MAYBE more than any other sport, golf likes to pay homage to its roots and genteel history. The old seaside courses in Scotland are treated reverentially; the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in St. Andrews is still a prime guardian over the game's rules; the Masters in Georgia venerates the career of Bobby Jones, the playing great and tournament founder. Clubs with classic hickory shafts have returned to the market, and last year, at the US Open, the gallery marshals were outfitted in knickers and argyle knee socks. This week, the 88th US Open is being played against a backdrop that captures this ancestral atmosphere and sense of history as well as any other place in the United States. The site is The Country Club in Brookline, one of America's top courses and one of the five charter member clubs of the United States Golf Association, the sport's national governing body. Eleven national championships, including two other Opens, have been contested here (the last was in 1963).
Golf was not originally played at The Country Club, which felt no need for further identification when it became the first American club of its kind in 1882. By 1893, however, members decided to add this distinctly British pastime to such other recreational staples as lawn tennis, bowling, and horse racing. Fifty dollars was spent on the first six-hole course - an amount that might buy you a pair of shoes in Filene's Basement today - and the greenskeeping was left to a flock of 40 sheep.
Those were more pastoral days for this Boston suburb, where John F. Kennedy was born and Michael Dukakis now lives. It was another resident, though, who helped catapult golf from an aristocratic to a popular activity and establish the club as a landmark in the game's history.
Though a somewhat overlooked figure in the modern era, Francis Ouimet (pronounced we-MET) is being remembered this week for igniting the general public's interest in golfing.
Ouimet grew up in a house across the street from the club, caddied there, and in 1913, as a 20-year-old amateur with a choirboy face, won the US Open over this undulating terrain, to the amazement of the golf world. He was supposedly no match for the reigning foreign players of the day, and it was a real Cinderella tale when he not only forced British professional stars Ted Ray and Harry Vardon into a playoff, but then won the 18-hole shoot-out as 10-year-old Eddie Lowery carried his bag.
That was the 19th US Open, golf having been well ahead of tennis, for example, in allowing ``open'' competition between pros and amateurs. And though Ouimet's victory occurred in a much simpler time (tickets weren't sold to the tournament until nine years later), it's considered the turning point in the game's American growth.
So on this 75th anniversary of Ouimet's heroics, it's fitting that this premier event return to an old-style course and Ouimet be saluted with a commemorative postage stamp.
The club retains its understated, country-estate elegance and the members their Yankee frugality. There is no air conditioning in the various buildings - a considerable hardship in this week of wilting summer heat; just paddle ceiling fans, including the gracious yellow clapboard clubhouse and red brick players' locker room with the columned entrance.
Golf Digest claims that the club's 236 acres of prime near-city, residential real estate is ``worth more than Paraguay.'' The layout is tucked serenely amid a labyrinth of stately homes, only a mile or so from another sports landmark, the Longwood Cricket Club, the much more visible tennis enclave situated on busy Route 9.
Here, however, the twittering of birds and the scampering of squirrels forms a natural sound track. Intermittently this week it is being swallowed up by the loud crowd tributes paid to well-struck shots by the Open's 156 entrants, whose numbers will be pared to about half that after today's ``cut.''
The big names are here, including Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman, Jack Nicklaus, and Sandy Lyle, the Masters champion who found the course a true test during a practice round earlier this week. ``I used every club in my bag,'' Lyle said. Present as well are a fair number of unknowns who plunked down the $75 entry fee, had their low USGA handicaps verified, and survived nationwide sectional qualifying that drew about 5,000 players.
In some ways, getting a ticket was as hard as earning a tee-off time. A lottery was held to distribute the small public ticket allotments left after club members, VIPs, and the like gobbled up most of the 22,000 daily admissions.
Not surprisingly, there is a very civil quality to the galleries, who know enough to respond to litter bags that simply say ``Please.''
Many club members are eagerly pitching in as volunteers, manning hospitality tables and helping to marshal the course along with the members of other Boston-area clubs. ``Even a lot of the tennis players are involved,'' says Charlie Pyle, a longtime TCC member and a USGA vice-president. ``Most clubs would rather host the Open than any other tournament. This is great for New England golf, and golf generally. The more the merrier.''
Certainly the news media jump on the bandwagon, with a record 1,300 members in this year's press corps.
Asked if he managed to treat this like a normal tournament, two-time champion Hale Irwin leveled his gaze at his unfamiliar inquisitor and replied, ``I didn't see you in Fort Worth.'' Then after a pause for effect, his arms motioning to the small army of encircling reporters and the general sweep of activity surrounding this golfing summit, he continued: ``This is not a normal occurrence. You can't very well close your eyes to all of this.''