The epic battle of the 1931 U.S. Open
Myths along the way may have suggested George Von Elm and Billy Burke died from exhaustion.
Truth is, lung cancer got Von Elm in 1961, and Burke died in 1972 after a long illness. But decades earlier at a U.S. Open at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, they had been young men playing their way into golf history . . . and playing . . . and playing . . . and playing.
Four regulation rounds.
One 36-hole playoff. And then, for good measure, one more.
One-hundred-forty-four holes total.
A combined 1,179 strokes.
And when on July 6, 1931, this epic national open had come to a merciful end, the final score was tilted in Burke’s favor, 589 to Von Elm’s 590.
One meager swing. After all that work in 90-degree heat, that is all that separated the two, and it was all Burke, then 28, could do to stand up and lift the U.S. Open trophy handed to him by U.S. Golf Association President Herbert H. Ramsay.
“I’m sorry it had to end this way,” Burke said, looking directly at Von Elm.
The 30-year-old Von Elm nodded his head. He, too, was sorry it had ended the way it had.
Chances are, however, everyone – Burke and Von Elm included – was happy that it simply had ended, because at so many times it appeared as if it never would.
Though for duration it is No. 1 in a line of 110 U.S. Opens, the 1931 edition hardly stirs the emotions – certainly not like 1913, 1950-51, 1960, 1962, 1982 or 2000. Oh, and 1930, which remains a U.S. Open that unlocks a big part of the mystery as to why 1931 has never been warmly embraced.
In 1930, Bobby Jones commanded the golf stage.
In 1931, he sat in the audience.
It was a reality that William Richardson of The New York Times could not overlook.
“The hold that Jones had on golf galleries,” Richardson wrote, “was clearly reflected by the smallness of the Toledo gallery. . . .”
And as if he were laying a foundation for the Tiger Woods cliched storyline that is popular 80 years later, Richardson bemoaned Jones’ absence by opining, “There is no single outstanding figure in the game today.”
One year earlier, Jones had won his fourth U.S. Open as part of golf’s greatest feat, the vaunted “Grand Slam,” so his retirement had shaken the sport.
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Yet even in retirement, Jones attracted the most attention, fans swarming him as he left Toledo’s posh Commodore Perry Hotel, paying little attention to what Burke, Von Elm and others were doing over an Inverness layout that was a severe challenge, despite being only 6,529 yards.
Von Elm, at least, had been here before. A suave and talented player out of Utah who had become a celebrity of sorts in Los Angeles, Von Elm may have been regarded as the premier player in the golden age of amateur golf – if not for Jones. Von Elm lost in the 1924 U.S. Amateur final against Jones, then in the semifinals a year later. But in 1926, Von Elm gained revenge, beating Jones for the title.
Souring on amateur golf – he said it had cost him $50,000 in the 1920s to chase amateur titles in France and Britain – Von Elm, at the same time Jones retired, declared himself a “businessman golfer.” Thus, Von Elm was no surprise when he fired the only sub-70 score at the 1931 U.S. Open, a second-round 69, and seized the 36-hole lead at 2-over 144. Burke was a stroke back, though dispatches focused on the marquee names well behind: Gene Sarazen, Walter Hagen and Tommy Armour.
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What an 80-year view provides, however, is perspective on Burke’s brilliant stretch of golf that summer.
The Connecticut native played in a 72-hole competition June 18-21 at Scioto Country Club in Columbus, Ohio, for 14 invited professionals and earned one of three spots onto the U.S. Ryder Cup team. The next week, again at Scioto, Burke twice was sent out first by Hagen in the Ryder Cup – teaming with Wiffy Cox for a foursomes victory, then crushing Archie Compston, 7 and 6, in singles. In Toledo, a second-round 72 set up a head-to-head, 36-hole regulation final on the only July Fourth in U.S. Open history.
Little did anyone know the sort of historic ordeal that was about to unfold.
Sidelights to the 1931 U.S. Open were plentiful, from it being the first one to be broadcast on radio (O.B. Keeler described the action), to Burke being the first winner to use steel shafts (Von Elm employed hickory), to the one-year trial with the “balloon ball,” which measured 1.68 inches in diameter and weighed 1.55 ounces.
