Book Review: The Greatest Game Ever Played

by Roy M. Barineau, Ph. D. on March 22, 2012

Roybob’s Book on Golf: The Hucks, A Golfer’s Divine Comedy, and a Religious Philosophy of Golf

Book Review: The Greatest Game Ever Played: Harry Vardon, Francis Ouimet, and the Birth of Modern Golf

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Mark Frost, The Greatest Game Ever Played: Harry Vardon, Francis Ouimet, and the Birth of Modern Golf, Hyperion, New York, 2002.

In 1900, a young boy named Francis Ouimet finds a Vardon Flyer, a new gutta percha golf ball produced by Spalding and named, of course, after Harry Vardon. Harry Vardon, in fact, had come to America that very year in order to promote his ball in particular and in order to promote the sport of golf in general.

Francis Ouimet was the child of a lower middle class family, but he grew up across the street from The Country Club of Brookline, Massachusetts, a sports club that was founded in 1882. Oddly enough, the club that inspired the designation “country club” did not originate as a golfing establishment. The Country Club was founded for the purpose of horse riding, polo, and racing. Only in 1893 was a six-hole golf course carved into the grounds. Soon, though, that six-hour course would grow into a full eighteen.

Harry Vardon, like Ouimet, grew up in low-income circumstances. His family was actually evicted from their home on the British Isle of Jersey so that “gentlemen” could build the Royal Jersey Golf Club. Harry later caddied at the course; but, when he was fourteen, his parents sold him into the servitude of a wealthy doctor.

After fulfilling his three years of service, Harry realized that his parents may not have his best interest at heart. He set out on his own and went to work as an apprentice gardener for Major Spofforth, who, as it happened, was the presiding Captain of Golf at Royal Jersey. One day, Major Spofforth returned home early to find Harry “in the backyard swinging one of his handsome, handcrafted clubs.” Rather than immediately dismissing Harry, the Major recognized a potential ringer. Harry and the Major did well in their games at Royal Jersey.

At the age of twenty, 1890, Harry left the Isle of Jersey and went to the English mainland where he eventually became a professional and perfected his novel grip, the Vardon Grip, which deviated substantially from the older palm grip of the past.  Most golfers today employ an overlapping or interlocking version of the Vardon Grip. Vardon married a girl from the Isle whom he had impregnated. The child died a few weeks after birth, and his new wife was so devastated and so provincial that she would not leave the Isle with her husband. Only after Vardon had become a golfing sensation five years later did she come to the mainland to live with him. She never cared much about golf or what was going on in what became a much larger world for Vardon.

When Vardon came to America to promote his ball in 1900, he held an exhibition at the Jordan Marsh Company, a department store in Boston that sold golf equipment. In the crowd, watching the exhibition, was a seven-year-old Francis Quiment. Francis’ father, Arthur, dismissed Francis’ wish to attend the exhibition, but Francis’ mother, knowing how important it was to her son, arranged for a trip into town on the day of the exhibition. Vardon won the United States (U.S.) Open Championship later that year, beating fellow countryman,  John Henry Taylor, by two strokes. Vardon’s tour was a great success, but the ball he came to promote would soon be obsolete. A wound rubber ball, called the Haskell, had been created in 1898 and was quickly coming into dominance. Vardon derogatorily referred to the Haskell as the “bounding billy,” but even Vardon converted in 1903.

At the age of nine, 1902, Francis was looking for golf balls at The Country Club when a member asked him to carry his bag. Francis’ father, Arthur, had no tolerance for the elitist and frivolous game of golf, but he did value work. Francis’ career as a caddie began, and his interest and golf skills continued to grow. Francis established a golf team at Brookline High School where he attended. At age sixteen, he had to give up caddying for the sake of his amateur status; receiving money from anything connected to golf constituted a violation.

In 1910, Francis had a chance to qualify for the National Amateur Championship which was being held at Brookline. When Francis told his father about those plans, Arthur reacted as though he were insulted and disrespected. Golf, in his view, was a waste of time, a high-brow, meaningless game. Arthur, Frost writes, did not understand that golf “meant much more to [Francis] than just a game; that it encouraged physical and mental discipline, ethical rectitude, and, in order to excel, demanded skills, resolve, and courage that would serve a man superbly in any walk of life.”  Arthur told Francis that if he were to continue wasting his life, he would have to quit school and get a productive job. Francis, vowing that he would, went running away in tears.

