Man Of Steel And Grit: Ouimet Wins 1931 U.S. Amateur At Beverly Country Club
By John Fischer III
In 1913, a 20 year old former caddie named Francis Ouimet defeated British professionals Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in a playoff to win the U.S. Open Championship at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., becoming the first amateur to win the title and setting the sports pages aflame – a plucky young American defeated two of the best players in the world.
After winning the 1913 Open, Ouimet had a remarkable year in 1914, winning the U.S. Amateur, the French Amateur and the Massachusetts Amateur and in 1917, the Western Amateur, but the advent of World War I stalled many a golfer's career. National golf events were suspended for the duration and Ouimet himself joined the U.S. Army.
Ouimet returned to golf after the war and played well. From 1923 to 1929, Ouimet reached the semifinals of the U.S. Amateur five times.
Queried on this seeming futility, Ouimet said, "Did you ever hear of a fellow named Jones?" Bob Jones defeated Ouimet three times in the U.S. Amateur semifinals (1924, 1926 and 1927).
As Ouimet put it, "I can only describe a match against Bobby [Jones] in this manner: It is just as though you got your hand caught in a buzz saw. He coasts along serenely waiting for you to miss a shot, and the moment you do, he has you on the hook and you never get off."
Jones retired from competitive golf after his "Grand Slam" year in 1930, and Ouimet was ready to make up for past struggles.
In the summer of 1931, Ouimet, then 38, traveled to Chicago to compete in the U.S. Amateur at Beverly Country Club, site of this year’s USGA Senior Amateur Championship. In his first four matches, the average age of his opponents was 21. Ouimet dubbed the event "a father-and-son tournament," the young boys against the father figure.
Opened for play in 1908, Beverly Country Club was designed originally by George O'Neil and improved by golf course architect Tom Bendelow, but in 1918 it underwent a redesign by Donald Ross, and it is his course which Ouimet played in 1931 and will be used for this year's USGA Senior Amateur.
Chicago native Charles “Chick” Evans Jr., who won both the U.S. Amateur and the U.S. Open in 1916, described Beverly as "a happy selection" for the 1931 Amateur.
At 6,702 yards, Evans noted Beverly's challenge: "There are five holes ranging from 326 to 390 yards – a drive and a pitch of varying length – some of those holes are among the best on the course by reason of good design and trapping and the necessity for accurate placing of shots . . . . In general, the first nine plays long, but most of the lies are on level ground and there are but few trees. The second nine is shorter, but more hilly and wooded."
Evans was correct in thinking of Beverly as a good test. He failed to qualify for match play there for the 1931 Amateur.
After casual rounds at home in Boston as a warm up, Ouimet arrived at Beverly and developed a game plan: "I decided it was one of those tests where putting was to be a great factor, along with accurate tee-shot making.
"After each tee shot [in practice rounds] I chose the club that would fetch me to the middle of the green, regardless of where the pin was placed, and I paid no attention whatever to a score. Hole after hole I played for the centers of the greens, and then putted casually at the hole, caring little whether or not I got the par on the hole."
The Beverly routing has no two consecutive holes running in the same direction and is laid out in a rectangular piece of property bisected by three streets and a railroad line. Ross designed five of the holes on the front nine to run along a ridge that was once the shoreline of an ancient glacial lake now known as Lake Michigan.
Beverly is a thinking man's course, and Ouimet had his plan thought out. Hit the ball in the fairway, get on the green and rely on a trusty putter. Forget distance off the tee and don't be tempted to hit to tight hole locations. This was match play. Let the other fellow make the mistakes. He’d learned well from his rival Jones.
First, though, there were 36 holes of qualifying. Again, Ouimet had a plan: "I am one of those chaps who feel you can do more harm by intensive practice than too little. . . . It is easier to come up to form than to get there quickly and have to stay there."
On the Sunday before qualifying began, Ouimet skipped a practice round and went to a baseball game. (Ouimet would later serve as vice president of the Boston Braves baseball club.)
Ouimet qualified safely at 152. Nothing fancy and no dangerous attempts for the medal. John Lehman, Arthur Yates and Charlie Seaver, the father of baseball great Tom Seaver, tied for medalist honors at 4-over 148. Oddly, the draw pitted two of the three co-medalists, Yates and Seaver, against each other in the first round.
Ouimet won his first three matches, 4 and 3, 5 and 4, and, 7 and 6, the latter a 36-hole quarterfinal match against young Paul Jackson, a streaky player who had beaten Lehman in the first round.
The semifinals pitted Ouimet against 19-year-old Billy Howell, who had never before played golf outside his home state of Virginia but had shown his ability by beating championship favorite, Johnny Goodman, 2 and 1, in the first round. (Goodman would go on to win the 1933 U.S. Open at North Shore C.C. in Glenview, Ill., and to this day remains the last amateur to win the U.S. Open.)
Ouimet must have wondered where all these young unknown, talented players came from, just as Vardon and Ray must have wondered about Ouimet in 1913.
In 1931, the USGA used sectional qualifying to arrive at the field of 150 for on-site qualifying, using 20 different sites around the country. This idea was to give all capable players a chance at the national title without having to go to Chicago. Site qualifying would leave 32 qualifiers for match play.
Ouimet was one down to Howell at the end of the morning 18. After lunch the match went back and forth. One up at the par-3 17th, the 35th hole of the match, Ouimet's ball ended up 25 feet from the hole, and Howell hit into a greenside bunker. Advantage Ouimet.
But Howell exploded from the bunker, his ball stopping just inches from the hole for a sure par. As the gallery ran to the next hole, Ouimet calmly rolled his ball into the hole for a birdie to win the semifinal match, 2 and 1.
In the final, Jack Westland, a three-time Chicago District Amateur champion, was a formidable, experienced opponent for Ouimet, but Ouimet started with birdies on the first two holes and was 4 up after the first nine with 27 more to go.
In the afternoon, Ouimet extended his lead.
"I was now leading by seven holes with 13 to play. A position such as this frequently produces overconfidence," Ouimet wrote later, "and I fought against this as well as the natural tendency to let down – one of the most fatal of all golfing sins." A gallery of 5,000 was watching and rooting for the local favorite, Westland. However, Ouimet's plan of attack on Beverly worked, and his stamina and putter never failed him. Ouimet downed Westland, 6 and 5, placing his name on the Havemeyer Trophy for a second time.
Regarded as an amiable fellow off the golf course, Ouimet was also known to be sober as a judge on the course. "I finally allowed myself to smile," said Ouimet after his win over Westland.
Ouimet may have been the old hand playing against youngsters, but he was also on the cutting edge of the game. The year before, Jones won all four majors using hickory-shafted clubs. In 1931, Ouimet won the U.S. Amateur with steel-shafted clubs.
Ouimet's win was 17 years to the day he triumphed at the 1914 U.S. Amateur against four-time Amateur champion Jerry Travers and by the same score, 6 and 5.
Golf writer and historian Herbert Warren Wind said of Ouimet, "he was the great boy who became the great man."
A member of the USGA Museum Committee, John Fischer III is an attorney in Cincinnati, Ohio. He was a frequent contributor to Golf Journal, and continues to write about golf collectibles and legends of the game.