One of the most important venues in American golf began as a place to watch amateur horse racing. Founded in 1882, the Country Club in Brookline, Mass, the site of this week’s United States Open, is one of the oldest clubs in America and one of five founding clubs of the United States Golf Association. Yet none of that might have happened if not for the niece of one its members.
Florence Boit was visiting Pau, France, in 1894 when “she came across an old course built by Scottish soldiers in the 1850s,” said Fred Waterman, the club historian. When she returned to the United States, she introduced the game to her uncle Laurence Curtis, a member of the club who would become the second president of the U.S.G.A.
Soon after Curtis introduced the game, several members, despite never having seen a proper golf course, laid out six rudimentary holes on the club’s grounds. While none of those holes remain today, the rugged and rocky terrain the course sits on set its character.
Built on rock outcroppings and winding through ridges formed by glaciers, the Country Club is a creation wholly of its time, with a layout and surface that is challenging to golfers of all skill levels, including the best in the world.
Since 2007, Gil Hanse has been the consulting architect at the club, and he said that, unlike similar courses of that era that were “fit into the landscape, the holes of the Country Club seem to have been draped on top of the land that was there.”
Part of the course’s charm are its small greens, unlike most in major championship golf. Hanse has worked with the club to expand its putting surfaces where he was able, but players this week will be aiming at smaller targets than usual.
The Country Club has a long history of hosting U.S.G.A. championships, beginning with the 1902 United States Women’s Amateur. Including this year’s Open, it has hosted 16 U.S.G.A. championships, one in every decade except for the 2000s.
A famous championship played at the club was the 1913 U.S. Open, when Francis Ouimet, a 20-year-old amateur who grew up across the street, beat Ted Ray and Harry Vardon in a playoff victory. Ouimet’s win catapulted golf’s popularity in the United States. Waterman said that, in the 10 years after Ouimet’s victory, the United States went from having 340,000 golfers to 2.1 million.
It wasn’t Ouimet’s amateur status alone that made him golf’s folk hero at the time. He caddied at the club and took up the game using balls he found around the course and his brother’s clubs. He would often hit balls in a pasture at his own makeshift course. Ouimet’s unlikely victory and humble origins were chronicled by the writer Mark Frost in his book “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”
In the 1913 playoff, the three golfers came to the 17th hole with its green sitting only 275 yards away from Ouimet’s childhood home and Vardon down one. Ray was already out of contention. Vardon tried to cut the corner of the dogleg left hole, but came up short, his ball landing in a bunker that now bears his name.
This allowed Ouimet to take a more conservative route right of the bunker. Unable to reach the green, Vardon splashed out and then shot a bogey, while Ouimet went on to birdie the hole and take a three-stroke lead. He breezed home from there.
Ouimet, who died in 1967, had a distinguished amateur career, winning the 1914 United States Amateur. In 1951, he became the first non-Briton elected captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews. He never turned pro.
Fifty years later, when the U.S.G.A. returned to the club to honor Ouimet’s win, the 17th hole again proved pivotal. Arnold Palmer missed an 18-inch putt that put him two strokes behind the leader, Jacky Cupit.
“Cupit didn’t know he had a two-stroke lead on Palmer, and he told me if he had, he would have hit an iron off the tee and played to the middle of the fairway,” Waterman said.
Instead, thinking he needed to reach for more, Cupit hit a three-wood, landing in the long grass next to the Vardon bunker, but not in it. He made double bogey on the hole to tie with Palmer and Julius Boros. Cupit still had a chance when he arrived at the 18th green and the 72nd hole of the championship, but he missed a 15-footer “by one inch,” Waterman said. He and Palmer lost to Boros in the playoff.
The three U.S. Opens played at the club have gone to a playoff, and the 17th has always provided the drama. “It’s a match-play hole in a stroke-play event,” Waterman said, causing the golfer to consider his opponent especially down the stretch rather than just allowing the golfer to play his own game.
In the 1988 Open, Curtis Strange three-putted the green, forcing himself to fall back into a tie, but he won the playoff the next day for the first of his two consecutive U.S. Open wins. The 17th also provided the 1999 Ryder Cup with a frenzied celebration after Justin Leonard made a putt from over 40 feet to win the hole against José Maria Olazábal, causing the American team and its fans to flood the green.
The Country Club has provided a lot of drama. Frost, the author, said he believed that something else was at work at the club.
“The course is an enduring American classic perfectly designed for dramatic finishes,” he said, “but my more mystical side thinks Francis might have something to do with it.”