Francis Ouimet and the coup at The Country Club

THE post office has issued a stamp commemorating the 75th anniversary of Francis Ouimet's victory in the US Open. A wonderfully blue sky provides background for the top of the stamp. A grassy green fairway fringes the bottom, where a tiny figure in plus fours is completing a very tidy swing. The center of the stamp is devoted to a portrait of the guileless Ouimet, looking a bit like Alec Guinness in a golf cap. Even in golfing households, Francis Ouimet is hardly a household name. Yet this mild and unassuming man made history in more ways than one. Until the day in 1913 when Ouimet, at the age of 20, trailed by a 10-year-old caddy named Eddie Lowery, defeated England's two best golfers, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, in a three-way playoff at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., golf had been considered an English game, just as hockey was once considered a Canadian game, and baseball is still considered an American game.

``He founded the American golfing empire,'' a sports historian declared. But Ouimet's triumph was not just a matter of an American breaking up the English monopoly of champions.

Golf in the United States before World War I was a plutocrat's game, largely restricted to the upper class: the country-club set. Ouimet was a former caddy, the son of a gardener, a French-Canadian immigrant from Quebec. He lived in a working-class neighborhood, practically abutting the Brookline country club - but socially a thousand miles away.

When he won in the mist and rain, Ouimet, tie askew, was hoisted on the shoulders of neighborhood friends who looked more dazed than jubilant, as if they could not believe that humble Clyde Street might actually claim a hero.

The Country Club got the message immediately - that the working class had produced a champion at a gentleman's game, almost a breach of etiquette! However pleased the members of The Country Club were to have an American, a fellow American, as champion, they did not make the mistake of thinking he was ``one of their kind.'' Francis Ouimet would have to wait - and wait - before being admitted to membership in the club he had done more to honor than any member before or since.

In fact, when he opened a sporting goods store, the modest commercial venture was deemed sufficiently contaminating to cost him, for a time, his amateur status. Ouimet, who seems not to have had a drop of bitterness in him, accepted with equanimity the social rebuffs of Boston Brahmins and the cruel fussiness of the disenfranchising amateur purists.

Perhaps he understood that he had won more than a golf tournament; perhaps he didn't. But the truth is that he started a revolution of sorts. In the decade from 1913 to 1923, the ranks of American golfers increased from 350,000 to 2 million. The rich elitist's game spilled over onto the public links - the commoner's turf.

As for the conspicuously unrebellious man who had, by example, brought democracy to golf, he entertained no ambition off the course except to behave like a true gentleman - everything a country-club gentleman ought to be.

What is a Francis Ouimet autograph worth in a market of latter-day blue chips like Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus? One spring day a boy with a green leather autograph book, hitherto filled by the signatures of baseball stars, approached Francis Ouimet, by then an eminently respectable stockbroker holding down a desk in Boston's financial district. As stock quotations were scribbled in chalk on a blackboard - state-of-the-art ticker tape in small offices at the time - the old boy wonder printed ``Golf'' at the top of a fresh page in the autograph book, then wrote in green ink ``Francis Ouimet,'' enclosing his name in quotation marks, as if the figure he had become on that day in 1913 were something to be set apart from day-to-day identity.

The small boy's grandfather as a small boy had collected autographs of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and James Greenleaf Whittier on yellowing letters in secondhand bookstores at the foot of Beacon Hill.

Four decades after the ``Golf'' entry the Ouimet-collector's daughter, by the flash of strobe lights, gathered the autographs of rock musicians.

Sandwiched in time between keepers of the genteel tradition and high-decibel blasters of it, the fastidious autograph of Francis Ouimet suggests a man participating in change in spite of himself. The initial ``F'' has a boldness, a flair. The rest of the signature composes itself neatly - a big drive off the tee, followed by an orderly procession to the cup. Would a golfer have it any other way?

A Wednesday and Friday column

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