The 1931 U.S. Open: Golf’s very own Bataan Death March

George von Elm (left) and Billy Burke, combatants in the longest U.S. Open every contested..

The next time you play a round of golf in some modicum of heat and humidity, the next time you trudge up the 18th fairway and feel a bit of lactic acid building up in your thighs, spare a thought for Billy Burke and George Von Elm. These were the unflinching principals in the most extraordinary physical and competitive test golf has ever seen: the 1931 U.S. Open, held some 86 Julys ago at The Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio.  As the central characters in what Grantland Rice called “the most sensational open ever played in the 500-year history of golf,” Burke and Von Elm required 144 holes of medal play to produce a winner: Burke, by a single stroke.

Take a moment to think about the parameters here: 72 holes contested over the first three days, followed by 36 playoff holes on Monday and 36 more on Tuesday. Waged in the midst of a stifling, July heat wave — in an era devoid of fitness trailers, cushioned in-soles, and air-conditioned clubhouses — this match was golf’s precursor to the Bataan Death March. It was and remains, needless to say, the longest playoff in U.S Open history. Supreme Court cases have taken less time to adjudicate.

Or so it appeared during the morning round on Tuesday, July 6, 1931, as Burke and Von Elm — with 126 holes behind them and 18 still to negotiate — staggered off the 18th green toward the clubhouse for lunch. Even the most callow observer could see the quality of play eroding, quite understandably, under the enormous dual burdens of fatigue and Open-playoff pressure.

Yet Burke rallied to play his finest golf of the tournament over the final 18 holes. Von Elm, too, rose to the occasion and finished a single shot in arrears.

“I looked for a rather ghastly finish to a grand struggle,” wrote O.B. Keeler in The American Golfer. “Instead it was, and ever shall remain in my mind, the most remarkable exhibition of recovered stamina and poise and of sheer staying power and determination I have ever witnessed.”

Legend says that Von Elm, a lithe figure with little to lose, shed nine pounds during the championship, while the stocky Burke managed to gain two. “A circumstance,” Keeler mused, “which, if accurate, gives rise to wonder as to his diet.”

Read on to sort through, with me, the fascinating details of this extraordinary championship, staged 80-plus years ago this summer by two fascinating figures whose stories have been obscured by time, during a period when American golf was wildly popular but still adjusting to the loss of its first truly dominant figure.

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The 1931 Open was the first since 1920 without one Bobby Jones in the field.

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Published Letters and Iberian Slang

A bit of housecleaning here at halphillips.net: First, I coined a useful, new word a while back. See below and feel free to deploy as part of your common parlance going forward:

Smoor n. archaic, 13th century Iberian slang for a mixed-race resident of Andalusia during the Muslim occupation of what is now modern Spain; one of mixed parentage with chocolate-, graham cracker-, or, less frequently, golden marshmallow-colored skin; one who stands to be roasted over an open fire for this crime of miscegenation.

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Next, I had a couple letters to the editor printed this spring in the Portland Press-Herald, not technically my “local” paper (those have folded) but published only 20 miles south and still the largest daily in Maine. See below, and if you want to check out the comments, visit here (you’ll find a pretty typical right-left troll exchange therein).

To the editor:

In this day and age of reckless, willfully obtuse, anti-government bloviation, it’s important to be clear about how/why government functions as it does, why it’s rarely “perfect”, but why it is nevertheless worth defending and maintaining. Today’s case in point: Kevin Miller’s April 25 story re. L.D. 1379, which would allow the Dept. of Marine Resources to more actively police (via GPS) disputed fishing boundaries. I’m no lobsterman. I’ve no dog in this fight. But here we clearly have an industry that cannot or will not police itself in civil fashion. All parties agree that escalation, even violence will ensue if nothing is done. Like so many prickly deals in a country of 330 million people, responsibility for any potential solution falls to government.

This scenario is typical. Government action is by nature reactive. It works slowly. It can be unwieldy. But when there’s a problem — when human nature and/or the “unerring” profit motive fail to address (or utterly pervert) that problem — it is the authority of last resort. That’s the story with L.D. 1379, and it’s the story behind 90 percent of the regulatory measures on the books today. Right-wingers are convinced that bureaucrats sit in rooms all day wondering how they can extend their unelected influence over this business sector or that public domain. That’s just not how it works. Observe the gestation of L.D. 1379. That’s how it works.

