80 Years Ago This Summer: Golf’s Bataan Death March


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



Several events and turns thereof have me thinking of the 1931 U.S. Open, held way back when at The Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio. This was site of July’s U.S. Senior Open Championship, of course, won by Olin Browne. What’s more, I was in the Midwest, some 2-3 hours west of Toledo, just prior to the Senior Open — I can vouch personally that there’s nothing quite so hot and sticky and just plain energy-sapping as a Midwestern heat wave, which makes the accomplishments of ‘31 Open champ Billy Burke and runner-up George Von Elm all the more epic.

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 that: 72 holes 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.

Contested in the midst of a stifling, July heat wave — in an era devoid of fitness trailers, cushioned in-soles, and air-conditioned clubhouses — this was golf’s precursor to the Bataan Death March.

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.”

Join me over the next few days to sort through the fascinating details of this extraordinary championship, staged 80 years ago this summer, two years into another economic depression, between two fascinating figures whose stories have been obscured by time, during a period when golf was wildly popular but adjusting to the loss of another dominating figure.

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