Francis Ouimet knew how to grow the game.
It took a question comparing Rory McIlroy’s relationship with his caddie, Harry Diamond, to Francis Ouimet’s relationship with Eddie Lowry to elicit a strong reaction. He pounded the table at his press conference.
“We’re still talking about it today,” McIlroy said.
It felt like a father scolding his children after a long, frustrating day. The press conference ebbed and flowed, but this moment felt like the one that portrayed Rory’s frustration with players jumping to LIV Golf and the history they are turning their back on.
“I want to put my name on trophies,” he said later as he spoke about his legacy and what matters to him.
In 1913, Francis Ouimet’s U.S. Open victory ignited an unmatched golfing boom. 350,000 Americans played golf when Ouimet polished off Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in an 18-hole playoff at The Country Club, just a quarter-mile from Ouimet’s bedroom. Over the next seven years, the number of golfers ballooned to 2.1 million.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve heard from Phil Mickelson, Graeme McDowell, and others who are taking gobs of cash to play golf in vapid, emotionless exhibitions. They want to grow the game alongside the Saudi government's endless coffer of cash.
The irony is thick as I walk the grounds of The Country Club and think about what it took to grow the game in 1913 and compare it to what the LIV Golf Boys claim they are trying to do in this new endeavor.
In 1913, it took a triumph of the epic proportions at the grassroots level to grow the game. One could argue it took a pandemic to help it grow most recently. It’s hard to believe professional golfers competing for $20 million purses with slides and theme parks at the event is what’s going to help the next generation of golfers flow into the game across the globe.
Tom Hynes, The Country Club member who purchased Oiumet’s house and restored it this winter, said he received a call from a new member who offered a hefty sum of money to help with the project.
Hynes asked why he wanted to help.
“He told me he was lucky and had some success over his life. He won a Ouimet Scholarship and wanted to pay it back,” Hynes said.
The Ouimet Scholarship funds need-based scholarships to college students at an average of $30,000 for four years and can reach as high as $80,000 according to the website. Applicants must have 2+ years in the golf industry, typically as caddies or on grounds crews. The fund has sent thousands of kids to college over the decades.
These are the things that grow the game.
Ouimet was known for his honorable nature and kindness. He remained an amateur his entire life.
In his stilted, awkward, and tense press conference yesterday, Phil Mickelson spoke about what LIV Golf is doing to grow the game.
“I believe there's a lot of things about LIV Golf that are transformative. Two specifically are a unique different format from a format that's been the same for half a century or more.”
He continued to discuss the children, lest we forget the children.
“What it is is engaging people, bringing people out to be exposed to the game. I saw a lot of young kids out there under the age of 7 or 8 being exposed to professional golf.”
It was refreshing to hear Mickelson at least admit that the financial benefits of guaranteed money and massive purses was another thing that drew him leap for LIV.
Exposure to the game is the only way that it grows. Francis Ouimet’s exposure to golf came from the location of his house; he cut across The Country Club on his way to and from school, collecting golf balls along the way. Once he found a club and enjoyed the ring of a solid shot, he was hooked and wanted to improve. He rolled putts in his second floor bedroom, driving his mother crazy, much like any kid who plays ball in the house. He earned money as a caddie until he was 15 at The Country Club.
On Thursday, the best golfers in the world will compete for the U.S. Open trophy. It’s been engraved with names 121 times.
There is a story that in 2005 an assistant pro at The Country Club, Michael Roy, was heading to bed in the top floor of the locker building when a chill ran through his body. He came across two figures, a boy and a young man dressed in golfing attire from the early 1900s. One can only guess it was Francis and his ten-year-old caddie Eddie Lowry. As Roy approached the figures, the boy stood up to protect the older figure.
Roy understandably freaked out and ran to the lights and flicked them on. The two figures were gone.
Here’s hoping Bryson or Phil or Louis have to stick around late one night this week, I’m sure the kind-hearted ghost of Francis Ouimet might have a few things to teach them about growing the game.