Skip to main content

Remembering Ouimet: Who was Francis?

Getty Images

BOSTON – “So, you’re here about Dad,” the sweet lady with the strangely familiar face says as she shuffles from the front door to the living room.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Well, I can’t tell you much about his golf, but I can tell you what he was like.”

If you’re interested in Francis Ouimet the player, these are the facts:

• Winner, 1913 U.S. Open

• Winner, 1914 U.S. Amateur

• Winner, 1931 U.S. Amateur

• Original Hall of Fame inductee

Those are Cliffs Notes. For the full resume, check his Wikipedia page.

Barbara McLean doesn’t know Wikipedia from a wookie, but she knows Francis DeSales Ouimet. He was her father. If you’re thinking, ‘Wow, that’s gotta make her …’ – yes, she’s 92 years old.

Her dad was the son of immigrants, born in 1893 to a French-Canadian father (Arthur) and an Irish mother (Mary Ellen). They moved to Brookline, Mass., just across the street from the 17th hole at The Country Club, when Francis was 4. The family was relatively poor, and Francis caddied to provide extra income. He had two brothers and one sister.

Further details of Ouimet’s life are in fine print, as well as celluloid and digital media. Mark Frost wrote an award-winning book, “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” on his ’13 U.S. Open triumph. Bill Paxton directed the Disney movie. A Google search can tell you just about anything else you’d want to know.

Except for one important thing: Who was Francis Ouimet?

His autobiography, “A Game of Golf,” details his playing career and highlights the whats and the whens, but does little to reveal who he was. For that, it’s best not to rely on the man himself.

“Dad didn’t like talking about himself and the things he did,” Barbara (pictured right) says from her home in Osterville, Mass., where she lives with her husband of 70 years, Obder “Bro” McLean.

“I don’t think we really completely understood (his accomplishments) until after Dad died. Of course we knew this (pointing to a portrait above her mantel featuring Francis as the first American-born captain of the R&A) was a great honor. We knew when he won the 1931 (U.S. Amateur) that was a big deal. But other than that, he never discussed these things.”

In talking with Ouimet’s descendants, who over the years expanded to two daughters, five grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild, one thing is evident: Francis was a family man.

“My grandmother told me that there was one big tournament that he won, and all of his friends asked him to come out and celebrate,” relays Francis’ great-granddaughter Caitlin Wallerce. “He told them, ‘Go on without me. All I want to do is go home and celebrate with my family.’”

The deeper you dig in discovery of Ouimet, the more there is to appreciate. Frost interviewed more than 100 subjects for his book. With that sample size, you figure he had to hear at least one negative thing said about – or by – Ouimet.

“Never. Not one. He was a man of sterling character,” Frost proclaims. “This distinguished him from just about every other athlete I’d ever come across.”

Says Bob Donovan, executive director of the Francis Ouimet Scholarship Fund, “The worst thing I ever heard about Mr. Ouimet was that he was too nice and complimentary. If you were playing golf with him, it was all about you, never about him. You might skull a chip – basically a terrible shot – and it might roll next to the cup. He would say something like, ‘Oh, wonderful shot. Well done.’ He wasn’t being patronizing. He was just being pleasant.”

Donovan first met Ouimet when he was 15 years old, the morning of the 1963 U.S. Open playoff at The Country Club – 50 years after Ouimet won there. “He said, ‘Master Donovan, how are you?’ He was so kind. I’ll never forget walking away and saying to my dad, ‘What a nice man.’”

Arnold Palmer lost that playoff to Julius Boros, and the bitter taste lingers. His memory of meeting Ouimet that week is much more palatable.

“More than a wonderful golfer, he was a true gentleman,” Palmer says. “He was a true tribute to the game of golf.”

Wonderful has several synonyms: amazing, astonishing, astounding, awesome, etc., etc. But those words are a little too extravagant, too flamboyant for Mr. Ouimet – or, we should say, Francis.

“'Call me Francis.' That is what he would always say to people,” Bro tells. “I had a hard time with that, because he was Mr. Ouimet to me. But that’s what he wanted.”

