This is the sixth in a series of 18 stories reviewing every USGA championship and team competition held at Merion Golf Club, site of the 2013 U.S. Open, which until 1942 was known as Merion Cricket Club. This story is excerpted from an upcoming book by the USGA entitled “Great Moments of the U.S. Open,” which celebrates the inspirational stories and extraordinary accomplishments of U.S. Open champions. Published by Firefly Books, “Great Moments of the U.S. Open,” which is scheduled to be released in early May, chronicles heroes, past and present, who persevered under the most demanding conditions to become America’s national champion, with stunning archival images and artifacts from the USGA’s collection that bring these memorable U.S. Open Championships to life. Click hereto order the book.
By 1934, the U.S. Open was firmly established as one of the nation’s premier sporting events. Of the 150 players in the field, the only ones exempt from qualifying included the top-30 finishers from the 1933 U.S. Open, the 19 members of the Walker Cup teams from the United States and Great Britain, and 10 special invitations issued to foreign professionals. The other 1,004 entrants that year attempted to qualify for the remaining 91 spots at one of 22 sectional-qualifying locations around the country. Since the retirement of Bob Jones in 1930, no player had come to dominate the game. The 1934 U.S. Open would provide yet another opportunity for an extremely talented player to rise from the long shadow of Jones to claim the spotlight.
Olin Dutra first qualified for the U.S. Open in 1930 at Interlachen Country Club, where he finished 25th just as Jones was claiming the third leg of his historic Grand Slam. Dutra improved to 21st in 1931 and truly contended in 1932 and 1933, finishing seventh on both occasions. Born in Monterey, Calif., in 1901 into a Portuguese immigrant family of meager means, he grew up caddieing with his brother, Mortie, as well as Al Espinosa and his brothers at Del Monte Golf Course and later at Pebble Beach. Mortie and Olin would both go on to become professional golfers, and Olin would eventually become the head professional at the exclusive Brentwood Country Club in Los Angeles.
Olin won numerous regional events in California, including the Southern California PGA Championship in 1930 and 1931 (he would eventually claim this title a total of six times), but he had yet to capture significant national attention. He did in 1932, when he claimed the PGA Championship, played at match play during this period, winning his five matches in dramatic fashion and playing 196 holes (including two qualifying rounds) in the stroke-play equivalent of 19 under par. Despite this impressive victory, most of his peers did not view him as a threat to win the U.S. Open. One unnamed colleague was quoted as saying, “He has the shots, but lacks the will to win.”
Dutra understood his limitations and knew that shotmaking was not one of them. Rather, it was his mental attitude that had held him back in his pursuit of the national championship when he had been in contention in 1932 and 1933. In the winter of 1934, he wrote to his friend and accomplished professional Leo Diegel, “I have been working on a system to develop self-confidence. You know I have the shots to win. Now my inferiority complex is banished. The old chin is out. You boys had better look out for yourselves at Merion. I am going to fight.”
With his self-doubt now seemingly under control, Dutra set out from California for the U.S. Open at Merion Cricket Club. During a stop in Detroit to meet Mortie, who was also playing in the U.S. Open, Olin contracted amoebic dysentery, brought on by food poisoning, and was briefly hospitalized. Well enough to be released but still very sick, he contemplated withdrawing from the championship. His brother convinced him otherwise, and together they made their way to Merion. By the time they arrived, Dutra had lost 15 of his 230 pounds. He may have conquered his mental demons, but this physical one would plague him throughout the championship.
When play began on June 7, no one was picking Dutra as a favorite to win. The press was focused on Gene Sarazen, Johnny Goodman, Paul Runyan, Craig Wood, Bobby Cruickshank, Horton Smith, Harry Cooper, Tommy Armour and the great Walter Hagen. So it was not surprising when Dutra posted a score of 76 to trail the first-round leaders Wiffy Cox, Cruickshank and Charles Lacey by five strokes. Under doctor’s orders, he was eating sugar cubes to maintain his energy and drinking plenty of water to ward off dehydration. He would improve to a 74 in the second round for a total of 150, tied for 18th place, as Cruickshank posted another 71 for a total of 142 and a two-stroke lead over Gene Sarazen.
Given the severity of his illness, it was impressive that Dutra as much as survived the 36-hole cut. But with his newfound self-confidence, he set his sights a bit higher in the third round. The wind had picked up at Merion and was markedly affecting play. Dutra had grown up playing in the windy conditions of Monterey, which were also common at his home club of Brentwood. Such experience, combined with his ability to drive the ball accurately and long, gave him an advantage over the field, which he would capitalize on in the third round, posting a 1-over par 71. Cruickshank would falter with a 77, and Sarazen’s 73 would leave him with just a three-stroke lead over Dutra heading into the final round.
Sarazen, playing with Horton Smith, began his final round at 2:50 in the afternoon and completed his first nine holes in 38 strokes (two over par). Dutra, playing with fellow Californian and accomplished amateur Lawson Little in the final pairing at 3:05, matched Sarazen’s 38 on the outward nine. Dutra was still three strokes back with nine holes to play. The turning point of the championship would come moments later, as Dutra took advantage of the short 335-yard, par-4 10th hole by almost driving the green for an easy birdie, while Sarazen hooked his drive into a ditch on the 11th hole and struggled to make a triple bogey 7. Dutra was now ahead by one.
Sarazen would double bogey the 12th and battle back with birdies at the 13th and 18th holes to post a final-round score of 76 for a total of 294. Dutra, conquering his physical and mental demons, held steady on the inward nine and needed only a bogey 5 on the final hole to best Sarazen by one stroke. The 18th hole at Merion is long and difficult – a 458-yard par 4 with a narrow driving zone and a difficult approach, often played from a downhill lie to an elevated and well-protected green. After a long, straight drive that found the fairway, Dutra hit his spoon (the equivalent of a modern 3-wood) to the edge of the green. Mortie yelled from the crowd, “Take it easy, Olin,” after Dutra had played his first putt to 4 feet. No time for heroics, he lagged his second putt to the lip of the hole and tapped in for a 72 and a total of 293 to win the U.S. Open by a single stroke over Sarazen.
Winning the U.S. Open is a stressful and strenuous achievement, even for players in the best of health. It requires a unique inner strength, focused determination and the shear will to win. Despite physical agony and a weakened body, Olin Dutra found this transcendent spirit within himself and claimed greatness. His remarkable victory in 1934 remains one of the most heroic and inspirational moments in the championship’s long and rich history.
Robert Williams is the director of the USGA Museum. Email him at email@example.com.
The USGA is pleased to announce that USGA Members in the Medal, Honor and Patron levels will receive a complimentary copy of the book this fall as part of their Membership benefits. Others wishing to order “Great Moments of the U.S. Open” (cover pictured) can do so by clicking here.