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.
The Open of 1931 was the first “Jonesless” U.S. Open since 1920. The Emperor had retired from competitive golf following his epic Grand Slam the year before, and while he was on hand at Inverness, the golfing public was anxious to see just who would fill the considerable void. Golf’s professional class was especially keen; Bobby Cruickshank admitted he and colleagues were delighted to see Jones in the gallery, as opposed to the field.
Nineteen thirty-one was also the year the so-called “balloon ball” was required for Open play. This larger and lighter spheroid didn’t prove popular at Inverness, as competitors complained loudly that mis-hits were exacerbated by the new-fangled ball, which neither carried nor rolled as far. After just one year, the USGA would junk it — returning to the previous, heavier guideline of at least 1.62 ounces, but keeping the balloon’s larger size (1.68 inches in diameter).
Yet all the talk of balls and would-be kings was quickly subsumed by the event’s overarching conversation piece: the weather. The heat was oppressive by any discernible measure. Contemporary accounts of the championship are littered with modifiers like “blistering “, “blazing” and “sweltering”. Golf Illustrated’s “special correspondent” noted that “The field was all on hand early for practice several days ahead of time, but so intense was the heat that on these practice days no one with any chances to jeopardize played more than nine holes of golf.”
It was 105 degrees on Friday, July 2, the first day of competition. It was no cooler on Saturday, when Von Elm served notice to the field with a 69, the tournament’s low round. His 36-hole total of 144 led 63 players who made the cut; Burke stood one stroke back.
It would be another 34 years before the USGA extended the Open format to 18-holes on four consecutive days, so Von Elm’s 73 on Sunday morning left him two shots clear of Burke with the afternoon round still to play.
By lunch time, the mercury was hovering between 97 and 99 degrees. Igniting one of his trademark cigars (he would go through 32 during the championship), Burke went off in the penultimate group with Johnny Farrell, while Von Elm and Al Espinosa formed the final pairing.
Espinosa and Farrell had fallen from contention with substandard third rounds; by Sunday’s final nine, it was essentially a two-man race, with Von Elm in the driver’s seat. Standing on the 12th tee, he led Burke by two strokes but Von Elm would stumble over the next six holes, playing them in four-over. Burke parred the 18th to post a 292, meaning Von Elm needed a birdie 3 to force a playoff. He did just that, calmly draining a 12-footer before the breathless, sweat-soaked multitudes gathered a green’s edge.
With its extraordinary fugue of physical demand and competitive drama, Sunday’s play (the presumptive 36-hole finale) might have gone down as one of the most thrilling days in Open history.
As it turned out, the tournament was only half over.
A dapper, big-hitting Californian, Von Elm is one of those curiously recurring characters who isn’t particularly well known but nevertheless continues to crop up as one leafs through the pages of golf history. He won the U.S. Amateur at Baltusrol in 1926, defeating the great Jones who had claimed the two previous titles and went on to win the Amateur in 1927 and ’28. It was Von Elm who kept him from winning five in a row.
A seasoned 30 years of age when he arrived at Inverness, Von Elm was hardly new to golf marathons. During the 1930 Amateur at Merion, he played the longest extra-hole playoff in U.S Amateur history, going 28 holes before succumbing to Maurice McCarthy. What are the odds the same man would participate in both the longest U.S. Amateur playoff and the longest U.S. Open playoff — and lose both?
The defeat at Merion effectively ended Von Elm’s auspicious amateur career. From that point forward he would compete as a “businessman golfer”, meaning he would accept whatever prize money his finishes might earn. This proved a prudent if slightly unorthodox vocational step. According to Herbert Warren Wind’s Story of American Golf, Von Elm’s play earned him some $8,000 in January and February of 1931 alone, a veritable king’s ransom in Depression-era America.
Burke, on the other hand, was a 29-year-old, bonified professional of the club variety, playing out of swanky Round Hill in Greenwich, Conn. Born Billy Burkauskas, Burke spent a portion of his young adulthood puddling iron in a Naugatuck, Conn. steel mill. His swing was a tad awkward, and Von Elm outdrove him on nearly every hole. That said, “Temperamentally,” Keeler observed of Burke, “it is difficult to suggest an improvement.”
Burke’s showing at Inverness has been painted by history as something of a shock result, but contemporary accounts tell a different story. It’s true that 1931 marked the club pro’s first real foray into national, tournament competition. But Captain Walter Hagen shrewdly named Burke to his 1931 Ryder Cup team; the matches were held a week prior to the Open, at Scioto, where Burke won both his foursomes encounter and singles match — the latter by 7&6. Indeed, his cracking Ryder Cup form made him something of a fashionable dark horse entering the Open championship at Inverness.