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Frank Rodway, MTM & TBR: RIP

When I moved to Portland, Maine, in 1992, abandoning Greater Boston for what I then considered the ends of the Earth, I lived at the expense of my new employer for those first 2-3 weeks in the city’s lovely West End. It reminded me of the Back Bay and my temporary residence, the modern art-strewn Pomegranate Inn, was so cool — and my apartment over the garage so spacious and funky — I’d have just as soon stayed there forever.

I met Frank Rodway because eventually I had to find my own place. At that time, Frank was owner and proprietor of Thomas Brackett Reed House, a 19th century brownstone once inhabited by and now named for the Maine Congressman and Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives at the turn of the 20th century, when America was slowly transitioning from insular, adolescent republic to imperialist bestrider of worlds. Frank was then a small, trim, 60-something fellow with a fit, vaguely military bearing. Before he even walked me upstairs to the third-floor apartment then available for rent, I mentioned my two cats, Scott and Zelda. “Oh, well, we don’t take pets here,” he said. Frank showed me the place anyway, which gave me the chance to pursue an historical charm offensive. The space was great — 13-foot pressed-tin ceilings; windows stretching from the floor to somewhere above my head; $525/month, heated! What’s more, I had just finished The Proud Tower, Barbara Tuchman’s magisterial history of Thomas Brackett Reed’s very heyday. We mixed it up, Frank and I, trading Mark Hanna anecdotes, book citations and recommendations. Half an hour later as he and I were walking back downstairs, I said it was too bad about the cats. “Oh, don’t worry about them,” he said.

Frank Rodway passed away this past January at the ripe old age of 91, the result of a fall on icy pavement as opposed to simple old age. I was among five former residents of Thomas Brackett Reed House who showed up to his memorial service in South Portland. TBR House was a different sort of rental property: An historic landmark, for starters, watched over by a guy, Mr. Rodway, who knew that history but also how to engender esprit de corps. This quite elegant building had a guest apartment on the first floor that tenants could rent for $25 a night. I routinely stashed my parents and visiting Greater Bostonians there. Every Christmas, that guest room and the entire first floor played host to Frank’s holiday party, a shindig that routinely proved the event of the season, as current and former residents alike renewed old acquaintances and partook of Frank’s legendarily strong and plentiful punch. I should never have known Steve Weatherhead and his lovely wife Annetta; they departed TBR just before I arrived. But I met them at these Christmas parties, along with longtime golfing buddy Michael Moore. At Frank’s funeral service, Steve recalled these parties among other things, but not before answering the question that opened his remarks: “I mean, who goes to their former landlord’s funeral?” Well, if it’s Frank Rodway, you go. He was one of a kind, as this obit (clearly written by the man himself) attests.

Another former TBR denizen in attendance this past January was one Mary Fowler, my upstairs neighbor and probably the first real friend I made in Maine. She remains one, but I thought of her again, in the immediate aftermath Frank’s memorial, when Mary Tyler Moore passed away.

Mary Fowler and I had a running joke, each of us claiming to be the Mary to the other’s Rhoda. “Hal,” she would start in, with not inconsiderable finality, “Rhoda was the loud Jew and Mary was the tactful WASP. And my name is Mary. Clearly, I am Mary and you are Rhoda in this relationship.”

“But May-uh,” I’d say in my best Brooklyn accent, “while all that is true, you live upstairs in the apartment crowded by charming eaves, while I reside in the open and airy apartment downstairs. Cultural heritage has nothing to do with it. It’s all about upstairs and downstairs. All the action takes place here, in my apartment. There are no eaves here. These are 13-foot, pressed tin ceilings. It’s all about the eaves!”

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Coats, Ties and Foursomes: Collegiate Golf in the UK

Coats, Ties and Foursomes: Collegiate Golf in the UK

For all the trans-Atlantic DNA we share with our British golfing brethren, it’s easy and, I daresay, somewhat natural to assume that college golf here in the U.S. is pretty much the same as it is over there. Not so.

Top players from the U.K. (and mainland Europe) routinely travel stateside hone their games at American colleges and universities. Indeed, many of these men, women and their games will be on display later this month (May 19-31) at Rich Harvest GC, site of the 2017 NCAA Championships. But why do they make this trip in such appreciable numbers?

Because collegiate golf in the U.K. — like all college sports there — is decidedly low-key, even compared to the low-stakes Division III golf I played at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., during the early 1980s.

