What is 'The Greatest Game Ever Played'?
Author chronicles momentous match that changed golf
By Todd Leopold
(CNN) -- Every sport has its Greatest Game. NFL fans would probably point to the 1958 championship between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts, an overtime affair that vaulted the professional game into the modern age. Baseball fans, who have plenty of choices, might single out Game 6 of the 1975 World Series, a 12-inning affair that revitalized interest in the sport.
But for Mark Frost, there's no contest: the "Greatest Game Ever Played," as the title of his book (published by Hyperion) has it, is the 1913 U.S. Open golf championship at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts.
Doesn't ring a bell?
Well, it was quite a match, as Frost details. The unlikely contest involved British pro Harry Vardon, one of the greatest golfers of all time; Vardon's buddy Ted Ray, who astounded the crowd with John Daly-like drives; the young American Walter Hagen, on his way to becoming a legend in his own right; and 20-year-old American amateur Francis Ouimet, a working-class Bostonian who happened to live across the street from the golf course.
The tournament culminated in an 18-hole playoff among Vardon, Ray and Ouimet, finally won by the American to the shock and delight of the gallery. It was as if an unheralded Tiger Woods showed up at the U.S. Open and beat Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.
Frost, best known as a television producer and writer ("Hill Street Blues" and "Twin Peaks" are among his credits) who's also an avid golfer, knows the title is a "bold statement," he says, but it fits.
"I felt it worked on two levels," he says in a phone interview from suburban Los Angeles, California. "It was a statement about golf, but I also felt this was the single match that had the greatest impact on sports. ... This game took a pastime and made it available to the masses. It's also the most thrilling single match I can think of [in any sport]."
Frost first heard the story of the 1913 Open years ago, but his interest was piqued when Justin Leonard holed a 45-foot putt on The Country Club's 17th green during the 1999 Ryder Cup. A commentator mentioned that Ouimet had made a key putt on the same green 86 years earlier, and Frost believed there was more to the story.
"I realized the greatest underdog story in American sports had never been told," he says.
Ouimet's story would make a good movie on its own. A lower-middle-class boy who began with crude golfing implements, he showed a natural talent for the game, despite enduring the wrath of his disapproving father. He hung around the Brookline course -- then, even more so than now, a bastion of upper-class exclusivity -- as a caddie before being taken under management's wing.
But Frost was even more taken with Vardon's story. The British legend came from a similar up-by-his-bootstraps background. Vardon even overcame a horrific bout with tuberculosis, which kept him out of the sport for several years.
"He had farther to come than Francis did," says Frost. "I found more to admire in Vardon than almost any sports figure I can think of. He is an inspirational figure."
Hampering Frost's task were the memoirs that Vardon and Ouimet left behind. Both were self-effacing men who spent little time talking about their triumphs, preferring to focus on character. Vardon barely addressed his tuberculosis, and Ouimet spends a scant 10 pages on the 1913 Open in his book.
Frost relied on the resources of the United States Golf Association, particularly its chief historian, Randon Jerris; Robert Donovan, executive director of the Francis Ouimet Scholarship Fund; and J. Louis Newell of The Country Club.
'Almost a footnote'
It also helped that Frost -- and Ouimet -- had a secret weapon, a 10-year-old boy named Eddie Lowery, who skipped school and, in a strange turn of fate, caddied for Ouimet throughout the tournament when Ouimet's original caddie decided to work for someone else.
"Eddie was an incredibly generous interview after [the tournament]," says Frost, adding that much of what he learned from contemporary newspapers came from Lowery's tale-spinning. "He was a fount of information for the Boston press."
The fact that a young boy could step onto the course and end up caddying for the eventual champion -- himself an almost-unknown amateur who lived across the street -- adds to the tale, he says.
"There are so many clichés about underdog sports heroes," he says. "This is the mother of all those stories. All the parties have this [scrappy] background. It speaks to how sports get going. I think there's an undeniable charm in that."
With its colorful personalities and pressure-packed story line, "The Greatest Game Ever Played" would seem to be a natural for the screen -- and, indeed, Frost, having sold the movie rights to a studio, is working on a script.
Frost was surprised that even golfers, who tend to cherish their sport's history, didn't know much about the 1913 match. "Here you have the seminal event in the sports history of this country, yet it's almost a footnote," he says.
It's the kind of story that showcases the kind of sports figures that have generally vanished from the landscape. Frost doesn't go so far as to complain about giants walking the earth in the old days, but there's obviously something special about Ouimet, Vardon, Ray and their colleagues.
"Compare [the 1913 Open golfers] to the class of pros we have now. They're colorless," says Frost. "Sports doesn't have enough vivid personalities [nowadays]."