The ’31 Open: Where have you gone, Gix Von Elm?

A dapper, big-hitting Utah native, who went by the nickname Gix, George 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, for example, defeating the great Bobby Jones, who had claimed the two previous titles (besting Gix in the finals and semis in ’24 and ’25 respectively). Jones went on to win the Amateur in 1927 and ’28, meaning it was only Von Elm who kept him from winning five in a row.

A seasoned 30 years of age and a Walker Cup veteran when he arrived at The Inverness Club for the 1931 U.S. Open, Von Elm was hardly new to golf marathons, either. 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? And what are the odds that 80 years later, he would remains so obscure?

The defeat at Merion effectively ended Von Elm’s auspicious amateur career. From that point forward he would compete as a “businessman golfer”, a somewhat euphemistic phrase particular to a time when amateurism remained among the highest ideals. Basically this meant Von Elm didn’t consider himself, or didn’t want others to consider him a “professional”, which was, after all, still considered a “trade” — egads!. As a businessman golfer 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.

Von Elm’s opponent in the 1931 Open marathon, Billy Burke, on the other hand, was a 29-year-old, bonafide professional of the club variety, playing out of  swank Round Hill in Greenwich, Conn. Born Billy Burkauskas, Burke spent a portion of his young adulthood puddling iron in a Naugatuck, Conn. steel mill. He had no problem with the idea that professional golfers might be considered tradesmen. 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 had shrewdly named Burke to his 1931 Ryder Cup team, whose matches were held a week prior to the U.S. Open, at Scioto, where Burke won both his foursomes encounter and singles match — the latter by 7&6. Indeed, this cracking Ryder Cup form made him something of a fashionable dark horse entering the Open championship at Inverness.

The layout at The Inverness Club, 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, most markedly Arthur Hills and his colleagues at Toledo-based Hills & Forrest.

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 routing criss-crosses these two gorges, which dip down some 30 feet. As Burke and Von Elm learned, holes 1, 10, 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17 all oblige players to walk down into the valley then up the other side. 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.

Inverness is, in other words, a serious walk and 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 the week Burke and Von Elm played 144 holes in 5 days. 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.

But seriously, folks: How hot was it really? Here’s all you need to know: The USGA would never again stage its Open Championship during the month of July.

 

[This is the third in a multiple-post feature on the 1931 U.S. Open Championship. Visit www.theaposition.com/halphillips for previous installments.]


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