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Brookline Has a Storied History, and Latest Renovations Have Set It Up for More Drama

Remember the 1999 Ryder Cup? (Of course you do.) In addition to the 1913 U.S. Open (Francis Ouimet), Brookline also hosted Curtis Strange's win in 1988 and Julius Boros's triumph in 1963. Get ready for another memorable Open week.

The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, is a “founding father” of American golf and a long-favored USGA site, as it hosted the 1913, 1963 and 1988 Opens, along with many other USGA events. It boasts a rich golf history, including playoffs in all three prior U.S. Opens held there, and 27 holes of terrific championship golf.

Since 1902 Brookline has hosted 16 USGA championships, plus a couple of Walker Cups and, of course, the 1999 Ryder Cup, site of Justin Leonard’s 17th hole “putt heard 'round the world”. It has also hosted 10 Massachusetts Amateurs. Only Oakmont (17) and Merion (18) have hosted more USGA events, and once the 2022 Open is in the books, Brookline will be tied with Oakmont. Heady stuff.

U.S. Open History at Brookline

In 1913 Brookline hosted the famed victory, in an 18-hole playoff, of 20-year-old Francis Ouimet, who lived next door to The Country Club and was a former caddie. He beat Englishmen Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, and while Ouimet was not the inaugural American to win our Open (that would be John McDermott, both the first American and still, at 19, the youngest U.S. Open winner), the U.S. golfing public was captivated by the story of the amateur youth from the wrong side of the tracks prevailing over British professional titans in a dramatic playoff.

The New York Tribune ran this headline at the top of its front page:

Francis Ouimet, a Youthful Amateur, Astounds the Golf World By Beating Veteran Masters of Game and Winning Open Title

Ouimet's win was very big. Matter of fact, 1913 can lay legitimate claim to being the most important U.S. Open ever, given how it ignited golf interest in America. Accordingly, its of course been the subject of books and films, including “The Greatest Game Ever Played”.

Fifty years later, in 1963, Julius Boros, 43, prevailed in Brookline in a playoff over lightly regarded Jacky Cupit and the estimable Arnold Palmer. Palmer’s reputation as a very long but errant driver of the golf ball, and hence not built for U.S. Open success, was belied by his impressive U.S. Open record: “only” one win (1960) but 10 top-five finishes and 13 top-10s, including his last at Winged Foot in 1974 at 46. Topping the King when he was on his game, as he was in 1963 at Brookline, was no small feat.

Boros is seldom mentioned among the greats of the game, and it’s a shame that he has not been given what I believe is his due by history (though he is in the World Golf Hall of Fame). The handsome Boros, a college baseball player and then a working accountant, did not turn pro until he was almost 30 (my how times have changed – today the only working accountants in golf are the ones toiling non-stop for the Tour’s millionaire stars). And yet despite his late start, over the next 18 years he amassed a very enviable record.

His effortless swing was extremely powerful, and together with his low-key approach to the game (he was the golfing equivalent of laid-back crooner Perry Cuomo) fueled his 18 PGA wins, three majors and four Ryder Cup appearances. With 16 top fives in majors and 21 top 10s, he made the bucket hat famous and showed up when matters were most pressing.

Moreover, five years after Brookline, Boros went on to win the 1968 PGA, at age 48. The previous oldest winner of a major was Old Tom Morris age 46 in the 1867 Open. Boros remained the oldest major winner until last year when Phil Mickelson annexed the PGA Championship at age 50.

The third and latest U.S. Open played at Brookline was in 1988 when Curtis Strange won his first U.S. Open, holding off Nick Faldo in a playoff, with Strange needing to get up-and-down for a dramatic par on 18 to force the overtime.

Mark O’Meara tied for third in 1988, his best major finish (together with his T3 in the 1991 Open Championship) until 10 years later, at 41, when he dazzled while winning both the Masters and the Open and finishing T4 in the PGA.

The 1988 U.S. Open at The Country Club was significant. Strange, one of the fiercest competitors on Tour, won 17 times and had 12 top 10s in majors, but an argument can be made that he underachieved given his talent and proximity to more potential major victories.

His closest prior brush with greatness was the 1985 Masters. Opening with an 80 and hence a sure-fire lock to miss the cut, Strange caught fire and despite the awful start enjoyed a three-shot lead with six holes left on Sunday. It was at this point that he made a couple of fatal, and related, decisions:

On Augusta’s 13th and 15th holes he went for broke on his second shots, and both times his ball was last seen diving into the water of Rae’s Creek and the pond fronting 15, respectively (his decision-making was the patron saint of Tin Cup). When the carnage settled, Bernhard Langer had won his first of two Masters and Strange finished T2 alongside former Masters champs Raymond Floyd and Severiano Ballesteros.

To his immense credit, a couple of years later Strange shook off the Masters debacle and was at the peak of his powers, winning the U.S. Open in both 1988 and 1989.

