Links With History

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Wherever or whenever golf was established in America, it came of age at The Country Club, in Brookline, Massachusetts, outside Boston. Brookline may not have been the first country club in America, but from the beginning it was known simply as The Country Club. Chartered in 1860, the facility was originally intended to be a place where members of the Boston gentry could take family carriage rides, “free from the annoyance of horse railroads.” It was thirty years before the club put in the first nine golf holes and another twenty before the course was extended to the full eighteen. The course is in the classic mold of New England layouts. Not long by today’s championship standards, it measures some sixty-nine hundred yards, but its small, dazzlingly fast greens make it a supreme test. Julius Boros won the U.S. Open there in 1963 shooting nine over par.

Golf as it was first played at places such as Brookline was, according to a nineteenth-century society reporter, “pre-eminently a game of good society.” That all changed in 1913 when a twenty-year-old former caddie named Francis Ouimet did the unthinkable. He beat a pair of British immortals, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, to win the U.S. Open. The seventeenth green at Brookline is a sacred place in American golf. Professionals will tell you the hardest thing to do in golf is score a birdie when you absolutely must have one. Ouimet did it. He hit a fine drive and then put a jigger (something between a 5- and 6-iron) twenty feet past the hole. Ignoring the horn blast of a passing automobile as he was stroking the ball, Ouimet finessed a sliding, downhill putt into the hole and forced a play-off. The next day the scrawny young amateur outsteadied the two best professionals in the game to win by five shots. Ouimet’s victory was front-page news all over the country. He showed you didn’t have to be British or wealthy to win a major golf tournament. All you had to do was hit the ball better than anyone else. Almost overnight golf became an American national game.

With the generosity of spirit that is frequently the hallmark of golf, Ouimet later became the first non-Briton to be elected captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, in Scotland.

Picking out the most significant historic sites in American golf since Ouimet’s startling victory is like selecting the best paintings in the Louvre. I prefer those where not only an extraordinary shot was made but where the game was profoundly affected.

 

Using that criterion as our guide, you must come with me to the Augusta National Golf Club, in Augusta, Georgia. The course is almost certainly the most photographed in America. Set on what was the old Fruitlands Nursery, Augusta is a 365-acre garden with so many flowers that each hole is named after a different variety: Flowing Peach, Magnolia, Yellow Jasmine, and so on. It was here on the fifteenth fairway in 1935 that Gene Sarazen loosed his fearful thunderbolt. The year before, Bobby Jones, retired from active tournament play, had started an informal competition for his golfing friends to be played at Augusta every spring. No one thought of the event as anything more than a pleasant outing. Sarazen had played well but was trailing Craig Wood by three shots. As he teed up on the par-five fifteenth hole, Sarazen figured he needed three birdies on the last four holes to catch the leader. Sarazen drove well and stood about 235 yards from the green. The stolid professional wrenched a spoon (4-wood) through the turf and sent the ball flying. From the start it was a glorious shot that lifted Sarazen’s expectations with each yard it traversed. The ball flew easily over the water hazard in front of the green and looked like a possible birdie in the making. As it landed, the ball rolled toward the hole and raised the possibility of a one-putt for an eagle. The ball kept going and dropped into the cup for a double eagle. Sarazen had his three birdies in one hole. He paired in to tie Wood and beat him the next day in a play-off. With a single stroke, which the golfing historian Herbert Warren Wind called the most sensational shot ever played in tournament golf, Sarazen did more than win a competition. His heroic effort helped lift Jones’s informal get-together into The Masters, a tournament that took its place with the U.S. and British opens and the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) Championship as one of the four most important titles in international golf.

Unlike most tournaments, which are held at different courses, The Masters is always played at Augusta. After holding more than fifty Masters, the course has been crowded with incident. Rae’s Creek, which runs along “Amen Corner” on the back nine at Augusta, ranks with Swilcan Burn on the Old Course at St. Andrews, in Scotland, as the most famous body of water in golf. As a graveyard of golfing hopes, Rae’s Creek is much more devastating. In 1954 Billy Joe Patton was close to fulfilling every Sunday golfer’s fondest dream. A little-known amateur from North Carolina, Patton played a maniacal final round, including a hole in one to gain five shots and catch up with Ben Hogan and Sam Snead. Knowing no other way to play except all-out, Patton tried to carry Rae’s Creek in front of the par-five thirteenth in two. He lost the shot in the water, and the tournament by one stroke. “I didn’t come here,” he said, “to play safe.”