The Battling Linksman

Wally Erwin was the youngest child of Thomas, an itinerant,  immigrant, house painter from Stavangar, Norway and his young bride, Anna Mathilde Taraldsen, who also hailed from that ancient Viking, North Sea  town in southwestern Norway.  Wally  grew up in the booming automobile metropolis of Wayne County, Michigan along with a even dozen siblings.   For all of his life, Wally had to battle to overcome his handicaps to become a winner.  In the end, Wally’s efforts were not in vain, for he became one of the greatest winners in the history of his native state.

By the time he was eight years old, Wally got a part time job as a caddy at Detroit’s Lochmoor Country Club, which was established one century ago in 1917.  As he lugged heavy bags of clubs, Wally kept his eyes on the golfers - watching their stances, their grips, and their swings.  And, it paid off.

Wally played anytime and anywhere he could, many times with borrowed clubs after hitched rides to junior and caddy tournaments around the state.  He won the Detroit District Championship at 17, but lost the Western Open by a stroke to Fred Haas later that summer.  As an 18-year-old  golfer, he won the Michigan Junior Medal in 1936.  In 1937, he captured his first title as the top Michigan golfer in the Junior ranks.

On August 28, 1938, the 126-pound, 20-year-old dynamo, in his third tournament in 16 days,  won the low medalist honor with a round of 69 in the 17th Annual National Public Links Championship in Cleveland, Ohio.   In January 13, 1942, Wally joined the United States Army after winning six consecutive amateur championships in Florida.   While stationed at Camp Polk in Louisiana, Wally won the 1942 Ark-La-Tex Championship.

Wally was assigned to combat duty with the 3rd Army Division in Europe in 1944. Not long after he arrived in France, Wally was seriously wounded when the concussion of a bomb blew him literally into the air near Metz, France.   Wally eventually returned to duty.  During the dreadfully cold month of December 1944, Wally’s unit was engaged in the abominable Battle of the Bulge at St. Vith in Belgium.  Three times Wally was struck by German artillery shell fragments in the lower lumbar region of his spine.  Paralyzed for a short time, Wally underwent surgery to repair the damage to his back.  Wally’s doctors placed him in a steel brace in hopes that Wally would miraculously return to the golf courses.

Wally returned to the links in the spring of 1945 in Detroit to begin his return to the game he loved so much.  Playing with a back brace to ease his still hurting war wounds, Wally started hitting the ball with the same intensity he had before he joined the Army.

Wally, who once thought he would never walk again much less play golf again, returned to the United States to Fletcher General Hospital in Cambridge, Ohio on May 9, 1945.  Some seven weeks later, Wally’s doctors allowed the courageous soldier to return to play golf, but only under their watchful eyes.  Wally responded with a second place finish at the Illinois Amateur and a first place title at the Red Run Invitational in his hometown of Detroit.   In the early summer of 1945, Wally teamed with Jug McSpadden to capture the Pro-Amateur Title at the Chicago Victory Tournament.  After that one successful day, Wally was forced to return to the hospital and miss the main tournament despite the fact that he proclaimed that he was playing better than he had ever played.

For the remainder of the 1940s, Wally continued to fight to win tournaments and recover from his near fatal injuries.

Wally played in his first major golf championship tournament, the U.S. Open, at Merrion Golf Club in  Pennsylvania in 1950.  In 1951, Wally, then in his mid- thirties, began to regain the top form which took him to the top ranks of amateur golfers.  Wally won the first of four consecutive Michigan open championships in 1951.  In the summer of that year, Wally battled back to come within three strokes of the eventual winner of the PGA Championship held at Oakmont, Pennsylvania. At the end of the tournament, Wally lost 7-6 in match play to “Slammin” Sammy Snead, a golfing legend who won more PGA events (82) than any other golfer in history.  (Snead and Burkemo, Left and Center)

In the spring of 1952, Wally played in his first Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta, Georgia.   Wally would return to Augusta seven more times. His best round came in 1961 with a four- round par performance, one stroke behind Jack Nicklaus, seven behind Arnold Palmer, and eight behind tournament winner Gary Player.

Wally returned to Oakmont in 1953 for the second of his eight appearances in the U.S. Open.  In 1957, he finished 4th - tied with Julius Boros.  The following year, Wally stood at number 5 on the leader board at the end of the tournament, well ahead of golf’s great legends, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.

But it was in 1953, when Wally enjoyed one of his best four rounds in his fifty-plus year career. Wally, the Franklin Hills, Michigan Country Club pro, had played many times at the Birmingham Country Club, some ten miles away.   During that time, the PGA Championship consisted of two daily rounds for five days of match play.

Walter Erwin Burkemo rallied from 3 shots down after 11 holes to defeat Claude Harmon, the 1948 Master’s champ, to advance to the final round against Felice Torza, who he defeated to win his first and only major championship.  In 187 PGA events, Walter finished 2nd five times, in the Top 10, 41 times, in the Top 25 , 115 times and only missed the cut an astounding 4 times.

Walter Burkemo devoted most of his time to his family, but continued to play on an irregular basis. He won only one tournament, the 1957 Mayfair Open.  His last major tournament, the U.S. Open, came in 1966.  Walter, who died on October 8, 1986, is a member of the Michigan Sports and the Michigan Golf halls of fame.

And now the rest of the story.

Before Walter Burkemo was assigned to infantry duty in Europe. He was transferred to the Army’s infantry training school at Camp Wheeler in Macon, Georgia in 1943.  For a while, Walter was assigned as a guard at a nearby German-Italian Prison of War camp.

On good days, Walter and his buddies would get a liberty to go to the local USO club which sponsored dances for the soldiers in town.  Walter, a  slender, handsome, curly-blonde- headed Norwegian drew the eyes of many of the girls.  Each took turns dancing with Walter.  One of the girls drew his eye.  Walter asked the pretty girl for dates on Saturdays. They went out a few times, but many times Walter had to beg the girl’s leave to return to Macon to his first love, golf.  And soon, Walter was off to fight the all too real, war.

Many of you may have never heard of Walter Burkemo.  But you may know the name of that young girl from Dublin, Georgia who caught his eye while he was on liberty from the German-Italian POW camp on Troup Street in Dublin.  She and her family have been in the fine gifts and accessories business on North Jefferson Street for nearly five decades.  Her name is Nell Towns Rulli.

You know the story of Walter Burkemo. And now,  you know rest of the story.

This story is dedicated to the memory of Paul Harvey.