BROOKLINE, Mass. – You'll excuse Neil Raymond if he doesn't view The Country Club in quite the same way as many of the Americans teeing it up in the U.S. Amateur this week.
For the 27-year-old Englishman, the course isn't the place where Justin Leonard sank a 45-foot putt to clinch the 1999 Ryder Cup, it's the one where ''the U.S. guys (were) running on the green on 17 across Ollie's line'' to celebrate. And Raymond didn't know much at all about Francis Ouimet's victory in the 1913 U.S. Open – against two British golf pros – until he arrived in Brookline this week.
''Hearing stories about it, it sounds pretty cool,'' Raymond said on Monday after shooting 67 in the first round of the Amateur at the 7,310-yard, par-70 course. ''It's about as good as my golf memories can have.''
Raymond's 3-under score makes him one of the early favorites for the 113th U.S. Amateur, which consists of two days of stroke play followed by six rounds of match play. Half of the 312 golfers played the first round at The Country Club on Monday; they will switch places on Tuesday with the half that opened up at the Charles River Country Club a few miles away.
Nick Hardy, of Northbrook, Ill., shot a 65 at Charles River to take the first-round lead, and Richy Werenski of South Hadley, Mass., had a 66, thanks to a double-eagle on the par-5, 558-yard 16th. Three others came in at 3-under at the 6,547-yard, par-70 companion course.
''It feels great to be competing against the best,'' Hardy said. ''I'm going to stay aggressive at T.C.C.''
But they still have the more difficult round ahead of them at a course that Raymond called ''scary.''
''If you hang back, you can't reach some of these holes, and you're fighting a losing battle,'' said Raymond, who won this year's St. Andrews Links Trophy at the historic Scottish course. ''As soon as I got under par, I was just thinking keep my head, see what I could do.''
It's the 16th USGA championship and the sixth U.S. Amateur at The Country Club, which also hosted the '99 Ryder Cup, when Leonard's putt on No. 17 essentially clinched the victory against Jose Maria Olazabal and the Europeans. But no event has had such a hold on golf history as the 1913 U.S. Open, when local caddie Ouimet beat British superstars Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in a playoff.
The victory by the American amateur is credited with encouraging millions to take up the sport, including Gene Sarazen and Bobby Jones. And The Country Club became the sport's American birthplace – the Plymouth Rock of putting.
''Just to know that he lived across the street and he won 100 years ago, it doesn't get any better than that,'' said Mike Miller, a Brewster, N.Y., native who is playing in his fourth U.S. Amateur and shot a 69. ''I just wanted to come here and enjoy the whole experience and take it all in. The clubhouse, the whole setting ... we've never had an amateur that had something like this. It's pretty cool.''
The U.S. Open returned to Brookline for the 50th anniversary of Ouimet's win in 1963, when Julius Boros beat Arnold Palmer and Jacky Cupit in a playoff, and 1988, when Curtis Strange beat Nick Faldo in an extra round. The Amateur was last played here in 1982, when Jay Sigel won.
Defending Amateur champion Steven Fox was 2 over at The Country Club on Monday, and runner-up Michael Weaver - who lost on the first hole of sudden death last year - was also in the field.
''A 72 out here is not bad,'' Fox said. ''You've got to play well at Charles River, but you can either to make it or break it here.''
At The Country Club, the tiny greens and skinny fairways are bounded by roughs so deep that Raymond decided to carry his own bag instead of trying to pull a handcart. ''This is the toughest golf course I've ever played,'' said Raymond, who is hoping to make the Walker Cup team and then turn pro.
Miller, whose best finish in three previous U.S. Amateurs was a loss in the round of 32 last year, said he had plenty of time during the practice round to reflect on the course's history.
''The stroke play, it's all about surviving. It's miserable out there. It's really tough,'' he said. ''Today I wasn't thinking about Francis and how he played. I was trying to focus.''