Without even trying, the glorious old East Course of the Merion Golf Club on the preppy fringe of Philadelphia can load a player with lore of Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan to the point of daunting—or inspiring—him. Last week a sense of history seemed to inspire David Graham.
Graham went into Merion with a reputation for being several things: a fine iron player, an accurate man off the tee and a survivor under pressure. He left Merion as something more: the richly deserving winner of the 1981 U.S. Open, which, since he won the PGA only two summers ago, makes him a collector of majors now. Graham collects and designs golf clubs, too, but the majors pay better.
At the end on Sunday there wasn't anything very dramatic about what was going on. Graham was simply whipping the daylights out of a golf course that had finally begun to whip everyone else. Merion's par of 280 for 72 holes had not been broken in three previous Opens, and the USGA had tried hard to defend it this time by shaving the greens down to plate-glass slickness and letting the fairways grow to the level of a tossed salad. But Merion's uncommonly short length of 6,544 yards ultimately caught up with it. When Graham walked off the 18th green on Sunday evening he had shot a near-perfect 67, three under for the day, to go with his previous rounds of 68, 68 and 70. The round not only propelled him smoothly past struggling George Burns III, the man he had to beat, but also gave him a total of 273, seven under, the second-lowest in the history of the Open, Jack Nicklaus having so memorably scorched Baltusrol with a 272 last June.
It took a while for Graham to crack Burns. Big George started the day with a three-shot lead and hung in there for 13 holes, getting the best of every break, as indeed he had for the three previous rounds. Burns had led the Open after the second and third rounds, in which, however, he displayed a certain characteristic inconsistency. On Friday he played one stretch of seven holes bogey, birdie, birdie, bogey, birdie, bogey, birdie.
On Saturday, at the 11th hole, Burns got one of the great drops in Open history. After two poor shots, he had found himself in a jungle behind a spectator stand and had thereupon been allowed to make a perfectly legal drop out in the clear. All that scrape cost him was a bogey. He might have escaped on Sunday, too, if Graham hadn't been in a mood to win. Burns kept fighting and, for a time, surviving, but Graham was relentlessly steady.
The truth is you can't keep hitting virtually every fairway and then hitting every green—frequently to within birdie range, as Graham was doing—without eroding the competition and ultimately being rewarded.
Graham began Sunday afternoon by firing rapid birdies on the first two holes to pull within a stroke of Burns. This served to let Burns know rather quickly that it was going to be a ball game, and the fact that he was paired with Graham meant he was going to have to look at his opponent's mastery up close all day. What Burns eventually saw was Graham missing only one fairway and hitting all 18 greens in regulation.
Graham could have birdied several more holes between the second and the 14th, including the fifth, where he three-putted for his only bogey. He seemed always to be within makeable distance.
It was more than appropriate, however, that Graham would seize the lead at the 14th, an extremely tough par-4 that not only requires blind shots but also happened to be the hole on Saturday where he had extricated himself, salvaging a bogey, from a rare detour into a trap bristling with Scotch broom. "I've heard it got over here when Bobby Jones forgot to clean his cleats after a British Open," said Graham.
On Sunday Graham decided to hit a driver off the 14th tee, where previously he had been using a three-wood because the target area is about the size of a throw rug. He nailed his drive perfectly. He then hit a seven-iron to within four feet of the pin on a green that has more levels and speeds than a motor trip around Monaco. There is an old saying at Merion: "The golf course starts at 14." Graham sank the putt for his birdie.