How the true story behind ‘The Greatest Game Ever Played’ brought golf to America

Wondering about the story behind The Greatest Game Ever Played? It’s a simple story with complex and far-reaching import: 20-year-old amateur Francis Ouimet beat seasoned British professionals Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in an 18-hole playoff to capture the 1913 U.S. Open.

Who were Harry Vardon and Ted Ray?

Source: Bettmann

Harry Vardon was a five-time British Open winner and a one time U.S. Open champion. He would eventually win 49 times as a professional, including seven major championships. Ted Ray won a U.S. Open and British Open in his career and totaled 13 career victories. Vardon was seven years older than Ray.

Was Francis Ouimet “just a caddie”?

Not exactly. Ouimet wasn’t actively caddying at the time of the U.S. Open, but he had caddied at The Country Club in the past. He nearly qualified for the 1910, 1911, and 1912 U.S. Amateur (he played in ‘13). He was the reigning Massachusetts Amateur champion. In other words, he was, at that time, comparable in talent to those who compete in the U.S. Amateur today. That said, Vardon and Ray were the Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson of their time.

While the 18-hole playoff gets much of the attention, it’s important to remember Ouimet first placed fifth in 36-hole qualifying against the best golfers in the world and then tied Vardon and Ray across four days of competition before the playoff. So if Ouimet’s win was a fluke, it was a seven-round fluke.

“While I did not feel nervous” going into the playoff,” Ouimet wrote for The American Golfer later, “I did realize the formidable task in hand. Two things and one person helped me amazingly.

The person was my little caddie, Eddie Lowery; one of the two things was the appeal which he made to my patriotism; the other thing was my determination that Vardon and Ray should not be able to say that my tying them for the championship was a fluke, which I felt they could say if I ‘went to pieces’ in the playoff.”

Lowery, by the way, was 10 years old. He’s prominently featured in golf lore owing to his age, inspiration, and this iconic photo.

(Photo source: Wikimedia)

Ouimet managed to do anything but “go to pieces,” in his opening 9. Ouimet, Vardon, and Ray all went out in 38. Even through 11 holes, Ouimet made par at the 10th and four at the 12th to pick up two strokes on the pair of Brits.

Ted Ray fell by the wayside with a double at the 15th hole. Thus, it would be only Ouimet and Vardon over the final three holes battling for the U.S. Open trophy. After the pair parred the 16th hole, Vardon made bogey at the 17th. Ouimet held his nerve for a three-stroke victory.

At the awards ceremony, Harry Vardon intoned:

“We have no excuses to make today, for we were both defeated by the highest class of golf. … America should be nothing but proud of her new champion. He has proved himself to be a superior golfer and a courageous fighter.”

Ouimet’s victory was an instant nationwide sensation, and its inspirational power is credited with jumpstarting the popularity of golf in the United States. The Greatest Game Ever Played is more than just arguably the best golf film ever, its true history changed the sport forever.