The U.S. Open is back at The Country Club because of Fred Waterman.
In reality, the national open is back in Brookline, Massachusetts, because of the 1913 championship and the most significant event in American golf history.
Waterman is the club’s historian. Through his eyes, there are always contextual connections.
“It is because of the history, and club historians who kept the history, that the U.S. Open is being played here in 2022,” he says.
He’s right. Historians such as Waterman have kept the 1913 U.S. Open alive for more than a century. If not, who would believe it?
Francis Ouimet, the local amateur who lived across the dirt street from The Country Club, defeated two of the best players in the world, if not the two best: British titans Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. Their stars were so big that the United States Golf Association pushed back the championship from June to September just so they could compete.
When a 20-year-old who took time off from his job at a sporting goods store won, the front-page news shook the entire sport. It inspired kids such as Gene Sarazen and Bobby Jones. An estimated 300,000 Americans played golf in 1913, a decade later there were 2.1 million even with a world war in between. Golf was no longer just a fledgling game in the colonies.
Chronicling golf history has always been a team effort. The game has numerous historians. The USGA and The R&A have their museums and staffs. There’s the World Golf Hall of Fame. Folks such as Andrew Mutch and David Normoyle, former USGA museum officials, each run businesses helping clubs archive and display their history. And there’s a cottage industry of authors who document the past for clubs in privately produced club history books.
For most clubs though, the backbone of preservation and education fall to their own members such as Waterman, who take on the responsibility with passion and without compensation. “You have to get pleasure out of something being exactly right,” he says. “There’s no casualness in writing history.”
The same has been true of historians at other U.S. Open hosts, for example, John Capers at Merion and the late Neil Regan at Winged Foot, and overseas with people such as Douglas McCreath at Royal Troon, John Rostron at Royal Birkdale and Ian Bamford at Royal Portrush preserving their rich histories that include The Open Championship.
For Waterman (pictured right), it wasn’t a job he was looking for. Waterman is a writer, having penned award-winning fiction and non-fiction for numerous publications. He spent eight years as a sportswriter for United Press International (UPI), even covering the 1988 U.S. Open at The Country Club. After becoming a member, he offered his editorial services for the program for the 1999 Ryder Cup. The person in charge wound up turning the entire project over to him.
At the time, club historian Elmer Cappers and his assistant, Louis Newell, were both getting on in years, and Waterman’s involvement slowly increased. It wound up fitting his personality and talents.
“I remember writing something the first year I was in journalism,” he says. “It was about a town trying to preserve its history. And the lead to the story was: ‘History if not cared for becomes distorted, lost, and finally just assumptions of what might have been’.”
There’s a lot for one person to care for at The Country Club. Its history dates back hundreds of years with a location that has been home to significant happenings and people. The club’s own foundation started with a tale that sparked a revolution.
In the mid-1800s, Boston’s James Murray Forbes moved to China to work for his family’s lucrative trading company. While in Shanghai, he joined a social and recreational club that the local community of English-speaking traders had established on a piece of secluded parkland. It went by the English name of “The Country Club.” The concept and the name stuck with Forbes, and after eight years in China, he carried it home.
“In the early 1880s, he gathers a group of friends at his home on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston and proposes this idea of a family-based sporting club, which was an original idea,” Waterman says.
Forbes had more than 300 members enroll almost immediately, and the first country club in the United States was born.
“The fact that he put together both the name ‘Country Club’ with the concept has been beneficial to hundreds of millions of people,” Waterman says.
Currently, there are close to 4,000 private clubs in the U.S. with golf facilities, in addition to the 10,000-plus golf courses that are open to the public yet foster the same sense of community and camaraderie. Search “country club” on Google, and 70 million results are generated. All because of Forbes.
“You’re talking about cultural history,” Waterman says, “and the concept of a gathering place for families.”
But golf wasn’t a glimmer in the eye of Forbes or anyone else in Boston’s social circles in 1882. Horse racing and boxing were the two big sports of the late 19th century. It fact, a race track was the main attraction of the property The Country Club first leased and later purchased at Clyde Park in Brookline.
Waterman loves to connect the dots, and they are like Dalmatians at his club. He discovered that golf made its way to the club through a circuitous route.
