Francis Ouimet did not.
He grew up in a relatively poor household in Brookline, a suburb of Boston, close to the local country club. Ouimet became a caddy there and learned to play golf using clubs given to him and balls he found on the course. He quickly showed talent at the sport and became the best high-school golfer in the state. However, his father did not see golf as a suitable activity and he was forced to drop out of school to “do something useful” and so he started working in a sports shop.
He did continue his golf though and won some amateur tournaments. The 1913 US Open was to be played at Country Club by his home in Brookline and Ouimet, then aged 20, was persuaded to enter. The tournament had been delayed to allow Ted Ray and Harry Vardon to travel over from Britain as Vardon had won the Open five times by then and the US Open once and Ray, who had been the professional at Churston Golf Club in Devon at the turn of the century, had won the Open in 1912.
To cut a long and amazing story short, after four rounds Vardon, Ray and Ouimet were tied for first place and had to play a further 18 holes. What was also notable was that Ouimet had his friend, Eddie Lowery, who was only 10 years-old, as his caddie. Despite the championship experience of the two British professionals, it was the amateur Ouimet and his junior caddie who came out on top, beating Vardon by five shots and Ray by six shots. This made front page news nationwide and the success of this young amateur from a poor background against two giants of the game gave golf in America a further push.
Ouimet never turned professional; he became a stockbroker and continued to play the game with some success. He was the first non-British captain of the R&A and became known as the father of amateur golf in the USA. Eddie Lowery went on to become a multi-millionaire.
I only attended the US Open on two occasions as it is a tournament where fewer of the PGAs attend and it is a very different tournament to the Open. To begin with, there are very few links courses in the United States as we would recognise in this country and for many years the USGA rotated the venues around the country, embracing new courses as well as the well-established ones, also selecting from public courses as well as private. Perhaps following the example of Francis Ouimet, they wanted the US Open to be seen by as many people as they could to continue to encourage the growth of golf.
However, the USGA philosophy is now changing and they announced in 2020 that they intend to rotate their National Championship around a core number of ten courses. The Donald Ross designed course at Pinehurst,in the sand belt of North Carolina, became their “go to” venue every five or six years. By rotating their Championship, in the same way that the R&A does with the Open Championship in this country, they intend to offer the spectator the opportunity to witness the enhanced skills of the world’s best players performing on a properly established venue that will include Winged Foot in New York, Shinnecock Hills on Long Island, NY, Pebble Beach Golf Links on California’s Pacific Coast and Oakmont located close to the city of Pittsburgh….amongst others. The final round of the championship is normally played on Fathers’ Day.
They also have a tradition of wanting the winner to be the golfer who achieves par and so they have chosen a list of venues where the courses are very difficult even for the best players in the world. They do this by setting up the course in such a way that it rewards accurate shot-making with narrow fairways, letting the rough grow to penalise wayward shots and having very, very fast greens.
For example, the first US Open I attended in 2013 at Merion Golf Club, was won by Justin Rose who shot one over par, a score the USGA would have been happy with. But they don’t always get it right and the last one I attended, Erin Hills in 2017, Brooks Koepka won with a score 16 under par.
Attending those two events was special for me as they meant in those years, I had attended all four majors, achieving my own Grand Slam. Not quite in the league of Bobby Jones, but memorable for me. As the story of the little guy beating the big guys is so much a part of the American narrative, particularly if the big guys are British, the story of Francis Ouimet became the subject of a book and a film of the same name “The Greatest Game Ever Played” (Mark Frost). The book is historically pretty accurate, but as is the way with Hollywood, in the film they wanted a tense finish, so why let facts get in the way of a good story.
The subtitle for the book was “Vardon, Ouimet and the birth of modern golf”, indicating that this was the moment that encouraged a wider section of people, in America at least, to take up golf. While it had started off as a game played by shepherds, passing time while they kept an eye on their sheep by hitting a stone with their crooks at a distant target, it did get taken over by the landed gentry in the 18th and 19th Centuries and then again by the upper middle class in the 20th Century.
Golf is now much more a game for everyone and can be accessed at a fairly low price. While young boys like Ouimet, and a more recently Open Champion Seve Ballesteros, who learned to play on the beach using only one club given to him by his brother, had to make do with very little.
Today golf is welcoming and anxious to encourage boys and girls to take up the sport. There will be more opportunities to learn to play at Axe Cliff in the spring and summer and anyone who want to give golf a try should contact the club and leave their details (email@example.com 01297 21754).
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