Looking Back: 1981 U.S. Open
David Graham’s nearly flawless final-round 67 carried the Australian to a three-stroke victory at Merion Golf Club
By Dave Shedloski
This is the 15th in a series of 18 stories looking back at every USGA championship and international team competition held at Merion Golf Club, site of the 2013 U.S. Open, which until 1942 was known as Merion Cricket Club.
There have been few final rounds in U.S. Open history that were more exquisitely executed than the 3-under-par 67 that David Graham submitted on June 21, 1981 at Merion Golf Club.
If that has you wondering whether we’d rung the bell on the hyperbole meter, well, we challenge you to name another champion who, in the cauldron of final-round pressure, picked apart one of the game’s most hallowed layouts as meticulously as Graham did on a warm, dry Sunday in suburban Philadelphia.
Graham hit all 18 greens in regulation, and he missed just one fairway.
Sounds like a recipe for winning the U.S. Open, which Graham did rather handily, beating George Burns and Bill Rogers by three strokes.
“To this day I can’t say I ever played better with so much at stake,” said a wistful Graham, who turns 67 on May 23. “I honestly wish I had an explanation. I’d have done it more often.”
Actually, having taken a moment to think about it, Graham, a native of Windsor, Australia, who turned professional at 16, did offer something of an explanation. It seems four-time U.S. Open winner Jack Nicklaus gets a share of the credit.
“In those days I was blessed to be able to play a lot of golf with players like Jack Nicklaus, Tom Weiskopf, Lee Trevino … they taught me so much,” said Graham, who joined Nicklaus’s Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio, in 1975 and won the Memorial Tournament there in 1980. “I would have to say that Jack probably more than anyone else had an influence on the way I played. He showed me how important it is to play smart, sensible golf. He showed me how to control your golf ball, how to walk off the golf course and pace your yardages and be precise. Your due diligence was crucial.
“He never pushed the envelope. If Jack thought you needed to play a hole with a 1-iron and a 4-iron, that’s the way he played it. He had great course management.
“That week [at Merion] I played the golf course exactly how I needed to play it or should play it,” added Graham, who two years earlier had claimed his first major title, the PGA Championship, at Oakland Hills in suburban Detroit. “I was a good long-iron player, so I only hit three or four drivers per round. Of course, a lot of guys did that, but on the longer holes when I had to hit a driver, I kept it in the fairway. I played the course to the strengths and weaknesses of my game. And I got fortunate. I putted decently, and if you putt well in a major championship, particularly a U.S. Open, the results are usually pretty good.”
That year, Graham didn’t seem to have a weakness, and in the end he was able to prey on Merion’s only weakness – its length. The par-70 East Course measured just 6,544 yards, and although the rough was high and the greens were extremely quick, good scores could be had, even by a guy who had only one top-10 finish in his previous 11 U.S. Opens and who had missed the cut in the ’71 Open at Merion with scores of 77-80.
“It happens to all players from time to time,” said Graham, who made no worse than bogey all week. “We find something that works and we stick with it and, sometimes, good things happen and, occasionally, something incredible happens.”
Graham, 35 at the time, opened with a pair of 68s playing alongside Lanny Wadkins. Incredibly, those scores represented the first two rounds in which he had ever broken 70 in the Open.
On the first day, Graham trailed Jim Thorpe, whose 66 made him the first African-American player to lead an Open. When Burns equaled Thorpe’s score in the second round, he held the outright lead at 5-under 135, with Graham trailing by a stroke.
Ten former Open champions were in the field, and two of the three who missed the cut were among the most notable: Trevino, the 1971 champion at Merion, and Pennsylvania native son Arnold Palmer, the 1960 winner.
The defending champion was Nicklaus, who won his record-tying fourth national championship the year prior at Baltusrol Golf Club, and he was still very much a problem for the other hopefuls despite some uncharacteristic troubles. On Friday, he shanked a 4-iron into the woods on the 16th hole, leading to a double-bogey 6, but he still shot 68 and sat tied for third at 3-under 137, just two behind Burns with Graham perched in between at 136.
On Saturday, Nicklaus suffered another double, hitting three bad shots on the par-4 14th hole, then needing three putts. After missing his second putt, Nicklaus turned to the gallery and yelled, pleadingly and in jest, “Help.” His 71 didn’t shoot him out of the championship, however. Heading into the final round, he was tied for fourth with Chi Chi Rodriguez and John Schroeder, five shots behind Burns, who extended his lead after a 68.
Graham, meanwhile, remained the closest pursuer, three behind at 4-under 206 after a 70.
Two holes into the final round Graham had changed from pursuer to stalker. He enjoyed a fortuitous opening gambit, chopping the three-stroke deficit to just one thanks to consecutive birdies. A 3-wood and a wedge at the short first set up a 20-footer that he drilled into the hole – and into Burns’s gut. He followed with another wedge to about 3 feet at the par-5 second.
“I think the start I got was huge. It put me right there in the mix of things right away,” Graham said. “George didn’t have time to really enjoy any of his lead because I started so well. I was right on top of him. And it put me in a completely different mindset. If he had started that way, made a couple of birdies, he’d have had a five-shot lead, and it would have probably been close to over.”
As it happened, however, Burns started poorly and made just one birdie all day – and that wasn’t until the par-3 17th when hope was just about extinguished. His first stumble came with a bogey-6 at No. 4, which momentarily dropped him into a tie until Graham suffered his only blemish, a three-putt bogey at the par-4 fifth after leaving his approach above the hole. Still, Graham kept up the monotonous theme of fairways and greens, and his steadiness paid off when Burns bogeyed the short par-4 10th to restore a tie at five under par.
Graham’s title push came at the tough par-4 14th hole. A driver and sublime 7-iron left him a 2-foot tap-in for birdie that gave him the outright lead. He then followed with an 8-iron to 6 feet at the 15th for another birdie to extend his lead to two shots, and three consecutive pars to the clubhouse sealed the title.
Graham, at 7-under 273, became the first Open winner at Merion to finish under par, coming within a stroke of Nicklaus’s 72-hole championship record. He also became the first Australian-born golfer to win the U.S. Open.
An eight-time winner on the PGA Tour, Graham had sterling silver replicas made of his Merion scorecards. They hang on a wall in his Whitefish, Mont., home.
“You know, you think about winning something like the U.S. Open, and it’s incredibly rewarding,” Graham said. “You’re never sure in your whole life if you’re good enough or if it’s meant to happen until it does. And then you add the reputation of Merion to it, and that takes it to an even higher level. It validates everything you’ve worked for, everything you’ve tried to become as a golfer.”
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.