Florence Boit came from one of Boston’s most prominent and wealthy families. While in Pau, France, in the winter of 1891-92, she discovered golf. In fact, Pau Golf Club had been the first golf club in France, and she fell in love with it. Upon returning to the Boston area with clubs in hand, she devised her own course on her family’s estate. Three of the people she introduced to golf were her uncle, Arthur Honnewell, and his friends, Laurence Curtis and Robert Bacon, all members of The Country Club. They became hooked as well. The men took the game to Brookline and convinced the club of its potential. None of the three men had ever seen a golf course.
Nevertheless, in the spring of 1893, they laid out six holes over The Country Club, crisscrossing the bridle and steeplechase tracks to the befuddlement of its equine enthusiasts. Less than two years later, the club was one of five founding members of the United States Golf Association. Curtis became the USGA’s second president (the USGA’s first president, Theodore Havemeyer from Newport, had learned to play golf at Pau just as Boit did). In all, six USGA presidents have come from The Country Club – the most of any club.
The horse races stopped in the 1930s, and the track was fully taken up in the mid-1960s. The golf holes remain. This week, The Country Club is hosting its 17th USGA national championship – second most all-time behind only Merion, where a successful “boutique” U.S. Open in 2013 was the catalyst for a return to The Country Club, which also hosted Opens in 1963, on the 50th anniversary of Ouimet’s victory, and in 1988, on the 75th anniversary.
Boit’s story illustrates Waterman’s belief that while specifics are important, “more important is why and how it affected people’s lives.”
Over the past year in advance of the U.S. Open, Waterman has clocked into the archive room on the top floor of the clubhouse more often. It’s been like a full-time job with overtime. He’s dug deeper and broader to learn more stories, and he’s worked on communicating those stories better.
With the help of the club’s archival assistant, Charline Lawless, he’s produced more than 70 new displays and images that have been hung on the walls around the club, bringing the total to more than 120. His goal is to draw you in around every corner, and he hopes they will be soaked in by players, officials and guests this week. His newest project completed just in time for the U.S. Open was a 25-panel timeline around the walls of the Locker Building’s vestibule.
“I wanted people to have access to The Country Club’s history and for it to be remembered with images and words that people could walk away with and hold on to,” Waterman says. “My goal is not for The Country Club to have one historian, but to turn the members into a club of 1,000 club historians.”
He takes pride when he’s on the course and overhears other members tell guests that the sixth hole they’ll play for the U.S. Open is the oldest tee and green on the property. Or that the lower tee on the fourth hole – which isn’t being played for this championship – was the tee shot Francis Ouimet most feared. Why? Because there’s a 30-foot rise directly in front of the tee, and at the time, there was no unplayable ball rule. You played it as it lied, which meant more than once Ouimet had found himself on that steep slope taking multiple hacks to advance a ball.
“It is satisfying to gather it and preserve it accurately and then for it to be absorbed and savored by generations of people you’ll never meet,” Waterman says.
Waterman will exhale after championship week; however, history doesn’t take any days off. There will soon be an updated edition of the club’s golf history book, “The Story of Golf at The Country Club,” which was originally published under his direction in 2009. The club’s 150th anniversary is just 10 years away, which will bring more work and probably another massive club history book, just as there were for the 50th and 100th anniversaries.
“You’re not just gathering the events of history, you’re gathering the history of people,” he says. “History at its best is a very human record.”
Which is why in the thousands of hours Waterman has spent unearthing stories, the one that sticks with him the most may be the most human.
“The story that I like the best is the fact that Francis Ouimet didn’t need a caddie who could tell him what club to hit or how to play a hole,” he says. “What he needed was someone to believe in him.”
That caddie was 10-year-old Eddie Lowery. When his older brother decided not to caddie in the championship, the youngster skipped school and caught the train from Newton to Brookline. Short in both stature and caddying experience, he convinced Ouimet to let him carry his bag. It was the best decision Ouimet made all week.
“He needed to have somebody who had that opportunistic spirit, that street urchin, go-for-it, aggressiveness,” Waterman says. “Francis needed to have that voice in his ear through those three days.”
When people tried to convince Ouimet to drop Lowery for an older, more experienced caddie before the playoff, he stood firm with his biggest cheerleader. Following his victory and in the years that came later, Ouimet always gave him credit for the win. There’s even a photo signed by Ouimet at The Country Club with an inscription over Lowery that reads: “This is the boy who won the 1913 Open.”
“It’s funny how sometimes fate provides you with not what you want,” Waterman says, “but with what you need.”
Editor's note: Gil Capps is the long-time editorial advisor on NBC Sports’ golf broadcasts. He’s the author of “The Magnificent Masters: Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Tom Weiskopf and the 1975 Cliffhanger at Augusta.”