The nice guy he is, David Graham it is no surprise to him that George Burns is leading the United States Open golf tournament. "Someone on TV last night said, 'If you couldn't believe who led the Open the first day, you're never going to believe who led the second day,'" Graham said. "George Burns is not a newcomer to the game of golf. Don't sell this guy short."
Well, a lot of folks can't believe it. We have here testimony from a skeptic. The skeptic finished last week's Westchester tournament with rounds of 68 and 65 to earn fifth-place money of $16,000. He is the winner of one PGA tournament. He was seventh on the tour money list last year with $219,000. He used to be cannon fodder for the good football players at the University of Maryland.
To America's assembled golfing scribes, the skeptic today said, "This is a big surprise to me."
George Burns said that.
"Look, I never expected to shoot three rounds in the 60s. But that's the way my game is. Streaky. I'm one for momentum."
Burns is hot. He has shot 69, 66 and 68 in a tournament proud of protecting the integrity of par. He is seven under par when eight under is the alltime record. If he hadn't missed three straight birdie putts early in today's round. George Burns could tell everyone, "Say good night, Gracie."
George Burns is a shambling bag of bones who has the old master's endearing way with a wisecrack notable for candor. Ask him how he disposed of a criminally negligent putter last week, and Burns says, "An over-the-knee job." And what happened to the sinful driver? "I threw it against some electrical cables. Broke it in half. I was through with it, it was gone."
How much does your caddy, Lee Trotter, have to do with your work this week? "I've known the guy for 20 years now. We used to play together before 8 in the morning and after four in the afternoon, because he was caddying. He is at least 50 percent of this. He polices the area for me, and he knows I'm growing up. I don't throw clubs at him like I used to."
How does it feel to lead the Open by three strokes? "Listen, I've kicked it away with one-shot leads." And why, George, won't you look at the scoreboards during the final round? "You can't worry about anybody else. And because the kids working the boards are drinking Cokes and eating pretzels. They don't know what's going on."
Tell us briefly, please, about your football career and how a Long Island kid came to go to Maryland. "I was in prep school when an assistant coach at Maryland gave me a partial scholarship. I played in the spring and found out I wasn't going anywhere. A tackle? I was a dummy-holder, a get-the-water guy. I just quit."
Because he had knocked a golf ball around as a kid, and because he had nothing better to do in College Park, Burns joined the Terrapin golf team. He speaks fondly of his old coach, Frank Cronin. "I was a 9-handicapper at the time," Burns said. "But Frank stuck with me through thick and thin." a
And today golf will be the better for it, because George Burns will win the Open. He is making every putt he needs. On the decisive final five holes of Merion Golf Club, only Burns of the leaders is even par for three days (Jack Nicklaus, to name one, is six over par). Besides, on Father's Day you have to root for a handsome young dad who says of his girls, Kelly Ann, 5, and Eileen, 10 months, "I'd like to win the U.S. Open just for the convenience of the 10-year exemption, so I could spend more time with my daughters."
Now, it would be nice to issue a money-back guarantee with such a flat prediction. But. But. But Burns might shoot 78 today. He has a golf swing that will turn you to stone if you look.
If you're brave, take a quick peek at Burns' right elbow, flying up over his right ear. Such a flaw is unforgiveable. It is the reason Burns plays so hot and cold. When all the shambling, ambling parts of his skeletal system are in synchronization, he can send the cursed pellet through a needle's eye at 217 yards. He also can mis-hit a ball so far east it's west.
He knows it. He ain't fooling nobody, least of all George Burns. "When I turned pro, at 26, I put my self on two five-year plans. In the first five years, I wanted to familiarize myself with the courses we play. I wanted to improve my swing every year. And I wanted to win some tournaments."
The first five years ended last season, and now Burns, 31, says he wants in the next five years only to be a consistent money winner. He doesn't want to be a superstar, because he doesn't like the hassle. He'd rather drink beer with a newspaperman than talk commercial strategy with an adman.
The one thing that hasn't changed from one five-year plan to the next is Burns' hope that he can build a dependable swing.
"I want to eliminate some of those wild shots," he said today, safe in the press room after hitting one of the wildest shots ever seen in an Open. That one was at the 11th hole where he pull-jerked a pitching wedge 40 yards left of the green and directly behind bleachers holding 2,000 people. He said grass in the rough twisted the clubface. That flying right elbow didn't help any, either, but it is a measure of Burns' growing tournament maturity that such a gawdawful swing didn't set off volcanic tremors.
TV commentator Bob Rosburg, watching the 11th-hold high-jinks as Burns was allowed to move his ball out from behind the bleachers, said it was "the greatest break in U.S. Open history."
Burns laughed at that. "First of all, Rossie would have walked in from there," he said, alluding to the old pro's flaming temper.
When Burns might have made a 7, instead he turned it into a bogey 5, U.S. Opens are won by fellows who take advantage of luck. They are won, too, by men who follow a bogey with a birdie. On this day, at the 12th hole, minutes after killing trees with his defoliant shot, George Burns sailed an eight-iron shot to within eight feet of the cup to set up a birdie.