Golf, particularly the version played at U.S. Opens, is not a game of perfect. The national championship presents a type of controlled chaos that is endured, not subdued.
Consider it damage control – bogeys are mitigated, pars are coveted and birdies are celebrated. It’s a generalization that makes David Graham’s final round in 1981, the last time the Open was played on Merion’s venerable East Course, historic, even if the 67-year-old now seems immune to the hyperbole of his accomplishment.
“I could roll the ball pretty good on fast greens and didn’t have any flaws in my game,” Graham recently figured.
If Graham’s misplaced modesty seems curious in the context of the ’81 championship, he’s come by it honestly. Consider that Graham defied his father when he turned pro at 16 and embraced his craft with a workmanlike effort that was not lost on his contemporaries.
“David was sort of a ... I don't know what you call it, almost like a club guru or something,” Jack Nicklaus said. “He loved to fiddle with clubs and did a good job. I had great respect for David's ability to work with golf clubs and to play them. From his background, he came from a very meager background in Australia. I thought he did a great job in life and a great job on Tour. I thought he was a great player.”
It was that perfectionist who set out for the final turn in ’81 trailing George Burns by three strokes on a golf course that, even three decades ago, was short by modern standards (6,544 yards).
As a result, the powers that be at the USGA had tweaked the mercurial gem along Philadelphia’s Main Line into a battle of attrition with narrow fairways, deep and inconsistent rough and tucked pins that only the fearless and foolish would attack (sound familiar?).
Just behind Graham for that final lap in ’81 was Nicklaus, who was tied for fourth and five strokes off the pace through 54 holes, and second-year Tour player John Cook, who was in a group at 1 under.
“You look at the scorecard and think I can shoot 65 easy and the next thing you know you walk off with a 75,” Cook recalled.
It was the former score that Graham had in mind when he set out for the final round some three decades ago. The Australian birdied the first and second and other than a three-putt bogey at the fifth, his only blemish of the day, it was a textbook closing card.
For the round, Graham hit all 18 greens in regulation and missed just a single fairway for a walk-off 67, one of just seven rounds in the 60s on Sunday, and a three-stroke victory.
“I’ve had rounds that were close to it, every top player has rounds like that,” Graham said. “Some are on Thursday, Friday or Saturday. To do it on a Sunday at an Open it gets more recognition or notice.”
Forgive Graham, who became the first Australian to win the U.S. Open, if three decades have softened his ability to buy into the hyperbole of his major masterpiece. For those who were trying to keep pace with him, however, the feat has not been dulled by time.
“I was right there until David decided he wasn’t going to miss a green,” laughed Cook, who tied for fourth at 1 under par. “It was hard to pick up shots. I was just kind of holding my spot and all of a sudden David got to 6 or 7 under and you realized you were playing for second.”
That Graham crafted that flawless card with Nicklaus looming only added to the degree of difficulty. At the time, Nicklaus’ name on the leaderboard was worth a stroke a side on a Grand Slam Sunday and when that final round began the Golden Bear loomed larger than life, just two shots behind Graham.
“The minute they put Nicklaus’ name on the leaderboard everybody made bogey,” Graham said. “It’s like when they put Tiger’s name up now and they think, ‘Here we go again.’”
But Graham didn’t give Nicklaus or anyone else much of a chance in ’81.
As good as Graham’s start may have seemed at the time, it was the way he negotiated Merion’s demanding closing stretch that sets his round apart from other great finishes.
Graham played the 14th hole with a driver, 7-iron for a tap-in birdie followed by an 8-iron to 2 feet for another birdie at the 15th hole. Three stress-free pars to close his round sealed his fate, and some say that of Merion.
Graham’s 7-under 273 card, which came within one stroke of Nicklaus’ 72-hole championship record, was the first under-par total for an Open winner at Merion. If Graham’s flawless finish sealed his fate as one of his generation’s best – it was his second major title in two years – conventional wisdom suggested his dismantling of the East Course also relegated the historic layout to relic status.
It took 32 years and some creative tinkering to convince the USGA to return to Merion, and Graham concedes, depending on the weather, the modern game may be too much for the classic course.
“Length isn’t an issue today,” said Graham, who will co-host a dinner with Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer on Tuesday at Merion. “No one of my era is even familiar with the game these kids play.”
After a few rounds this week the “kids” may say the same of Graham’s final turn. There may be rounds better than his 67 next week at the 113th U.S. Open, but none as flawless. It was, by any measure, as close as Open golf gets to a perfect game.