George Burns called his record-setting 64 at Congressional Country Club yesterday "a magic round," and perhaps no calmer description would suffice for an afternoon that included a hole in one and seven birdies on one of America's longest and toughest golf courses.
On a breezy crystal day when the rest of the players in the first round of this Kemper Open were 544 strokes over par, Burns became the first man to shoot eight under par at tortuous, testing Congressional.
Burns' birdie blitz, a 33-31 round in which he played the back nine first, will go in the PGA record books next to Tommy Jacobs' 64 in 1964 at the U.S. Open here, but that score was shot when Congressional played to a par of 70. Nigglers can debate which is more illustrious. The only man ever to shoot seven-under-par at Congressional, before Burns caught afire, was Jack Nicklaus with a 65 last year.
Burns' performance was filled with mastery and more than a bit of mystery as the former University of Maryland golfer and football player took a four-shot lead over Tom Kite (35-33, with 14 one-putts) and Scott Simpson (34-34). Only two other players broke 70--Andy Bean (33-36--69) and Tze-Chung Chen (36-33--69)--on a day when the field of 156 players had a staggering stroke average of 75.45 and almost as many players failed to break 80 (18) as broke par (20).
Most of the glamor names stayed squarely in contention, providing that, as Simpson said, "Burns doesn't pull a Stadler routine." Behind Tom Jenkins, at 70, were 14 players at 71, including John Mahaffey and Jerry Pate. Among the 14 players at 72 stood two-time defending champion Craig Stadler (35-37), David Graham, Fuzzy Zoeller and Peter Jacobsen.
While others had their mitts full, Burns' mastery was obvious, except at the second hole, where he missed the green and had his only bogey.
At the fourth and 15th, he laced irons so tight to the stick that he had tiny tap-ins for birdie. Three times--at the first, eighth and 10th--his birdie putts were of the modest two- to three-pace range. Only at the fifth hole and the legendary 18th did he make long birdie putts, and neither was more than a reasonable 20 feet.
All of Burns' luck was saved for the 215-yard 16th hole, where his two-iron shot covered the flag throughout its flight, then trickled into the cup for his first ace in eight years on tour. Burns, who called the shot "a matter of luck," couldn't see the ball drop in the hole from the tee.
The mystery in Burns' day was best appreciated by those who have watched him do battle for years with his flying right elbow, his temper and his tendency "to make birdies in droves" or "hit it so wild it's unbelievable."
For Burns, who's suffered through the most exasperating slump of his excellent career this season, yesterday's round was a vindication of his decision to restructure his golf swing.
"I was in a helluva slump. My swing has always been a constant battle . . . I decided to tear it all down and start over," said Burns, who has missed seven cuts already this year, compared to three in 1982, when he had a typical 18th-place finish on the money list.
"Believe it or not, I've been out here seven years playing without a golf swing . . . hit it and wish . . . I never really learned the fundamentals of the swing or proper course management.
"I've gone to a lot of teachers looking for the quick cure, but this time (working with Jack Flick) is the first time I've gone back to square one."
After shooting 75-80 to miss the cut at the Memorial last week, Burns flew to Washington the same afternoon to relax with old friends from college days, consume mass quantities of fettuccine with cream sauce at The Roma restaurant and play Congressional every day with members.
"I just wanted to get away from it," said Burns.
Even minutes before he teed off, Burns had no thoughts of winning or producing what may be the best round of his streaky, spectacular career.
"No hint . . . I wasn't looking forward to anything. I was trying to put some bread on the table . . . Hey, I don't need to win. I don't want to be a superstar," said Burns, who, in 1981, finished seventh on the money list and led the U.S. Open entering the fourth round.
"I just want to come out here and earn my living and not torment myself as much as I have some times in the past. There are other things that are important to me, particularly my family (wife Irene and daughters Kelly Ann, 7, and Eileen, 2)."
Even after his magic round, Burns hardly knew how to feel. It was "too early" to think about winning the tournament since "I've only played four good rounds in a row once in my life, when I won the Crosby (in 1980)." Also, Burns still feels "very uncomfortable" with his new swing, although he adds, "I feel very good about my game, right now . . . From my track record, you know I'm going to hit some exciting (wild) shots, but I'm just going to try to narrow 'em down a little."
In addition, Burns had a painful stress fracture of his right foot and can't yet shake the memory of all those years when, "I was always anticipating a bad shot, the big mistake. I was looking for it."
All these new ideas, about "eliminating wild shots" and "learning when to attack, when to be smart, and when just not to be too stupid," are still sinking into the subconscious level where tournament golf is played.
At sundown, Burns merely wanted to bask in his moment. "Today was wonderful because it's Congressional, a great course, and because it's the result of a lot of hard work."
Many a player would have gloated after such a show-stopping day. Burns' first thought was not to slight Jacobs' record. "He shot his 64 under Open conditions. That's tougher. I got away with a couple of wild ones (off the tee) that you couldn't have moved with Open rough."
Burns, the man who has been so tormented at times by golf that he says, "I don't want to be a superstar," was even concerned that Congressional might be offended by such as he shooting a 64.
"The winds stopped this afternoon," he said. "I got it when its guard was down."
Even without Burns' excellence, this would have been a memorable first round. Hal Sutton (73) lipped out what could have been a double eagle on the 554-yard 15th hole. His second shot, hit with a driver, burned the edge and stopped two feet from the hole for a tap-in eagle.
Marty West, a stellar local amateur, needed only 20 putts in his round of 74. PGA records show only four rounds with fewer putts in Tour history--one 18 and three 19s.
Aside from Burns, the day's purest ball-striking round may have been carded by Bean, who had several 300-yard drives and might have shot lower than his 69 but for a balky putter.
"The putter hasn't died," said Bean, who switched to a new model recently. "It was strangled some last weekend, but it hasn't died."
Sutton, West and Bean, however, could not surpass the giddy excitement of Kite's bizarre round in which the Tour's Mr. Consistency hit the ball all over the course, one-putted eight consecutive greens, and shot 68 when a less tenacious creature might have had 75.
When Kite hooked into the trees at the 18th, he reached the green's fringe despite a somewhat restricted backswing. "Sure lucky I got short arms," he told the crowd as he swung under a tree. After another sprayed tee shot, Kite asked the crowd, "I didn't kill anybody, did I?"
"That was a hard-workin' day," he said proudly. "I get the most satisfaction out of a day like this when I'm grinding, not giving up . . . I got the absolute max out of that round."
George Burns could say the same.