Yet, for my money, one can place collegiate golf alongside beer and period cinema as something the Brits still do better, with more nuance and panache, than we do. Yes, our universities turn out more tour professionals, but for the majority of college golfers, in both countries, that’s not the aim. It’s about competition and its sensible integration with the game’s social niceties — and no one does that better than the British upper crust, whose ethos dominated my university golfing experience abroad. Coats and ties, foursomes in the morning, singles in the afternoon, and no less than two proper English piss-ups sandwiched between them. You can have your vans, your matching shirts and golf bags. To Yanks, collegiate golf in the U.K. may look and feel more like a club sport, but having played both sides of this fence, I’ll go with the Pommies.

At mighty Wesleyan, a perennial golfing doormat, the exercise we underwent during the ‘80s remains recognizable: Throw on a pair of khakis and a golf shirt; pile into a van and meet a different college team, or two, at the course venue; play 18 holes of medal (maybe match play, on that very rare occasion); shake hands, tally up the scores, pile back into the van and drive home to campus. Big-time Division I golf schools don’t play many dual or tri-matches like these any more, I understand. More often they play various invitational tournaments whereby dozens of schools show up in one place, seven guys from each team play medal, and the best 5 scores count. We did this, too, though only once or twice a season.

Collegiate golf in England during the mid-1980s, when I played for the University of London, was nothing like this. Nothing. For starters, and perhaps most important, we rarely played other schools. Instead, university teams were hosted by golf clubs themselves, which trotted out their best players for a day of intergenerational match play and assorted reverie. Here’s a typical match-day regimen:

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Great Moments in Towing: The Switch

My dad’s 1986 Honda Accord LXi, in the metallic shade known as “Misty Beige”

My older sister Janet bugged out of Greater Boston almost immediately upon her graduation from college, decamping for Greater Baltimore where she resides to this day. I was only a year out of school myself when a college housemate, John Sledge, resolved to wed the former Isabella Penna somewhere between Baltimore and our nation’s capital. ‘Twas an excellent connubial blow-out, as I recall, and naturally — being young and poor — I stayed with my sister for the weekend. One night she, some fellow Weskids and myself went out to the Fell’s Point warehouse district of Baltimore to see a Boston-based band we all loved, the one and only Dumptruck.

We were all too skint to have even considered flying the 800-odd miles to Baldimer, so for this junket I borrowed my dad’s newish Honda Accord to make the journey; surely it was more reliable than the shit-box ‘82 Accord I was driving at the time. In any case, my dad’s 4-door sedan was a sort of metallic taupe color, and I parked it on the street that night a block and a half from the club (the name of which escapes me). I don’t remember having parked illegally, or even on the edge of legality — though I pushed the envelope so frequently back then, it’s hard to rule it out.

I’ve mentioned this before in the course of my Great Moments in Towing series (see earlier entries here and here), but it bears repeating: This was 1987, an era well before the computerization of parking records. Accordingly, when one traveled out of state, there was little to no fear of some Baltimore parking cop running a search on my plates and discovering my laundry list of Boston-area parking violations, dozens of which surely languished in multiple file cabinets, unpaid, at the time. These were far more innocent times, in so many ways, and they frankly emboldened one to park, out of state, with an even greater degree of impunity.

In any case, after a predictably kickin’ show (search this site for Dumptruck to find additional, more in-depth references to this seminal, alt-country forebear), we all stumbled out of the club in the direction of my dad’s car. When we turned the corner, there was the tow dude, latching his mighty hook to the front undercarriage of a newish, metallic taupe-colored 1986 Honda Accord.

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B-listed by the USGA, Riviera Ponders What Might Have Been

B-listed by the USGA, Riviera Ponders What Might Have Been

 

[This piece was first posted in 2011. It seemed a good time to revisit, with the U.S. Open visiting yet another public course this June… hp]

I suppose we should count our blessings that a magnificent course like Riviera — a 1926 George Thomas design firmly ensconced in all the Top 100 lists that matter — still deigns to host PGA Tour events. As recently as 2001, when Riviera hosted the USGA Senior Open, club ownership was hell bent on securing a U.S. Open. There were multiple regrassings of the greens, which had not fared well during the club’s last major championship engagement, the 1995 PGA Championship, where our lasting image is a ground-level view of Steve Elkington’s winning putt bouncing frantically into our living rooms while traversing a hefty portion of Riviera’s pockmarked 18th green before disappearing into the cup. The 2001 Senior Open was to be Riviera’s chance at redemption, a very public audition for club ownership, tournament organizers and the course itself.

Looking back, the greens held up well enough but attendance was poor and it turns out not to have mattered a lick. The intervening years have witnessed a sea change in the USGA’s attitude toward the siting of its marquee event, and Riviera isn’t much discussed at all when future U.S. Open sites are the subject.

