News & Tours
July 30, 2011

Fields: Warmly recalling Burke's Open win

TOLEDO, Ohio - It's been hot and humid at Inverness Club for the U.S. Senior Open. A couple of caddies were wobbly coming off the 18th green. A fellow who usually has a 40-pound tour bag over his shoulder but is playing instead of caddieing this week, Damon Green, said after a steamy second round that, "My legs gave out on me. I was hitting every shot left, left and left, and I just fought to shoot even par. It was a battle." Joey Sindelar, his slacks sweat-soaked to his knees, looked as if he had been through a car wash.

The thermometer will be pushing 90 degrees Saturday afternoon. On Sunday, the forecast for the final round calls for a high of 96. That makes it a perfect time to toast the late William Burkowski, aka Billy Burke - preferably with a Gatorade in Inverness' air-conditioned locker room.

This summer marks the 80th anniversary of Burke's remarkable - indeed, singular - victory in the 1931 U.S. Open at Inverness. No one else ever won an Open the way Burke did, and no one ever will.

It was a long, hard week - and then some.

Northern Ohio was broiling before and during that Open, which was scheduled for July 2-4, 1931 - 18 holes each of the first two days with the customary double-round conclusion scheduled for the third day. Seventy-two holes would have been tough enough, but this bizarre Open would go two more days and 72 more holes - a marathon playoff unique in golf annals.

Temperatures encroached on the century mark in Toledo leading up to the championship. Animals and people in Toledo perished in the sweltering conditions. One man died in his office, another on the street, a third, a transient, in a railroad box car. Wise golfers (and that was much of the field) limited their practice. Walter Hagen showed up for a warm-up of only a few holes on the eve of the championship. Visitors from Great Britain, including Abe Mitchell, whose likeness is on the Ryder Cup trophy, was near collapse after nine practice holes.

"A searing sun sprayed Inverness with its terrific heat," a Toledo newsaper reported. "Staunch, veteran warhorses toiled and staggered under those roasting rays." Gene Sarazen, the 1922 U.S. Open champion, predicted that "this terrific heat gives anyone who can weather it a better chance." Inverness' small greens were complemented by the narrowest fairways the U.S. Open had ever implemented.

It turned out that Burke, Sarazen's fellow New Englander and another golfer who had grown up the hard way, was the right man for the job.

Burke was 28, born in 1902, the same year as Bobby Jones, who had retired in 1930 after winning the Grand Slam, including the U.S. Open in steamy Minneapolis. But in contrast to Jones' comfortable upbringing, Burke was the son of immigrants. Billy was put to work in a Connecticut iron foundry when he was a teenager, once suffering an injury that cost him the ring finger and part of his little finger on his left hand. Burke had to improvise a grip to deal with his disability but still advanced out of the caddie ranks in golf, earning the nickname "The Boy Marvel" for his talent.

A cigar lover who judged the wind with the smoke of his stogie, was a sturdy man, described by John Kiernan of The New York Times as "a square-shouldered stalwart who might pass as a pugilist or a heavy-hitting second baseman."

Bobby Jones noted that Burke's golf swing was in line with his blue-collar background. "He impresses me as a player who has learned his game through a lot of hard work," Jones wrote in the The American Golfer, "as contrasted to one who has come by it easily and naturally."

Not only Burke, but every golfer competing in the 1931 Open, had a challenge dealing with the larger and lighter ball (1.68 inches and 1.55 ounces) the USGA required that year in what turned out to be a short experiment. The "balloon ball" was viewed a bust - difficult to handle in the wind and on the greens.

"The wind, of course, places the new ball at a decided disadvantage," said Al Espinosa, runner-up in the 1929 U.S. Open. "Then, there is a loss of distance of some few yards on the drive, and on the putting-green - the final drop of the ball into the cup is more problematical. The rim of the cup, the raise of the ground around the cup - stubby grass retards the final drop more than with the old ball, where the weight was centralized."

Burke, the first golfer to win a U.S. Open with steel shafts in his clubs, was forced to labor so fully at Inverness thanks to George Von Elm, had been the best amateur of the 1920s other than Jones and was now a pro. Not only did Von Elm make a 10-foot birdie on the 72nd hole to tie Burke at eight-over 292, he made a putt of similar length on the last hole of the 36-hole playoff the next day to tie Burke at 146.

USGA rules called for a second 36-hole playoff, a second day of many ebbs and flows - there were 25 lead changes over the 72 extra holes - that Burke finally took control of as the duo moved to the final nine. Burke edged Von Elm, 148-149, in the second playoff. Including 72 holes of Ryder Cup qualifying and competition, Burke had played 288 holes in 16 days.

"There was glory enough for both," USGA president Herbert Ramsay said at the awards ceremony, "but the champion is remembered."

The champion, praised by Jones as "bound to have nerves of steel, strong legs and more than the usual amount of determination," also got what might have been the first victory dousing in sports history. When the golf marathon was over, fellow pro Wiffy Cox dumped a pail of water on Burke's head, a cool ending to a one-of-kind week.

-- Bill Fields