Although I drive past the Ouimet museum every day on my way to work, have contributed to the Ouimet Scholarship fund for caddies for many years and thought I knew all about the 1913 Open, this book was an eye opener for me. Almost everything I thought I knew was incorrect in some important detail, and the best parts of the story were unknown to me until I read this well researched and exciting book.
While I'm not sure that the 1913 Open was the greatest game ever played, I do know that The Greatest Game Ever Played was the best sports book I read in 2003. I heartily recommend it to any golf fan and those who love to read about the underdog rising to the top.
Before discussing the Open, let me comment that this book has a format that most will find unusual. There is extensive background on the origins of golf, the backgrounds of the players, the development of golf in the United States and the social history of the time, as well a lengthy section on aftermaths of the players and individuals involved. You will learn about unexpected subjects, such as how tuberculosis was treated before there were antibiotics.
The story-telling style is in the best tradition of fictional dramatizations. Some of the dialogue is invented. The author indicates that "in employing dialogue to bring these scenes to life, I used source material for direct attribution whenever possible. In its occasional absence I attempted to infer intent from prose or reportage . . . . In rare exceptions, with a dramatist's license, and in the utter want of an eyewitness, I took the liberty of elaborating on those perceptions beyond what I could absolutely verify." It's impossible to know which dialogue material is a quotation and what is invented, so don't take the dialogue too literally. It's like watching a made-for-television movie about the Open. One of the strengths of the dramatization is to capture the psychology of the event in what read to me like realistic terms.
During the matches, there's a tremendous amount of detail about the shots that were taken. I was impressed by the amount of research that went into capturing the drama of the occasion.
If you don't know the story, Harry Varden was the greatest star of his day. He was touring the United States with Ted Ray to earn money and to establish British superiority over the Americans by winning the Open. Before he was done, he would win six British Open championships despite having lost many years due to World War I and his illness with tuberculosis . . . and its permanent effects on his putting. Varden was Ouimet's idol, in fact. Their backgrounds were very similar in coming up as caddies from poor, working class families. Golf had been a game for the privileged rich until a small class of professionals rose up. Ouimet's victory was exceptional in that he played as an amateur and because he was so inexperienced. His victory had large ramifications for the sport in encouraging its further development in the United States and in attracting future stars to the game like Gene Sarazen and Bobby Jones.
The venue for the competition was The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts. Ouimet lived across from the 17th hole and learned to play on three holes that he and his brother built in their backyard. Ouimet got his first golf club by trading used balls he found on the course. Golf fans will be delighted to know that the 17th hole has been important in three major tournaments at TCC, the most recent being the long putt that Justin Leonard made there to win the Ryder Cup in 1999.
To me, one of the most delightful parts of the story involved tiny 10-year-old Eddie Lowery caddying for Ouimet after the first day of qualifying. Eddie was no taller than the bag and had to dodge the truant officer to get to the course. He had injured his foot before the Open and the wound bled through his bandage every day. Anyone who has ever had a young caddy will be reminded of the pleasures of working with a youngster and how that joy adds to the fun of playing.
Mr. Frost is an exceptional story teller, and I hope that he will write other historical dramatizations in the future.
As I finished the book, I realized that I should be sure to look for well researched versions of historical subjects to test my understanding of those events. Otherwise, my beliefs will often be wrong . . . and I will miss out on the drama of the real story.
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