Francis began working for ten cents an hour as a stockboy in a Boston dry goods store. Since affiliation with a golf club was a requirement for competing in the National Amateur, Francis joined Woodland Golf Club at the cost of twenty-five dollars. His not-too-happy mother agreed to loan him the money without mentioning anything to Arthur. Francis paid her back, though, as soon as possible. Francis failed to qualify by one shot after double bogeying the final hole. He “endured his father’s taunts that night in silence.”

Francis played well in local events during the seasons of 1911 and 1912, but he still could not qualify for the National Amateur. In 1911, Francis became a salesclerk in a Boston sporting goods store called Wright & Ditson. In 1889, George Wright, the company’s founder, introduced golf to Massachusetts and created what would become Boston’s first public golf course. Wright was supportive of Francis and his golfing endeavors.

Francis finally qualified for the National Amateur in 1913 by winning the Massachusetts State Amateur. In the semifinal match of the State Amateur, Francis played against John G. Anderson and found himself two down with six holes remaining. “And then suddenly, as he walked to the thirteenth tee, Francis felt [a]concentrated vision seize hold of his mind like it never had before. Every ray of light, every blade of grass tunneled down into a sharp, crystalline line of sight, his vision clear and single-minded, each shot he made following a pattern that already existed in some seamless future he could somehow suddenly see into, a feeling so overpowering he wouldn’t even fully realize the degree to which it had him in its grip until” the seventeenth hole when he tapped in for birdie to win the match three holes up with one to play. Anderson insisted that Francis play the last hole because Francis was playing so well. Francis proceeded to make his sixth birdie in a row for a record score of twenty-eight on the back nine at Wollaston Golf Club. With that same heightened sense of awareness and the performance that accompanies it, Francis made quick work of his opponent in the finals match, winning ten up with nine to play. Francis had won the Massachusetts State Amateur, and he was off to compete in the National Amateur Championship at Garden City, Long Island.

When Vardon won the British Open Championship in 1903, he was battling the onset of tuberculosis, the “white plague,” as it was called, since it turned its victims pale. After nearly a complete collapse, he admitted himself into a sanatorium, at Mudesley, that had a nine-hole course. When Vardon was permitted to walk around a little, at the end of his fourth month there, a steady tremor manifested in his right hand. During his fifth month, when he was allowed to hit putts, the tremor was a noticeable issue. When he was allowed to play, in his eighth month, he scored the only hole-in-one he ever made. At the end of February, 1904, eight months after he had arrived, he was well enough to return home.

Vardon, also known as “The Sylist” and “The King of Clubs,” began working on his first book, The Complete Golfer, which was published in 1905. The book was a great success and became a bible for a young Francis Ouimet just before Ouimet won the Massachusetts State Amatuer in 1913. Vardon tried to defend his British Open title in 1904 and held the lead at the halfway point. The tremor in his right hand, though, foiled his effort. Vardon continued to battle against the white plague even as, around 1908, he came to be grouped with James Baird and John Henry Taylor as one of the Great Triumvirate. The three of these men won sixteen of the twenty-one British Open Championships between 1894 and 1914. Of the three, Vardon would win the most with six (1896, 1898, 1899, 1903, 1911, and 1914).

In 1911, with a new putter, Harry went back on the attack. The new putter calmed the tremor by placing the grip more in the palm of his right hand and less in his fingers. Vardon won the Open against players like Ted Ray, an Isle of Jersey lad who had idolized Vardon growing up. Frost writes, “Ted Ray stood well over six feet tall, weighed in at a hulking 225 pounds, and whacked his tee shots thirty yards farther than any man in Britain.” Vardon and Ray had become close friends several years earlier.

In a chapter entitled “Harry and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” Frost relates the orchestrations of Alfred Harmsworth, Lord Northcliffe, as he hoped to conquer America with Vardon and Ted Ray. Lord Northcliffe owned the London Times and had a keen ability to capitalize on publicity. In 1904, an American, Walter Travis, had won the British Amateur, the only American to win the event since its inception. The Brits took the American victory in their championship very hard. Vardon’s more recent victory in the 1911 Open Championship provided Northcliffe with an opportunity. Vardon and Ray were pictured as champions who would demonstrate to the Americans the superiority of the English people.

Vardon had a relapse of tuberculosis shortly before he had planned to depart for the States, and he postponed his voyage for over a year.  As it happened, had Vardon departed when he had originally intended, he would have been aboard a new ship called the Titanic that clipped an iceberg and went down two nights into its cruise (April 15, 1912). When the U.S.G.A. received word of Vardon and Ray’s intent to play in the 1913 U.S. Open, officials agreed, for the first and only time in the event’s history, to postpone the tournament from June to September. Vardon and Ray left for the States in August of 1913, and they were followed by a fellow golfer and countryman, Wilfrid Reid, who apparently was hoping to ride Vardon and Ray’s wave in his own conquest of America.

