U.S. SENIOR AMATEUR
After 44 Years, 1971 Merion Connection Rekindled
September 28, 2015 | Egg Harbor Township, N.J.
By Ron Driscoll, USGA
When Merion Golf Club, in Ardmore, Pa., hosted the 1971 U.S. Open, PGA Tour caddies were not allowed on the course, meaning that the club’s own caddies looped for the players in the national championship.
Paul Savini of nearby Havertown had been a caddie for three years at Merion. After his name was chosen from a bowl that contained the caddies’ names, Savini picked the name of the player he would caddie for out of another bowl. The long odds that paired Savini with Joe Burden that week pale tremendously in comparison to those that reunited the pair this week at Hidden Creek Golf Club.
Joe Burden shot 76-82 to miss the 36-hole cut 44 years ago at Merion, and the 17-year-old caddie and his 20-year-old boss went their separate ways. Savini went on to Memphis State, where he played center on the football team, and Burden returned to the University of Illinois, where he was the golf team’s No. 1 player.
Last week, as Hidden Creek’s registration co-chairman for the U.S. Senior Amateur, Savini returned a phone message from a competitor seeking to substitute his own caddie for the one the club had offered.
“I told the player, no problem, I can do that for you,” said Savini, now 61 and a longtime member of the club. “I started chatting with the guy, asking him if he had ever played golf in this area, and he mentioned Merion. I told him I used to caddie there. As a matter of fact, I said, in the 1971 U.S. Open, I caddied for a gentleman with the same last name as you.”
Mark Burden, of Atlanta, Ga., was silent on the other end of the phone. “You’re kidding me, right?” he finally asked. “Someone’s playing a joke on me.” Savini assured him he wasn’t. “That’s my brother,” said Burden.
As the substitute caddie in question, Joe Burden, 64, had already planned to attend the Senior Amateur. He and Savini got together twice for dinner in the days leading into the championship. Burden, now a resident of the Chicago area, tried to explain the joy that the unexpected reunion has triggered.
“The wonderful thing to me is the impression that the 1971 Open made on him,” said Burden of his long-ago caddie. “Some things are just indelibly burned into the brain. It’s not like I played in eight or 10 U.S. Opens – I played in one. It was our formative years. I was so naïve.”
Burden wistfully recalled his success in those halcyon days.
“I had just come off a great competitive year of golf at Illinois,” he said. “I went from the No. 6 player on the team to No. 1. The [U.S. Open] qualifier seemed easy to me. I breezed right in at Barrington (Ill.) Hills Country Club as the low amateur. I still have my USGA pin from that.”
The opportunity to revisit memories of Merion almost never happened, because Burden nearly passed up the chance to caddie for his brother, who easily qualified for the Senior Amateur match-play bracket over the weekend with rounds of 74-73. He will square off against former National Hockey League player Earl Ingarfield, of Scottsdale, Ariz., at 9:30 a.m. on Monday.
“Mark played golf at Duke,” said Burden of his 57-year-old brother. “He now lives in Atlanta, and he still competes hard. He has caddied for me before, but I don’t believe I had ever caddied for him. After he asked me, I thought about it and called him back – I told him I wasn’t sure if I had the stamina to carry the bag in a major amateur event. When he assured me that the bag could go on a cart and I could walk alongside him and line up putts, I said that was perfect.”
That assurance led to Mark’s phone call to the club and the unlikely connection.
“It’s been a marvelous exchange,” said Burden, who turned professional for three years after college but regained his amateur status three years later. “He remembered my parents, who have since passed away – he said they made him feel like part of the family. That we would meet and go down this road together is very serendipitous.”
Burden became a professional at Philmont Country Club, near Philadelphia, but he left the club in 1976 at age 26 and returned to Illinois, where he entered the insurance business. He and his wife have three daughters and he is now a member at Bob O’Link Golf Club, in Highland Park, Ill., where as chairman of the green committee, he is helping to restore the H.S. Colt-designed course.
“I’ve had some injuries, so I’m not playing nearly as much as I used to, but I’m doing other things in golf that are really fun,” said Burden, who has played in seven USGA championships, spanning the 1969 U.S. Junior Amateur to the 1992 U.S. Mid-Amateur, while his brother has played in three, including this week.
“We spent a week together [in 1971] that was a dream for him,” said Savini of Burden. “And now we’re going back and forth over all these things – it’s like a breath of fresh air coming back to us from years and years ago. How long does a golf shot last? It’s just a moment in time, but we both remember the exact same things from 44 years ago.”
They recalled Burden’s 5-iron approach shot that struck the trademark Merion wicker basket flagstick on the fly on No. 16, the soaring 4-wood that landed and rolled almost perfectly on the long par-3 17th before trickling over the green, and the trouble Burden encountered on No. 3, where his ball ended up under a bush.
“It’s not like I buried it all these years,” said Burden. “But I don’t pull those recollections up and share them, really – it seems kind of self-serving. I asked Paul what else he remembered and he said, ‘You birdied the first hole.’ I had forgotten that.”
Forty-four years later, Burden had one more reason to smile.
Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.