Why? Well, the 2002 Open at Bethpage really changed the way the USGA views itself and the national championship. The PR value of holding the tournament on a truly public course proved an undeniable boon to the USGA’s image and coffers. Crowds were huge, TV ratings soared, merchandize sales went nuts, and the USGA found a truly effective way to fight the impression that golf is game played exclusively by rich guys in bad pants. Private clubs weren’t barred going forward, by any means, but look at the list of Open sites played since 2002 and scheduled through 2017:

2017 – Erin Hills Golf Course, Erin, Wis.

2016 – Oakmont Country Club, Oakmont, Pa.

2015 – Chambers Bay, University Place, Wash.

2014 – Pinehurst No. 2, Pinehurst, N.C.

2013 – Merion Golf Club, Ardmore, Pa.

2012 – Olympic Club, San Francisco

2011 – Congressional Country Club, Blue Course, Bethesda, Md.

2010 – Pebble Beach Golf Links, Pebble Beach, Calif.

2009 – Bethpage State Park, Black Course, Farmingdale, N.Y.

2008 – Torrey Pines Golf Course, South Course, La Jolla, Calif.

2007 – Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club

2006 – Winged Foot Golf Club, Mamoroneck, N.Y.

2005 – Pinehurst Resort and Country Club, No. 2 Course, Village of Pinehurst, N.C.

2004 – Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, Southampton, N.Y.

2003 – Olympia Fields (Ill.) Country Club, North Course

2002 – Bethpage State Park, Black Course, Farmingdale, N.Y.

That’s 16 events, fully half staged at courses the public can play. Bear in mind that the USGA, starting in 1895, didn’t hold the Open at public course other than Pebble Beach until it visited another very expensive resort venue, Pinehurst No. 2, in 1999. The chances of a legitimately great but still private club cracking the rota of courses for Open consideration have literally been halved, and a place like Riviera doesn’t have a prayer.

Of course, there are other considerations when choosing Open venues. The USGA likes geographic diversity; it seeks to move the event around (again, to fight the image that the game is run by northeastern elites). It attempted for many years to find a Midwestern venue that would suffice. Medinah and Olympia Fields were found wanting — enter the public Erin Hills, in Wisconsin, scheduled to debut as host in 2017. The same issue applied to west coast venues (which also afford the USGA and NBC the opportunity to televise, very lucratively, weekend rounds in prime time). Pebble Beach is a natural (and technically public) but it’s interested in hosting only once a decade. This was the opening Riviera was hoping to fill, but instead that tryout went to Torrey Pines in San Diego, in 2008. Then it went to Chambers Bay, yet another muni, in Tacoma, Wash.

There are other aspects to the USGA’s formula. Opens require a vast amount of space these days. Note the presence of multi-course public facilities on this list, allowing onsite parking and space for long rows of hospitality tents and merchandise tents worthy of Barnum & Bailey. At Riviera, squeezed onto a superb but tight piece of ground, densely flanked by fancy homes, the window of opportunity appears to have closed for good.

Candide’s Political Shuttle of the Absurd, Philly Edition

A Homeowners Loan Corporation 1936 security map of Philadelphia showing redlining of lower income neighborhoods. Households and businesses in the red zones could not get mortgages or business loans.

So I was preparing to fly back home from Philly last week when I briefly made the acquaintance of someone on the rental-car shuttle bus. I never got his name. He was sitting up front, in the passenger seat, a huge, broad-shouldered white dude of middle age, in a blue blazer. The poor sap had a flight leaving in less than an hour, whereas I had plenty of time, so we commiserated over this before eventually getting to the obligatory, “You headed out or headed home?” He was headed home, to Cincinnati, after attending a “military justice convention” in southern New Jersey. Unbidden, he indicated that he couldn’t get out of Philly fast enough.

I asked him what he meant because, with Clara in school there, Sharon and I are spending legitimate time in Philly for the first time and we’re frankly a sucker for its many charms. “It’s just so dirty here,” this guy said, adding that while Cincinnati has its own problems, “there are just so many homeless people here. It doesn’t feel safe.”

Doesn’t feel safe?

“Like you feel when you’re on the south side of Chicago.”

Well, this was all the code language I cared to exchange with this fellow, a 275-pound military justice professional who presumably has an understanding of actual war zones.