The layout at Inverness, like most of its early-20th century counterparts, has undergone considerable change over the years. Donald Ross had renovated an existing nine and added a companion loop prior to the 1920 U.S. Open held at the Toledo club. A.W. Tillinghast prepped the course for the 1931 event, and half a dozen different architects have tinkered with it since (Inverness held the Open again in 1957 and 1979, enduring pre-tournament preps each time).
Despite all this, the ground itself at Inverness has remained essentially unchanged since the last ice age, when a pair of rivers carved two distinct valleys from the sandy soil just south of Lake Erie.
“The course has always been laid out across these two gorges,” explains Tom Walker, course superintendent at Inverness since 1980. “The elevation change is about 30 feet, which isn’t a whole lot. But you’re continually playing across these valleys, walking down and coming up the other side. I would not classify this as an easy walking course, not by any means.”
The U.S. Senior Open was held at Inverness in 2003. Sort of ironic, as the Senior Open is the only Senior PGA Tour event where the competitors are obliged to walk.
As Burke and Von Elm learned (as Bob Tway learned, before he hold out on the 72nd green to beat Greg Norman at the 1986 PGA Championship; as modern seniors learned a decade later), holes 1, 10, 12, 14, 15, 16, 17 at Inverness span at least one of these gorges. The other ravine requires similar hikes on holes 4 and 5. As the layout was configured back in 1931, no. 7 required yet another valley crossing.
Walker caddied at Inverness during the 1960s: “I didn’t necessarily enjoy it, especially in July. It’s no walk in the park. To think that these guys — and their caddies — walked 144 holes in five days, in that heat… I think that’s an incredible feat. Just the mental aspect, let alone the physical aspect.”
According to Walker, whose livelihood depends on an accurate meteorological understanding, a typical July day in Toledo is “muggy”, meaning 85-92 degrees with relative humidity of 50-60 percent. During the Open of 1931, these conditions would have qualified as refreshing cold snaps, as temperatures consistently soared into the upper 90s and beyond.
It was, in short, extraordinarily hot.
How hot was it? Nine players who made the cut at Inverness chose instead to withdraw, including two — Albert Alcroft and J.M. Hunter — who reportedly tore up their scorecards after the third round and went fishing. By comparison, at Interlachen the year before, just three Open competitors who made the cut chose to withdraw.
Either it was quite a bit hotter at Inverness, or the fishing just isn’t that good in suburban Minneapolis.
But seriously, folks: How hot was it? Here’s all you need to know: The USGA would never again stage its Open Championship during the month of July.
Following Von Elm’s 18th green heroics on Sunday, he and Burke rejoined their Open battle Monday morning. For the first time, the two combatants played alongside one another, head to head, and the results were predictably dramatic.
“This playoff changed complexion at least 15 times,” Rice wrote in The American Golfer. Indeed, Monday’s remarkable give and take left the normally verbose Keeler at something of a loss: “I saw altogether too much… to make any sensible selection of features from such a wealth of them.”
Von Elm fell four strokes back at one stage, only to birdie four on the trot and reclaim a two-stroke lead. Burke was steadier, and by the time he reached the 36th tee — the 108th, all told — he held a one stroke cushion.
Then, as now, the 18th at Inverness is a short par-4 of just 330 yards. This is where Tway’s birdie from a greenside bunker defeated Norman during the 1986 PGA playoff…
This is where Von Elm’s birdie at Sunday’s 72nd hole forced the 1931 Open playoff…
Once again, on Monday, Von Elm needed a birdie 3 at the last to fend off defeat. And once again, he delivered — holing a 10-footer and forcing another 36 holes the following day.
Burke and Von Elm trudged on, playing the Tuesday morning 18 (temperatures were already into the high 90s by 10 a.m.), like the exhausted, punch-drunk combatants they had every right to be. Both men shot their worst rounds of the tournament, though Von Elm’s 76 nevertheless afforded him a one-stroke advantage at the break.
It looked for all the world as though the 1931 Open winner would be meted out by attrition.
And yet, as Keeler noted above, after lunch both players rose magnificently to the occasion. Burke went out in one-under (34), building a two-stroke advantage. Von Elm fought back and drew level with a par on 13. But Von Elm’s putter deserted him on 14 and 16, where three-putt bogeys essentially doomed his chances. The man whose putter had saved him Sunday and Monday betrayed him on Tuesday afternoon; he shot 73, with 35 putts.
When Von Elm’s long birdie attempt on 18 didn’t find the hole, Burke had the cushion he’d long lacked. Before addressing his own 25-foot birdie attempt, Burke was regaled by a green-side photographer: “Say, Burke, how about a shot?”
With 143 holes behind him and poised to claim golf’s greatest prize, the unflappable Burke obliged the press corps by producing a winning smile. “Go ahead,” he said. “I’ve got three putts to make it.”
He would use all three.
Despite this cautious lags on 18, Burke’s exquisite, even-par 71 was his lowest round of the championship. “There is no need to gild a par round at this stage,” the sage Keeler remarked. “It speaks for itself.”