Every big sports event seems to develop its own theme, and for the 1981 US Open golf tournament the key word was incongruity. It began right away when the surprise first-round leader turned out to be Jim Thorpe -- but not, of course, the "real" Jim Thorpe.
For the next two days the No. 1 man was George Burns -- though not the "real" George Burns.
The media darling all this time, meanwhile, was colorful young Greg Norman, whose long, blond hair and penchant for hunting sharks off the coast of his native Australia earned him the nickname "the Great White Shark" -- and whose fine play kept him close enough to the top to prompt speculation that he might become the first man from his country ever to win this prestigious event.
Finally, an Australian did win it -- but it wasn't Norman. That honor went to his more experienced countryman, David Graham, not to be confused with Lou Graham, who won the Open in 1975 but who isn't Australian.
David Graham wasn't exactly being ignored all this time. He was, after all, one of the leaders from the first round on. He is, moreover, one of the world's top international golfers, with victories in the 1979 PGA Championship, the 1976 World Match Play Championship, and a host of other events both in the United States and overseas. But the way things went he always just seemed to be the steady man hanging in there two or three strokes behind the leader while everyone talked about the surprising people in front of him and kept watching for a charge from the bigger names like Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson a few strokes behind.
It all began with Thorpe exploding upon the scene to shoot a startling 66. The name was familiar, of course, as that of the great all-around Indian athlete of another era, but this Jim Thorpe was almost a total unknown -- a struggling veteran who has never won a tour event and had never even qualified for the Open in six previous attempts. Naturally his surprising success caught the fancy of the galleries, and although he wasn't able to keep up that pace, he avoided the sort of collapse that has so frequently happened in the past to lesser lights who grabbed the early lead, tying for 11th place with a fine 281.
Next it was Burns's turn in the spotlight. He is much better known in golfing circles than Thorpe; he won the Big Crosby Tournament last year and was seventh on the money list with earnings of $219,928. But let's face it, when you say George Burns to the average person it's the wisecracking comedian who comes to mind.
The golfing version began making a few inroads here, though, shooting a second round 66 to hold the lead when the nationally televised portion of the tournament began Saturday. Despite such unaccustomed pressure he hung in there, firing a 68 to increase his margin to three strokes going into the last round.
As that final day began, Graham increased the tension right away by sinking a 25-foot birdie putt on the first hole, then he stuck his approach shot on No. 2 four feet from the pin and holed the putt for another birdie -- and suddenly the lead was down to one stroke with the round barely started.
With Burns and Graham playing together in the final pairing, the rest was virtually match play. And while the Australian was hitting his shots with machine-like precision, Burns was continually scrambling. He got away with it for a while, but in the end it caught up with him as three bogeys on the back nine left him with a last round 73.
Burn's late mishaps made things a bit easier for Graham, but the way the Aussie was playing he really didn't need any help. He hit all 18 greens in regulation -- an amazing feat on the tight, trouble-filled East Course at the Merion Golf Club -- and he himself said, "Today would have to be as good as I've ever played in my life; I can't play better than that."
In all, Graham posted a consistent scorecard of 68-68-70-67 for a 7-under-par total of 273, just one stroke over the Open record of 272 set by Nicklaus at Baltusrol a year ago. Burns, at 276, had to settle for a second-place tie with Bill Rogers -- another bit of "name game" confusion on the leader board, even though in this case the spelling different from that of his more famous marathon-running namesake.
Tennis fans had a familiar name up there, too -- Schroeder -- though of course it was not 1949 Wimbledon champion Ted but his son, John, a 13-year tour veteran who posted his best showing in a major event by totaling 279 to tie John Cook for fourth place. Schroeder, a notoriously slow player who sometimes seems to be counting every blade of grass between his ball and the cup as he agonizes over shots, was also involved in the tournament's biggest controversy. At the end of the second round he was penalized two strokes for unduly delaying play. He appealed, however, and in a surprise decision the US Golf Association went against its top rules official, P. J. Boatwright, who had assessed the penalty, and gave John the benefit of the doubt.
Another item of frequent discussion was Merion itself -- a famous and historic course which has been the site of some of the game's greatest moments, but a short one by modern championship standards, and one which some people think may now be too easy for a major event considering today's improved players and equipment.
In three previous Opens here, for instance, no player had ever broken par for the four rounds. Olin Dutra's winning score in 1934 was a whopping 293; Ben Hogan's playoff victory in 1950 came after he and two others had tied at 287; and in 1971 Lee Trevino and Jack Nicklaus were deadlocked after 72 holes at even par 280, with Trevino winning the playoff.
The trend was obviously downward, though, and now, with another decade of improvement having gone by, there was apprehension that, despite its various famed hazards here and there, the 6,544-yard course as a whole was going to be a piece of cake this time around. Johnny Miller even said before the tournament that somebody might shoot a 59 -- and although nobody else went quite that far, the consensus was that par was in for a beating.
As things went, of course, there were indeed some low scores. Five players did break par for the tournament, which isn't supposed to happen in an Open. And there were more individual sub-par rounds than there should be in this event -- including a course record- tying 64 by Ben Crenshaw. But despite all this apparent evidence, the jury is really still out on Merion because of the frequent rains that made this year's tournament less than a full test of the old course.
Because of its small size and contours, Merion is especially dependent on fast greens -- the better to keep players from being too aggressive in their approach shots lest a small mistake skip off the green and into bogeyland. Trevino put it best at the start of the tournament. "The thing we have to fear is more rain," he said. "If that happens, I'm afraid we've caught Merion with her defenses down."
Unfortunately, that did happen -- with the predictable result. And yet even though not at its toughest, the course did still manage to hold up against the overwhelming majority of the world's best golfers. It's interesting to note, for instance, that Nicklaus had exactly the same 280 score that he posted 10 years ago. Tom Watson, generally conceded to be the No. 1 man these days, could manage only a 285. And Miller certainly had to eat a little crow after finishing with that same total.
All that hardly sounds like a course that is too easy. So the best thing to do is call it a standoff this time, and wait until the next big championship test here -- hopefully under more suitable weather conditions -- to settle the question.