Museum Moment: Olin Dutra’s Gritty 1934 U.S. Open Victory

Jan 13, 2011

By Robert Alvarez

1934 saw the births of future baseball Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente, the death of notorious bank robber John Dillinger, the opening of the infamous prison on Alcatraz Island and the debut of the Apollo Theater in New York City. The best motion picture of that year was Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. It captured five Academy Awards.

In the world of golf, Horton Smith captured the first Masters, then known as the Augusta National Invitation Tournament, Henry Cotton won the British Open Championship, Paul Runyan won the PGA Championship, and Lawson Little won both the U.S. and British Amateur Championships - he would accomplish the same feat in 1935, completing his “Little Slam.”

The 1934 U.S. Open Championship was held at the Merion Cricket Club in Ardmore, Pa. It was won by 33-year-old California native Olin Dutra.

Dutra was born on January 17, 1901, in Monterey, Calif., the descendant of early Spanish settlers in the Americas. Dutra’s first exposure to golf came as a child when he and his brother Mortie worked as caddies at the Del Monte Country Club. The brothers collected old clubs from the pro shop and took to the fields to learn the game. Dutra grew up a dedicated golfer, often rising at 4 a.m. to practice before going to work.

For eight years Dutra followed this regimen while working at a hardware store. He finally decided to leave the hardware business to pursue a career as a golf professional, eventually ending up as head golf professional at Brentwood Country Club in Los Angeles. Brother Mortie also became a professional and would relocate to the Detroit area. The brothers never faced each other in match-play competition, but did tie for third place twice at the Agua Caliente Open, and once finished tied for 14th place at the Los Angeles Open.

Dutra was not a stranger to success in major championships, having won the 1932 PGA Championship at Keller Golf Club in Maplewood, Minn. He finished as low qualifier and was 19 under par for the 196 holes he played during the course of the championship, which was then conducted at match play. However, it was Dutra’s success, and grit, at the 1934 U.S. Open Championship that made him famous.

The story began more than a year before the championship when Dutra became afflicted with amoebic dysentery, an often uncomfortable and painful intestinal infection. As the U.S. Open approached, Dutra stopped in Detroit en route to Philadelphia to visit his brother, when he began to feel very ill. He spent a short time in the hospital, casting doubt over his chances of participating in the U.S. Open.

The Californian did make it to Merion, resorting to unusual measures to cope with the infection, eating sugar cubes to regain his stamina, though he did lose close to 20 pounds off his 6-foot-3, 230-pound frame during the championship.

In the July 1934 issue of American Golfer, O.B. Keeler recapped the championship for his readers. Gene Sarazen was given 5-to-1 odds, Paul Runyan 6-to-1, and Craig Wood 10-to-1 odds. Dutra wasn’t on the oddsmakers’ radar. Keeler caught up with the eventual champion, who admitted that his legs were weak, and that while he had played pretty decently in practice he had no expectation of making more than a respectable showing, considering the imposing field. “Seems like a bit of tough luck,” said Dutra. “I had been working along toward this tournament all winter, you see, and had played in almost all of the events around the big loop. And I really was playing pretty well. And then this blamed bug comes along!”

But Keeler elaborated further on just why Dutra should have been considered a threat to win the Open trophy. “He has style, accuracy, plenty of range; is accustomed to playing in a hard wind. Brentwood Heights is rarely calm. And there was wind at Merion, all three days, but not always the same wind. This was right up the Senor’s avenue. Some of the most delightfully artistic strokes I witnessed were off the irons and pitching tools of the big Spaniard, punching low shots into the wind, straight as a ruled line, or holding the ball up in a crossing current, or banking it craftily against a cushion of air.”

Dutra shot 71-72 in the final two rounds, but that might not have been enough to win the championship had Gene Sarazen not made a triple-bogey 7 on the 11th hole. Dutra won by one shot with a four-round total of 293. Sarazen finished second at 294, while Harry Cooper, Wiffy Cox and Bobby Cruickshank tied for third at 295. Mortie Dutra finished 14 shots back at 307.

Bob Jones said of Dutra that he is “very, very straight… and his action is a model of compactness, which accounts in large measure for his effectiveness in a wind… Altogether, Dutra’s golf is of the sort that shows up best under adverse conditions and on a tough, exacting course. It is definitely championship golf.” Jones knew a good player when he saw one.

The USGA Museum has on display a Spalding Dot golf ball and Spalding Kro-Flite, Robert T. Jones model “windjammer” iron used by Dutra during his final round at Merion, along with his championship gold medal. The collection also includes original artwork by Howard Crosby Renwick for a Beech-Nut Gum advertisement featuring Dutra (conserved in 2007), and a wooden chair with the images of the lesser known, though intriguing Dutra, and the more recognizable Walter Hagen on its seat.

Robert Alvarez is the collections manager of the USGA Museum. E-mail him with questions or comments at RAlvarez@usga.org.

The USGA Museum's collection includes original artwork by Howard Crosby Renwick for a Beech-Nut Gum advertisement featuring Olin Dutra. (USGA Museum)