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.