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The Greatest Upset in Golf

August 24, 2009

Tiger Woods had never before lost a major golf tournament when he was at the top of the leader board going into the final round. Last weekend, Y.E. Yang a 37-year-old from South Korea defeated Woods in the PGA Championship. He became the first Asian-born player to capture a major title. It was a stunning victory some have called the greatest upset in golf history.

“The Legend of Bagger Vance,” a film directed by Robert Redford, was based on a book by Steven Pressfield by the same title. The story takes place in Savannah, Georgia, in 1931.

Junah, played by Matt Damon, enters an exhibition golf match with Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen, the best golfers of their era. Bagger Vance volunteers to caddy for Junah, helping him regain his game and his life. Junah sinks an improbable putt on the eighteenth hole to tie Jones and Hagen. Even a tie was considered a great upset. The story is entirely fiction.

Before Matt Damon, Y. E. Yang, or Tiger Woods were born, before Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer mustered their armies of fans, even before Bobby Jones and Walter Hagan became gentleman golfers, a twenty-year-old caddie became an American golf hero.

Francis Ouimet grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. His home was across the street from a country club, one of the few private golf clubs in America before the turn of the twentieth century. Golf came to America from Great Britain. The game fascinated Francis Ouimet. As a child, he visited the golf course to study the ways of duffers. As a teenager, he worked as a caddie at the club, learning the finer points of the game. He played golf as often as possible.

In 1913, Francis heard the amazing news; the United States Open Golf Tournament was coming to the club across the street from his house! Though he was barely old enough to qualify, Francis Ouimet entered the tournament. He knew the course like the back of his hand. Eddie Lowery, a ten-year-old boy not quite as tall as the golf bag, volunteered to caddie. They were quite a spectacle, a lanky twenty-year-old and his pint-sized caddie.

Throughout the four-day tournament, Francis matched the professionals shot for shot. Boston was buzzing. People, including many who knew nothing about golf, crowded on streetcars to get from Boston to Brookline. By the time Francis got to the back nine in the fourth round of the Open, as many as twenty thousand people had gathered.

On the seventeenth hole, Francis sank a forty-foot putt, drawing even with the leaders. Three golfers were tied after seventy-two holes and entered a playoff. Twenty-year-old Francis Ouimet, accompanied by his ten-year-old caddie, Eddie, won the 1913 U.S. Open. It has long been regarded as the greatest upset in golf.

When I entered seminary, I discovered that many of my classmates were golfers. Though I had never played before, several friends encouraged me to try the game. I did so, and even purchased an inexpensive set of clubs.

Golf, for me, was a constant frustration. I could never get the three component parts of the game going well at the same time. Often the driver failed me. When the driver did behave, either the irons or the putter let me down. Like other golfers, I blamed my problems on the clubs.

I played my last golf game in the spring of 1967. Three friends needed a fourth person to accompany them to an exclusive course in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. As we drove three hours across the Blue Grass State, I learned that two of the three men had played on their college golf teams. The other had played golf in high school. By the time we arrived on the first tee, I was thoroughly intimidated.

The picturesque course was nestled in a mountain valley. A mountain stream crisscrossed many of the narrow, tree-lined fairways. By the time we reached the back nine, I had lost half a dozen golf balls. The eleventh hole was a long par five. The mountain stream crossed the narrow fairway twice. I hit the longest, straightest drive of my brief golf career. The ball easily cleared the first creek crossing, landing in the middle of the second.

I climbed down the creek bank, nine-iron in hand. Standing on the rocks in the stream, looking into the clear water for my errant golf ball. There I saw a brook trout in an eddy fanning the current. I looked at the golf club in my hand, and I said to myself. “Where is my rod and reel?”

It was my last and greatest golf game, not because I played well, but because I made an important decision. Golf is not my game.

Francis Ouimet never became a professional golfer. He simply loved the game. His story was told in the book by Mark Frost, The Greatest Game Ever Played, and in the Walt Disney movie by the same title. I am glad for Francis and the many people who enjoy golf.

I am also grateful for the decision I made forty-two years ago. For me, fishing is the restorative that golf never was.

Besides, at least four of the first disciples were fisherman. There is no record of any golfers being within their ranks.

Kirk H. Neely
© August 2009

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