With the exception of a brief moment following his second round at revered Merion Golf Club, David Graham didn’t possess the outright lead at the 1981 US Open until five holes from the finish.
Yet what he was able to accomplish on that Sunday in Haverford, Pennsylvania would become the stuff of golf lore; a ball-striking performance that would become the envy of the game’s greatest players.
“He hit every green, missed only one fairway, and he did it in the final round of the US Open. My God, that’s unbelievable,” swooned co runner-up Bill Rogers, The Open champion only a month earlier who would win the Australian Open in November that year.
“It was an exhibition of Hoganesque shot-making precision,” wrote Bill Lyon in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“It has been a long time since we last saw a golfer play such brilliant, forceful, technically pure shots on the final holes of the Open,” penned famed golf scribe Herbert Warren Wind.
By week’s end Graham had hit 48 fairways of a possible 64, made 122 putts and hit 57 of 72 greens in regulation to become the first Australian in history to win the US Open.
“Frankly, I don’t know how I did it,” Graham would confess post-round.
“I may not be able to figure it out until tomorrow.”
WHAT CAME BEFORE
David Graham’s path to professional golf was not one of country clubs and privilege.
His calloused hands and stern nature were all you needed to know to appreciate that he had done things the hard way.
The mere fact that he wanted to pursue a career in golf caused a deep rift between he and his father yet his sheer bloody-mindedness would propel the Victorian to the top echelon of world golf.
Turning professional in 1962 at just 16 years of age, Graham soon turned his attention towards playing in America and by 1972 was a first-time winner on the PGA TOUR, defeating fellow Australian Bruce Devlin in a playoff at the Cleveland Open.
He won twice on the PGA TOUR in 1976 and in 1979 bested good friend Ben Crenshaw in a playoff to claim the US PGA Championship, Australia’s first male major champion since Peter Thomson’s fifth Open Championship win in 1965.
Graham was a winner in Phoenix in January 1981 but had been struggling with his game in the months prior, named among a host of players including Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller and Lee Trevino to be suffering injuries and ailments prior to the first round at Merion.
Unsurprisingly to those who knew him, Graham refused to divulge exactly what was troubling him but Associated Press reported that he had received medical attention in the weeks leading up to the US Open.
HOW IT UNFOLDED
Drawn to play with Lanny Wadkins and George Archer for the first two rounds, Graham’s opening round of 2-under 68 put him two strokes back of unheralded first round leader Jim Thorpe.
On Saturday a second consecutive round of 68 gave Graham the 36-hold lead in the clubhouse, albeit briefly, George Burns’ round of 66 giving him a one-stroke edge heading into the weekend.
Graham and Burns were well-known to each other having played two practice rounds together the week prior at Westchester and when Burns extended his lead to three with a tournament record 54-hole score of 203, Graham warned against underestimating him.
“George Burns is not a newcomer to the game of golf. Don’t sell him short,” Graham said.
“He’s putting exceptionally well, and he’s driving the ball well off the tee. I think he’ll be a hard man to beat.”
Graham’s third round featured a wildly fluctuating finale. There were bogeys at 14 and 15, birdies at 16 and 17 and finally a bogey at the 18th to enter the fourth round three behind.
Chasing a slice of golf immortality, Graham wasted little time asserting himself on the championship’s final day, attacking the 6,528-yard layout with birdies at his first two holes to reduce the margin to one before the heaving galleries had even worked up a sweat.
A Burns bogey at the fourth hole saw the pair tied at the top at 6-under par and although Graham’s bogey at the following hole restored Burns’ sole ownership of the lead, there was an over-riding sense that it wouldn’t last.
Graham drew level again by making par to Burns’ bogey at the par-4 10th and took command four holes later with back-to-back birdies at the 14th and 15th holes.
With the championship in his grasp Graham displayed the iron will for which he was renowned, playing the final three holes in a manner that had spectators and fellow competitors in awe.
Perfect tee shots at the par-4 16th and par-3 17th holes settled any anxiety the new leader may have been harbouring and when he found the fairway and green at the 72nd hole savoured the cheers of the 20,000 fans flanking the final hole.
“I couldn’t have shot better shots than I’d made at 16 and I couldn’t have made a better shot at 17 or two better shots at 18,” Graham said of closing out his flawless final round of 3-under 67 for a three-stroke victory.
“There was a very repetitious movement in my set up, in my swing. Some shots I couldn’t have walked out there and placed the ball by hand any better.
“Some people get high by sliding a needle in their arm, and I get high by being in contention playing golf.”
To this day Graham is the only Australian male player to have won two of the three golf majors played in the US and had a reputation throughout his career for excelling in the game’s most revered tournaments.
He finished outside the top-20 at The Masters only twice between 1977 and 1985 and recorded a top-10 finish in at least one Major every year between 1975 and 1986, his 16th top-10 result at a Major coming at the 1990 Open Championship at St Andrews at 44 years of age.
He turned 50 in 1996 and won three Champions Tour titles the following year, adding further wins in each of the next two years, his final victory coming at the Raley’s Gold Rush Classic in October 1999.
Graham was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1988, inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1990 and in 2015 was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, his nomination supported by none other than Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.