Francis stood 6-foot-2 and weighed a buck-75. He was long and lean, angular in face and bespectacled with age. If you knew him only by looks, you’d consider him friendly. If you knew him personally, you’d consider him … what’s that word?

“He was wonderful, a wonderful father,” Barbara says. “He was interested in everything we did. He drove us to school in the morning. We came home. We all sat down for dinner at 6 o’clock at night. ‘What did you do at school today?’ he would ask.”

“There were no dishwashers back in those days,” Barbara continues. “Dad would always want to help out. He would say, ‘I’ll be the Garbage King,’ with a big grin on his face. He was just Dad.”

And Granddad.

“To us, he was just our grandfather,” says Barbara’s daughter, Sheila Macomber. “Of course, we knew about the things he had done, but it didn’t change our relationship.

“He drove me to and from school and picked up every kid along the way. He would ask each one three questions: ‘What is your name?’ ‘What does your family do?’ ‘What would you like to do when you grow up?’”

Sheila recalls fondly the times spent with her grandfather, feeding ducks and running around shagging balls. To Francis, golf was a game. It was meant to be enjoyable, not laborious. It was recreation and friendly competition. It was a passion, but never a profession.

In his autobiography, on page 5, Ouimet writes: “Mother thought I had gone crazy because golf was the only thing I seemed interested in.” On page 8, Mary Ellen warns him, “The game of golf was bound to get me in trouble.” He tells the story of borrowing $25 from his mother to get a club membership in order to compete in the 1910 U.S. Amateur and how he had to take a $4-a-week job at a dry-goods store in Boston to pay her back the full amount.

“He was,” as Frost says, “the embodiment of the Horatio Alger story – willing to sacrifice, work hard, find a place for himself in the world.”

That place ultimately proved to be in the financial world, as a stockbroker.

“Why did he remain an amateur?” repeats Donovan to the same question. “I think it’s real simple. The world was terribly different in 1913 and ’14 than it is today. Could you make a living as a professional golfer then? Not many people could. There was no such thing, really, as a tour. … It wasn’t really a career path.”

In Ouimet’s words to The American Golfer in 1934: “You see, golf and business don’t mix very well. You can have your choice, but you can’t have both. At least I never could.

“One day I woke up to the fact that I had a wife and two little girls to look after – and that I’d better get busy doing it (focusing on a business career rather than golf). I’m glad I did.”

Ouimet’s career path was astounding. Not only was he a Hall of Fame golfer, he was president of the NHL Boston Bruins, in 1931, and vice president of baseball's Boston Braves, in '41. He was a U.S. Army solider, participating in golf exhibitions as fund raisers for the Red Cross. He even served on the USGA Executive Committee, despite the organization stripping him of his amateur status during his heyday.

His final job was as a financial adviser at Brown Brothers, Harriman. “We weren’t rich. Dad always made sure to tell us that,” Barbara says. “But we always had what we needed and much of what we wanted. I never knew the Depression.”

One of her favorite stories regarding her father occurred while he worked at BBH:

“There was a young man starting out at Brown Brothers, and Dad took him under his wing. Dad was given a lot of clothing, and this man was the same size as Dad. He used to bring Paul (Hughes) the clothes in a suitcase and would say, ‘Didn’t you say you were going away for the weekend, and you wanted to borrow my suitcase?’ That’s all he would say, and he’d smile and hand him the suitcase full of clothes.”

Generous. Gifted. Intelligent. Diligent. Compassionate. Did we leave anything out?

“Wonderful. He was a wonderful man,” Caitlin says. “One major thing that my mom and grandmother wanted me to know was his values, and that he really didn’t want to make money; he wanted to help kids with their education and put them in a more positive environment. He wanted to get them involved in (golf), because it had such a positive effect and outcome in his life.”

In 1949, Francis’ friends began the Francis Ouimet Scholarship Fund to help young Massachusetts men and women in the golf industry further their education. For all he accomplished in life, including being among the first class inducted into the PGA Hall of Fame in 1940 and the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1974, Ouimet once said of the fund, “Of all the honors I’ve had, I can’t think of one I prize more.”