This is where we are today, people. Rhetoric matters. How does one avoid tying this guy’s attitude directly to having a political candidate, and now a president, who talks incessantly about the carnage of American urban life? [When he’s not talking about the fear we should rightly maintain for other brown people, be they Hispanic or Arab.] For 18 months now he’s been trotting out this fear mongering (as opposed to solutions) from a place of high visibility and authority. Seems to me it has colored the way a whole lot of white people view urban areas, people of color, homeless people, even the universality that is urban grit and grime.

The south side of Chicago reference was the kicker: Straight from Steve Bannon’s white nationalist gob to this guy’s ear.

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US Soccer: Just how bare is thy cupboard?

USMNT manager Bruce Arena in lighter times — with former L.A. Galaxy charge, David Beckham.

Some 60 minutes into what remained of a 1-0 game in San Jose, Costa Rica on Nov. 15, 2016, BeIN color commentator Thomas Rongen festered aloud at the visiting Americans’ inability to go forward. He identified the problem, quite rightly, as originating in the center of midfield, where 29-year-old Michael Bradley dropped ever deeper and 35-year-old Jermaine Jones drifted even further into irrelevance. Rongen suggested that Jurgen Klinsmann needed to make a change — that inserting Sacha Kljestan was the best option to link up, in attacking fashion, with the troika of Bobby Wood, Jozy Altidore and Christian Pulisic.

It was then that I realized the U.S. was doomed this night and that Klinsi would soon be out of a job. Rongen’s analysis was spot on. But if Sacha Kljestan is your best midfield attacking option off the bench, one can reasonably argue the cupboard is more or less bare.

As it happened, Klinsmann was relieved of his U.S Men‘s National Team duties the following Tuesday morning and L.A. Galaxy skipper Bruce Arena was hired in his place.  And so, pointless and facing a win-at-all-costs game at home vs. Honduras this Friday night, March 24, U.S. Soccer finds itself at an unfamiliar crossroads.

Yeah, sure, the U.S. has once or twice stumbled or started slowly in Hexagonals past.

But the U.S. finds itself in an altogether different situation in 2017.

Prior to 1990, the U.S. had never qualified for a World Cup, of course. That signal success, after 40 years of utter failure, ushered in a new era of American soccer, one where qualification was a given and the challenge lay in determining a) how U.S. teams would inevitably ascend to the next echelon, to truly compete toe-to-toe with the best 12-15 teams on the planet, and b) who would lead them to this new place of relevance.

Well, a funny thing happened on the way to relevance.

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A Post-Easter Meditation: Whither the Jellybean

When I was kid in the 1970s, jellybeans were a particular obsession and while the big, commercial confection purveyors didn’t pay this segment a whole lot of attention back then, neither was it hard to find them, all year long.

Today candy marketers treat them as a seasonal item, available in bounty only the 6 weeks ahead of Easter. This surely troubles my fellow jellybean aficionados, yet when they do arrive in stores, sometime in February or early March, they come in an ever expanding range of flavors, many inspired by tried-and-true candy genres never before associated with the jelly bean.

Easter 2017 seems as good a time as any to parse the jellybean’s curious evolution of variety and accessibility. Like so many things (a handful of jelly beans in particular), it’s something of a mixed bag.

My mother and maternal grandfather were both jellybean enthusiasts and to the extent the choices allowed it, connoisseurs. I embraced this legacy from a young age and took it to a new level. Read More

Let’s take the NCAA Tournament up a few notches — to 351 (Fahrenheit)

Let’s take the NCAA Tournament up a few notches — to 351 (Fahrenheit)

351 image

Let’s just take the gloves off and hash this out — right here, right now, for the greater basketball good.

The current NCAA tournament format — 68 teams, with 8 playing off/in to create a field of 64 — is the worst sort of folly, both competitively arbitrary and financially capricious. From the moment the initial “play-in” gambit was instituted, in 2001, the slope proved slippery. At first, just two small-conference champions played off for the right to get boned, on 48 hours’ rest, by a top regional seed. The 8-team, 4-game play-in we’ve endured since 2011 is merely that much more arbitrary and capricious.

I wish I could tell you this “expansion” of the tournament was done in the name of inclusiveness and equity. But honestly, “arbitrary and capricious” is more accurate, for this peculiar tack was undertaken in service of the entirely arbitrary and capricious need to preserve NCAA tourney revenue and exposure for a dozen or so would-be, at-large, major-conference also-rans, each year, at the expense small-conference champions. In other words, the Atlantic Sun Conference champion is obliged to play-in against the winner of the Summit Conference, because if they did not, there would be no room in the field of 64 for some 5th or 6th place team from the Big Ten.

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