After arriving in the States, Vardon and Ray went to play in the Shawnee Open in eastern Pennsylvania. Among the competitors was Johnny J. McDermot, the first U.S. born golfer to win the United States Open (1911) and, at the age of nineteen, the youngest player ever to win the event. McDermot had won the Open in both 1911 and 1912. He also won the event at Shawnee-on-Delaware. Having pulled out his U.S. Open trophy at Shawnee, he jumped up on a chair to give his acceptance speech and directed the following comments to Vardon and Ray.

There’s been a lot of loose talk about the ‘great English champions’ coming over here and competing in our Open. And I just want to say to you boys: Welcome, glad you could make it; we’re happy to have you with us. We hope our foreign visitors had a good time here at Shawnee, but I don’t think they did… [Patting his U.S. Open trophy] Mr. Vardon, I understand you won this baby once before. [Now, with his arm wrapped tightly around the trophy and poking a finger at Vardon and Ray] But let me tell you this; you are not going to take our cup back!  

No one but McDermon felt good about those comments and their context. In a few minutes, after a conversation with U.S.G.A. officials, McDermot, offered his hand and an apology. Frost writes that when leaving, though, “like a drunk on a bender, unable to pass up that last bar on the corner, McDermot turned back to [Vardon and Ray] and shouted: ‘But you are still not going to take our cup back!’”  Ray would have killed McDermot had Vardon not held him back.

Francis played well in the 1913 National Amateur at the Garden City Golf Club in Long Island, but not well enough to win. He did, however, come to the attention of Robert Watson, president of the United States Golf Association (U.S.G.A). Both Watson and Francis fell in defeat to Jerry Travers, but Watson fell first and, so, had the chance to watch the strong effort of Francis. Watson was impressed enough to offer Francis a spot in the 1913 U. S. Open which was to be played at Brookline in just a couple of weeks. Francis did not think he could take more time off from Wright & Ditson. Watson, though, was sure that arrangements could be made and, despite Francis’ lack of commitment, Watson began the paperwork.

Francis returned to work after his attempt at the National Amateur only to see his name in the pairings for the U.S. Open. When he was summoned into Wright’s office, Francis was very apologetic and nonplussed, indicating that he would not dream of asking for another week off in order to play in the Open. Wright had already spoken with his friend, Watson, president of the U.S.G.A., and Wright ordered Francis to play in the Open and gave him to next two weeks off to prepare and play.

The week of the Open arrived. When, on Monday, Francis walked from his home across Clyde Street to The Country Club for a practice round, he learned that his caddie had been stolen away by the promises of a professional. When Francis saw a friend and fellow golfer, Jack Lowery, at Brookline, he asked Jack to carry his bag. Jack agreed, but only if his little ten-year-old brother could tag along. Francis arranged for the young lad, Eddie, to be a marker. When Jack and Eddie returned home that evening, though, they found themselves in trouble with truant officers and their mom for missing school that day in order to attend the practice rounds. On the following morning, Jack went to school, but Eddie, all four feet of him, was very concerned about Francis and showed up at The Country Club for work. When Eddie begged to be Francis’ caddie, Francis pointed out that Eddie was no bigger than Francis’ golf bag. Eddie, however, kept insisting that he could do it. Eddie said that he had caddied before and that he was familiar with Francis’ game, having watched and admired Francis from afar. Francis consented; and Eddie, of course, proved to be a great asset.

The 1913 U.S. Open began. The first two days, Tuesday and Wednesday, were qualifying rounds. Francis’ attempt at qualiying was scheduled for Tuesday.  He finished only shot behind Vardon, the leader, after thirty-six holes.  Former President William Howard Taft was on hand to witness Francis’ good play.  Ted Ray qualified on Wednesday with the lowest qualifying total of 148, two rounds of seventy-four.  Francis was one of only eight amateurs to qualify; there were sixty-one professionals.  Tournament play took place over Thursday and Friday with thirty-six holes each day.  Francis’ first round on Thursday did not go well for the first few holes, but he ended up with seventy-seven.  He shot severnty-four, though, in the second round and fiished the day only four shots behind the leaders, Wilfrid Reid and Harry Vardon.  Friday morning, Francis shot another seventy-four to have a total of 225, tied in first place now with Ted Ray and Vardon.  Walter Hagen was just two shots back.  After the end of the fourth and final round, Vardon, Ray, and the twenty-year Francis were still tied for the lead.  None of the three played well on a wet, nasty afternoon.  They all shot seventy-nine, but they were still the leaders.   Hagen finished tied for fourth, and the arrogant Johnny J. McDermott finished eighth.  The tie among Vardon, Ray, and Francis called for an eighteen hole playoff on Saturday. Ray faded. Francis had only a one stroke lead over Vardon when the threesome arrived at the seventeenth tee. Francis made birdie three, and Vardon, due to a tough lie in a bunker that now bears his name, made bogey five. Vardon took a double bogey six at the eighteenth to finish with a score of seventy-seven while Francis shot seventy-two. Francis Ouimet had won the 1913 U.S. Open in what Bernard Darwin, British sports writer and grandson of Charles, described as “the greatest tie that has ever been played.” 