The fund motto, courtesy Ouimet, is: “From what golf has given you – let’s give back to golf.”

This year, total scholarship monies distributed since '49 exceeded $26.5 million, to more than 5,100 recipients.

“My grandfather would be shocked and thrilled with how the scholarship has grown,” Sheila says.

With 2,100 people in attendance for the organization’s centennial gala festivities, making it the largest golf dinner in the country, he’d also be a bit uncomfortable, according to Donovan.

“He would probably spend the night passing out kudos to everyone else besides himself,” Donovan says.

Says Barbara, “He’d take it all in stride. He always said, later in life when he’d receive an award, ‘Nobody remembers me.’”

More people should. There was no mention of Francis Ouimet Day in that Wednesday’s edition of the Boston Globe. There was an article in the sports section the morning after that night’s gala – on page C11.

Barbara doesn’t seem to mind: “He wouldn’t enjoy all the publicity.” Donovan agrees.

Still, while Ouimet might not rank among the top 10 players of all time, perhaps not among the top 50, the significance of his accomplishment is inarguably No. 1. Prior to his 1913 U.S. Open victory there were an estimated 350,000 American golfers. Ten years later that number reached 2.1 million – in a still developing nation. Of the courses ranked on Golf Digest’s latest top 100 in America, 17 were designed during that decade stretch.

“This is one of the greatest stories in the 20th century. Not just golf, and beyond sports,” Frost says.

And was Ouimet the perfect person for this victory?

“It almost seemed like this tale had to be told, given the circumstances,” Frost responds. “It was as if it was preordained.”

And yet, the 1913 U.S. Open was not Ouimet’s favorite victory. He far more cherished his two Amateur titles. After all, he never expected to win the national professional title; it was beyond a dreamer’s dreams. The amateur championship – that was always his goal.

Personal affection aside, history favors the improbable events that transpired at Brookline. Poor kid, local kid, no formal training. A 20-year-old amateur who takes down two of the game’s top professionals, in a head-to-head-to-head playoff, no less.

What if Ouimet had never entered the 1913 U.S. Open? What if he had been wealthy or prominent or bombastic? What if one of those Brits had prevailed?

Fortunately for the game, those questions never needed answering.

"The luckiest thing, however, which happened to American golf was that its first great hero was a person like Francis Ouimet," Herbert Warren Wind wrote. "He was a fine man. He never allowed his successes to swell his head. He remained free from affectation. He was an instinctive gentleman. He was the great boy who became a great man. … The more Americans learned about Francis Ouimet, the more they admired him."

“He was the kindest and most considerate of men,” wrote Joseph C. Dey, executive director of the USGA at the time of Ouimet’s death. “He was utterly devoid of malice or bitterness or a retaliatory urge.”

Ouimet died Sept. 2, 1967, a time when his beloved Boston Red Sox were closing out their ‘Impossible Dream’ season. It was also two weeks after the Sox's right fielder, a local hero himself, was hit by a pitch and hospitalized.

In an ambulance, after suffering a heart attack, a dazed Ouimet awoke to see all the personnel treating him and said, “Such a fuss. You’d think I was Tony Conigliaro.”

“He was very humble, self-effacing,” Donovan says. “You know, he was a member at certain clubs and an honorary member at several others. He never thought it was right to beat the members or win the member-guest or club championship.”

Francis was buried in Holyhood Cemetery in Brookline. While there is a Ouimet headstone there, it signifies his mother and father. Francis is buried alongside his wife of nearly 50 years, Stella Sullivan, in her family’s plot. There is nothing grandiose representing Francis. In fact, he doesn’t even have his own headstone; he shares a singular, modest marker with members of the Sullivan family. His and Stella’s names appear on the back.

“From the family stories that I heard,” writes Caitlin in an email, “he adored Stella and enjoyed nothing more than being home with her and the kids.”

Who was Francis Ouimet? This was Francis Ouimet.