Henry Cotton, then 24, made the first of his two U.S. Open appearances, but shot 80-82 and missed the cut, while another Brit, Compston, was disqualified for missing a 10:45 a.m. tee time. Jones drew a crowd as he left Toledo on Friday to attend the Max Schmeling-Young Stribling fight in Cleveland, but was on hand for the 36-hole regulation finale.
What Jones saw that July Fourth Saturday was the cigarette-smoking Von Elm shooting a third-round 73 for 217 total to go up by two over the cigar-chomping Burke, who posted 74. Burke hung tough, however, and pulled ahead late in Round 4 when Von Elm bogeyed 15 and 16. With a birdie at 18, though, Von Elm pulled even with Burke, both at 8-over 292.
For the 13th time in 35 U.S. Opens, a playoff would be needed. The first 10 had been decided by 18 extra holes, but that format had been changed in spring 1928 to 36 holes. With Jones involved in 1928 (he lost to Johnny Farrell) and ’29 (he beat Al Espinosa), the longer session was favorably accepted, but 1931 would change USGA thinking yet again.
For good reason, too. It hardly was captivating golf, save for one flurry of drama in Monday’s first 36-hole playoff. Burke had shot 73 in the morning to take a two-stroke lead, built it to four, but Von Elm stormed back with four consecutive birdies to move back in front. Burke then rallied to go a stroke ahead, but Von Elm, as he had done the day before, made a clutch birdie at 18 to force another 36-hole playoff.
“Neither professional nor amateur (Von Elm) is in a classification all his own – namely that of businessman golfer,” Richard wrote in the Times.
Perhaps Von Elm was that good. Perhaps, too, Burke was a worthy foe. But USGA officials were disappointed so few came out to watch. Some blamed the scorching heat. Others criticized the whopping $3 admission (about $44 in today’s money). But, wrote Richardson: “You can bet
dollars to doughnuts, had Jones been a contestant, neither heat nor price could have kept people away.”
For the second 36-hole playoff, on July 6, admission was cut to $2; it was reduced to $1 for the final 18.
It worked, too, because thousands more watched as the longest U.S. Open came to an end. Trailing by one after a morning 77, Burke pulled even, then went ahead when Von Elm drove wildly and bogeyed 14. Then, at 16, the former amateur champ missed a 2-foot putt for par and fell two down.
But it had gone this long because neither man had seized momentum nor quit scrapping. Huffing away on his cigars – “I had to see how the wind was blowing,” he quipped – the man who had been born Billy Burkowski and had worked as a puddler in a foundry saw his lead reduced to one at 17, which brought the players to the 18th hole for an eighth time. Von Elm had birdied it four times previously – twice to force an extra 36 holes – but he couldn’t do it again. His long putt came up just short, leaving Burke to finally draw the curtain down with
his 589th stroke, a short putt for par.
For their five days, eight rounds, 144 holes and unyielding patience, Burke was rewarded with $1,000, Von Elm with $750. USGA officials, meanwhile, had been served a dose of reality. In January 1932, Ramsay announced that U.S. Open playoffs would be 18 holes, not 36.
No one disagreed with the decision, but writing about the infamous 1931 playoff that would never end, John Kieran of the Times imagined how it might have played out had Von Elm for a third consecutive day made birdie at 18 to force a third 36-hole playoff.
“They would have gone out the next day – on horseback,” Kieran wrote. “They were a footsore pair at the finish.”
Exhausting and historic as it may have been, the 1931 U.S. Open did not thrust Burke nor Von Elm to everlasting fame. Burke played in the 1933 Ryder Cup, but soon settled into a lengthy career as head professional at Cleveland Country Club before retiring to Clearwater, Fla. Von Elm was legendary in Southern California golf circles, reportedly counted Bob Hope and Bing Crosby among his students, then moved to Idaho, where he built and designed courses.
Their paths rarely crossed after 1931, which is perhaps fitting.
They had seen each other plenty at Inverness all those torrid days.
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