Putting that achievement in historical context, here are the sole winners of back-to-back U.S. Opens (note this list is Jack-less and Tiger-less):

2017-18: Brooks Koepka

1988-89: Curtis Strange

1950-51: Ben Hogan

1937-38: Ralph Guldahl

1929-30: Bobby Jones (a)

1911-12: John McDermott

1903-05: Willie Anderson

Strange’s foil in 1988 was Faldo, and while it’s easy to believe Sir Nick was always the stone-cold killer we remember from his six major wins, he had won but his first - in 1987 - by famously making 18 pars to hold off Azinger for the Open title. He would go on to win five more majors in the 1990s. So in a real sense Strange caught Faldo on his way up, as Faldo eventually evolved into as ruthless a competitor as could be found in any sport, and for sure in the conversation with Michael Jordan and Tom Brady as tremendous competitors who fed off the tribulations of their opponents (see, for example, 1996 when Faldo started the final round of the Masters six shots down to his playing partner Greg Norman and yet won by five shots, firing a blistering 67 to Norman’s epic-collapse 78).

Said another way, Strange’s victory over Faldo in that playoff looks more impressive through the lens of history.

Brookline: The Course

With a course “designed by committee” - head pros Willie and Alex Campbell (no relation) and also, fascinatingly, several club members — The Country Club harks back to 1882. A Brahmin of American golf, in 1894 it was one of the five charter clubs to form the USGA. Old school, indeed.

Another interesting fact about The Country Club is that there is no continuity to the holes and routes played from Open to Open. The course played in 1913 is today called the Main Course, although the holes back then were played in a slightly different order than they are today.

By the 1963 Open, the powers that be elected to utilize its "Composite Course," pulled from the 27 available holes at The Country Club. The Composite Course was first utilized in the 1957 U.S. Amateur at Brookline, and morphed only slightly to the layout for 1963 and then 1988 (with Rees Jones’ fine hand involved).

By the 2013 U.S. Amateur (won by Matthew Fitzpatrick, a name we could hear this year over Father's Day weekend), the same Composite holes were used, but with different yardages and pars. The redesign was the work of Gil Hanse, who was retained by The Country Club in 2008. The USGA has required little in the way of change, but Brookline decided that some routing alterations were in order. The Club believes that the routing changes allow a better flow for players and spectators alike.

By way of background, Hanse fell in love with Merion’s par-3 13th hole, which has a bowl for a greens complex. (It’s also where Phil Mickelson came up short in the final round while chasing Justin Rose.) With that in mind, the 4th hole, a short par 4 on the Composite layout, was something Hanse wanted to replace; he felt it was a terrific hole, but spectator access was problematic.

Instead, Hanse made the recommendation to replace it with a short, 131-yard par 3 and insert it as the new 11th hole. Oh, and that hole has not been used in a Brookline U.S. Open since 1913, the Ouimet event where it played as the 11th hole of the tournament.

What is special about it? The Country Club believes it’s a bit romantic to play a short par 3 even for current-era bombers, and there is also the thought that the hole should be enjoyable for members as well. Hanse doubled the square footage of the green (incidentally, Hanse has increased most of the greens' sizes, trying to get them back to how they played in the 1930s).

The new 11th is styled as a redan green design with real contours, and the hole has an elevated tee box from 131 yards. But this green is a redan in name only. While it does resemble a redan-like fortress, it does not resemble the redan holes that have been made famous by North Berwick, Shinnecock, National Golf Links, Yale Golf Course and the like.

It’s fronted by a deep bunker in front, and two more on the left side. The USGA has flexibility to make the hole shorter or longer, and to adjust approach angles.

All that noted, at this pitch-and-putt distance, what exactly is the challenge for the pros? Hanse believes that larger targets are not necessarily easier, and with the ability to place the pin in some tough locations, a birdie-hungry player can be tempted. Miss the green, and there are steep fall-offs with deep, tough rough. And the front fifth of the green actually slopes away from the tee.

So, birdies are possible on this hole, but it'll be no gimme to make par. But perhaps more importantly, isn’t it indeed romantic to breathe new life into a hole not seen in U.S. Open play since Ouimet, Vardon and Ray last trod upon it? For the historical buff, let’s note that Ouimet parred the hole in the playoff while both Brits bogeyed, giving Ouimet the lead he never relinquished.

Commenting on Brookline’s approach to the tournament this year, Stephen Pellegrino, a member of The Country Club and vice chair of the 2022 U.S. Open, assures that “no one has discussed the idea of trying to present the course so that the winning score is 'X.' We just want a fair test for the best players.” He notes that even with the greens' expansion, the greens are relatively small compared to other championship venues. Matter of fact, it’s believed that other than Pebble Beach (whose average green square footage is smaller than at Brookline), these will be the smallest greens seen in recent U.S. Open history.

Pellegrino notes that the Composite Course was called the “Open Course” from 1988-1998, and then the “Championship Course” upon the Ryder Cup arriving in 1999. In a nod to the strong and deeply-rooted relationship between the Club and the USGA, The Country Club has returned the name of its composite course to the Open Course.

At 7,264 yards and par 70, The Country Club is not a monstrous brute. But it says here that it will yield a very worthy champion and some great golf and drama.