In the end, the day belonged to David Graham.
The Australian came from three shots off the lead to shoot a 3-under par 67 and win by three strokes, then celebrated by bringing champagne to the media room.
But the real story of the 1981 U.S. Open at Merion was the way a couple of unknown players, with names known to all, nearly the stole the show on the same hallowed ground where Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Lee Trevino had made their marks.
Long before Tiger Woods came around, Jim Thorpe became the first black man in the modern era to lead an Open. But after setting the first-round pace with a blistering 66, Thorpe faltered and finished tied for 11th.
Taking over the reins was George Burns, who led Graham by three heading into the final round, with Jack Nicklaus leading a four-man contingent another stroke back.
Burns, who received a congratulatory note from his comedic namesake, conceded that he did feel the pressure.
“I had never been in that position before,” the 63-year-old Burns told Metro. “You’re thinking you have the whole weight of the world on your shoulders. Then my agent came in and starting telling me what would happen if I won or if I didn’t win. That put added pressure on me.”
Burns wound up shooting a 73, missing a short putt on the 18th to drop him into a tie for second with Bill Rogers.
“I had a chance to watch David’s game,” said Burns, who won three tournaments in his career. “He was in a zone. It was a flawless round.”
For Rogers, who played in the ’71 Open at Merion, it was a harbinger of things to come.
“I had a lot of confidence going into the Open,” said Rogers, who briefly had the lead in the middle of the third round. “I distinctly remember all day long having the feeling that I was right in the middle of it. I was there if he [Graham] made any mistakes. But he played the round of a lifetime.”
Graham pocketed $55,000 for his efforts, while Rogers and Burns each earned $24,650. Rogers said the confidence gained at Merion paid huge dividends just weeks later when he won the British Open at Royal St. George’s by four strokes.
“The [U.S.] Open was quite meaningful in my career,” said Rogers. “I was able to ride that high and show I wasn’t fearful of the big events. It kind of carried onto Royal St. George’s.”
Merion turned out to be Burns’ last big golfing moment, while Thorpe would go on to tie for fourth in the ’84 Open after sharing the first-round lead.
Thirty-two years have passed without the Open coming this way. When the pros finally return next week for the 2013 Open, they’ll have a tough act to follow.