WORCESTER, Mass – Francis Ouimet’s improbable victory in the 1913 U.S. Open at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, is credited with helping popularize golf in the U.S.
Francis Ouimet grew up across the street from TCC’s 17th hole, caddied at the club and taught himself to play. Yet somehow the 20-year-old amateur shared the 72-hole lead in the 1913 U.S. Open with the top two golfers in the world, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, both of Great Britain. Then he fired 1 under in the playoff to beat Vardon by five shots and Ray by six to become the first amateur to win the championship. Ouimet’s victory prompted many Americans to take up the game and was the subject of the 2005 movie, “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”
In 1963, on the 50th anniversary of Francis Ouimet’s historic victory, the U.S. Open returned to TCC and another Massachusetts native came so close to winning, it haunted him for the rest of his life that he didn’t.
Paul Harney, who grew up in Worcester about an hour away from TCC, won six or seven times on the PGA Tour depending on who you believe. Some golf historians count his victory at the 1958 Dorado Beach Invitational, but some don’t.
Harney captured three of his victories, the Los Angeles Open in 1964 and 1965, and the Andy Williams San Diego Open in 1972, after he began playing part-time on the PGA Tour. In 1963, he fulfilled a promise to his wife, Patti, to cease playing full-time when the youngest of what would be their six children entered school. So he took a club pro job in California for a couple of years before returning to Massachusetts to become the head pro at Pleasant Valley CC in Sutton, just outside of Worcester and host to many PGA Tour events.
In those days, Harney usually played on the PGA Tour only for the first few months of the year, but he made an exception when the U.S. Open returned to TCC.
Harney died in 2011 at age 82 but when I interviewed him in 2005 in advance of his induction into the PGA Golf Professional Hall of Fame, he credited his putting with enabling him to be competitive despite not playing full-time.
“You had to be able to shoot a good score when you played just awful,” Harney said. “There’s only one way you can do that – to be a good enough putter. I could do that.”
Unfortunately, his 12-footer for par on his last hole in the 1963 U.S. Open stopped just short of the cup and kept him out of what would be another three-hole playoff, this one with eventual winner Julius Boros, Arnold Palmer and Jacky Cupit.
“I can still see that putt,” Harney said in 2005. “I told myself that all I had to do was start it on line and I’d make it. As soon as I hit it, I started it on line. I said, ‘Oh, terrific, I made it.’ But it stopped an inch short. I almost fainted.”
Harney also believed he came within about a foot of having a chance to win the title outright. His 4-iron approach from the left-hand rough on 18 kicked off the down slope and off the green. Had his approach hit a foot shorter, he believed it would have landed on his side of the bank and bounced up onto the green close to the pin for a short birdie putt.
“I can’t imagine that I still remember these things,” Harney said in 2005, more than four decades later.
In 1963, the final 36 holes were played on Saturday. Harney shot a pair of 73s in a howling wind, five shots better than Palmer and Cupit and two better than Boros, but he fell just short of winning America’s most prestigious golf event in his home state.
Taking a two-week break from his job as head pro in California, Harney had lost the previous week in a playoff to Palmer in the Thunderbird Classic.
“Palmer was the best competitor I’ve ever played against and I’ve played against most of them,” Harney said.
Harney never won a major, but he played well in them. In addition to placing fourth in the 1963 U.S. Open, he finished among the top eight in the Masters four times, including a tie for fifth in 1964, and placed among the top 18 in the PGA five times, including a tie for seventh in 1962.
In college at Holy Cross, he captained the golf team and posted a 52-4 record. As a senior, he was medalist in the NCAAs.
Harney owned a perfect record in the Massachusetts Open, winning it all five times he played in it, including four in a row.
In 1957, Harney borrowed a putter from a PGA Tour official and earned his first PGA Tour victory at the Carling Open in Flint, Mich. Two weeks later, using a putting tip from his father, he captured his second victory in the Labatt Open in Canada. At the end of that year, Harney was voted the most improved golfer on tour.
In 1959, he rallied from five shots back to win the Pensacola Open in Florida. In 1964, he won the Los Angeles Open and the following year he repeated as champion even though he was bed-ridden with the flu the week before.
In 1964, he teamed with Don January to take the CBS Golf Classic, an unofficial event, but one which earned him $25,000.
Harney came close to three-peating in the L.A. Open in 1966, cutting Palmer’s lead from seven shots to one with two holes to go before finishing in a tie for second. Palmer also won the L.A. Open in 1967, matching Harney’s feat of successfully defending his title.
At age 42, Harney won the 1972 Andy Williams San Diego Open while moonlighting from his full-time job as head pro at PV. Later that year, Harney opened Paul Harney Golf Club, an executive golf course in East Falmouth.
Harney sharpened his game in the winter by hitting balls into a net in his garage before playing on the PGA Tour before Pleasant Valley CC opened each year.
Harney’s ability to win as a part-time player impressed PGA Tour regulars. When Johnny Miller won the 1994 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am – his only event that year after taking the previous year off – he told everyone he had “pulled a Paul Harney.”