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.