Francis Ouimet (back center) Lifted into the Air and Eddie Lowery (front center) with Francis’ Bag

The crowd at Brookline lifted their American hero into the air and began offering up money to him, none of which, as an amateur, he could accept. People did, however, pass the hat for Eddie, and Francis saw his father contribute the first dollar.

Ouimet would win the National Amateur Championship in 1914, and his success eventually changed his father’s mind about golf. “When in 1915 Ouimet decided to break away from Wright & Ditson and establish his own Boston sporting goods business, his father became one of his principal investors.” At the same time, the U.S.G.A. prohibited those who sold golf equipment from maintaining amateur status, and Ouimet’s store sold golf equipment. Frost writes, “to his own shock and the dismay of his fans around the country, the USGA came down hard on the one man who had done more to advance and promote the game than any American in history; Francis Ouimet had been effectively banned from competitive amateur golf.”  The U.S.G.A. “came to its senses during the war years,” and, in 1919, Ouimet was quietly reinstated as an amateur golfer in good standing. This enabled him to win his second National Amateur Championship in 1931.

Vardon would not go gently into golf’s good night. In 1914, he would win his sixth British Open Championship, the sixteenth and last to be won by one of the so-called Great Triumvirate (Harry Vardon, J.H. Taylor, and James Braid). Vardon’s win in 1914 would give him one more than both Taylor (who lost to Harry that year) and Braid.

Harry Vardon (left), Francis Ouimet (center), and Ted Ray (right) after the U.S. Open Championship in 1913

Frost weaves in American history and golf history, on both sides of the Atlantic, as he tells the story of Francis Ouimet. Included as part of Frost’s history of golf, for example, is an account of the origin of the term “bogey.” In 1890, England’s Coventry Club held a tournament in which golfers played “against an imaginary opponent who automatically posted what was considered an error-free round, a score they called ‘scratch.’”  Coventry’s idea of measuring one’s ability against an imaginary error-free player to establish a handicap caught on at other clubs. A song with a chorus including the words “Hush! Hush! Hush! Here comes the bogey man!” gave the secretary at Yarmouth Club the idea of referring to the imaginary opponent as “the bogey man.”  “The bogey man” became “Mr. Bogey,” and “Mr. Bogey” became Colonel Bogey at a club that included a lot of military officers. Frost writes,

This bit of whimsy took the English club scene by storm and within a few years the imaginary figure of Colonel Bogey stepped off the golf course and into British cultural mythology as a stiff-upper lipped icon of discipline and courage for England’s armed forces through the next century. You may remember the catchy little turn whistled by British prisoners of war in the classic film The Bridge on the River Kwai. This wasn’t a theme written for the movie, it was a long-established military standard called “Colonel Bogey’s March.” 

As courses, players, and equipment improved, what was formerly “bogey” came to reflect more strokes than what were expected by accomplished players, and in America, by 1920, the score reflecting the standard score on a hole became known as par. The American system would dominate, and Colonel Bogey was, thereby, demoted.

The Greatest Game Ever Played: Harry Vardon, Francis Ouimet, and the Birth of Modern Golf may not be the greatest golf book ever written, but it ranks high on my list.  I am awarding the book a full sleeve of balls.  I would also highly recommend the DVD, inspired by the book, of the same name: The Greatest Game Ever Played. Special features on the DVD include a rare 1963 interview with Francis Ouimet himself, at The Country Club, recounting events of the 1913 U.S. Open. The DVD is well worth a viewing.  The girl in the movie, by the way, does not play a role in the book.  Her character, Sarah Wallis, was added to the movie, I suppose, for the sake of stimulating a romantic interest.  Ouiment’s actual romantic interest was a woman named Stella Sullivan whom he met later and married in 1918.

Roybob’s Book on Golf: The Hucks, A Golfer’s Divine Comedy, and a Religious Philosophy of Golf

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