The next time you play a round of golf in some modicum of heat and humidity, the next time you walk 18 and feel the lactic acid building up in your thighs and calves, spare a thought for Billy Burke and George Von Elm. These were the stalwart principals in golf’s most extraordinary physical test: the, held way back when at The in . As the central characters in what 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. It was and remains, needless to say, the longest playoff in U.S Open history. Supreme Court cases have taken less time to adjudicate.
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.
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 golf was wildly popular but still adjusting to the loss of its dominating figure.
The U.S. Open of 1931 was the first “Jonesless” 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, with humidity levels only a tad lower. 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.