Billy Burke Bio: The Golfer Who Won a 72-Hole U.S.Open Playoff

Billy Burke was a PGA Tour winner from the 1920s into the 1940s. He's most famous because he played in, and won, the longest playoff in major championship history: 72 playoff holes.

Full name: William John Burke (birth name Burkowski)

Date of birth: December 14, 1902

Place of birth: Naugatuck, Connecticut

Date and place of death: April 19, 1972 in Clearwater, Florida

Burke's PGA Tour Wins

Burke is credited with wins in 13 tournaments that are now counted by the PGA Tour as official tour wins: *These two were two-man team tournaments. At the 1939 Hagen, Burke partnered with Ed Dudley. At the 1940 Miami International, his partner was Craig Wood.

In the Majors

His victory in the 1931 U.S. Open (more on that to come) was Burke's lone win in a major championship. And he never played in the British Open. His best other finishes were third places in the 1934 Masters and in the 1939 Masters; plus he reached the semifinals in the 1931 PGA Championship.

Overall, Burke had six Top 10s in majors. The first major he played in was the 1928 U.S. Open, and he last played in a major in the 1961 Masters.

His Epic 1931 U.S. Win

Not only did Burke win the 1931 U.S. Open, he won it playing with steel-shafted golf clubs. He was the first golfer to win the U.S. Open with steel shafts.

Oh, and then there was that 72-hole playoff. This Open was played at Inverness in Ohio, scheduled to end on July 4. The weather was brutal with temperatures in the 90s, some days approaching 100 — the 1931 U.S. Open is sometimes remembered as "the Inferno at Inverness."

Burke opened with a 73, two off the lead. In the second round, he shot 72 and moved to within one of leader George Von Elm. Von Elm was the tour's leading money winner heading into this tournament.

On the third day they played 36 holes, the third and fourth rounds. Von Elm's lead over second-place Burke was two following the third round. But Burke took the lead in Round 4, until Von Elm made a 10-foot putt to tie him on the 72nd hole.

For the first time, the USGA used a 36-hole playoff to decide its Open champion. The only problem was that Burke and Von Elm ended the 36-hole playoff day tied again, and again after Von Elm made a 10-footer on the final hole to tie. They both carded 149s.

So the next day, they came back and did it all again, their third consecutive day playing 36 holes. And this 36 holes was just like the previous two: tight throughtout. In fact, Burke and Von Elm traded the lead 25 times over the final 36.

In the end, after 72 holes of regular play and 72 more playoff holes, Burke won by a single stroke. He won the second playoff 148 to 149.

The USGA reacted to this epic battle — one literally hotly contested in July — two ways: It moved the U.S. Open from July back to June to try to reduce the heat; and it eliminated 36-hole playoffs, going back to 18-hole playoffs.

More About Billy Burke

Burke was the son of Polish immigrants to American from Lithuania (the family name was Burkauskas, which was polonized to Burkowski, then anglicized to Burke). Billy began playing golf at age 12 after first starting caddying.

As a teenager, Burke went to work in the same iron foundry in which his father worked. But an accident there took off Burke's ring finger on his left hand, plus part of his left pinkie. After that, he had to rebuild his golf grip to work for him despite those missing fingers.

It didn't much slow Burke's progress as a golfer. After a hard day in the foundry, Burke headed to the driving range to practice. In Connecticut golf circles, they started calling him "the Boy Marvel" for his golf prowess.

When he was 18, Burke first entered the Connecticut State Amateur. The only problem was he didn't own the clothes (such as plus-fours) to meet the dress standard for that big event. His dilemma received local media attention, and two local golfers Burke caddied for stepped up to outfit him with new golf clothes and pay his fare to the tournament.

In 1923, when he was 20, Burke made it to the championship match of the Connecticut State Amateur before losing to Henry Topping. But it turned out to be a great loss for Burke: Topping was a millionaire businessman who became an ongoing benefactor for Burke's golf career, including staking him when he shortly turned pro to try the PGA Tour.

Burke began winning pro tour events in the late 1920s (the 1927 Florida Open is credited as his first tour win). His final tour win was in 1940.

Burke also won other tournaments that are not counted as PGA Tour events, including the Ohio Open four times: 1938, 1939, 1945 and lastly in 1955 at the age of 52.

The year of 1931 was one of three in which he won twice on tour (1927 and 1929 being the other two), but it was without question his best year. It included his only major championship win at the U.S. Open, plus he reached the semifinals in the PGA Championship. Burke made the first of two appearances on Team USA in the Ryder Cup that year, winning both matches he played. (He also played in the 1933 Ryder Cup.)

And Burke got married that year to Marguerite, who survived him when he died at age 69 in 1972.

Later in 1931, Burke and George Von Elm, off the hoopla surrounding their 72-hole playoff, went on an exhibition tour together.

Along the way, Burke also worked as a club pro and was noted as a golf instructor. He was pro for 29 years, beginning in 1934, at Cleveland (Ohio) Country Club. From 1946-62, he was the winter-season pro at Clearwater (Fla.) Country Club. Burke also taught at the 9-hole course in his hometown of Naugatuck, Conn., as well as in Dark Harbor, Maine. In addition, Burke had endorsement deals with sports equipment companies and Billy Burke-branded golf clubs and golf balls were both produced during his heyday.

Burke was inducted into the PGA Hall of Fame in 1966.

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