My Shot: Jackie Burke

Check your ego at the door and listen up. Golf's greatest living sage is going to give you a talking-to you'll never forget.

Jackie Burke

Jackie Burke, photographed Feb. 24, 2004,
at Champions Golf Club in Houston.
Age: 81 • Houston, Texas

May 2004

When I taught at Metropolis Country Club in New York, there was a fellow who shanked chip shots, nothing else. The man smoked a pipe, and after a lot of thought I began placing his best pipe just outside his ball. He was terrified of hitting the pipe with the toe of the club, you see, and I cured him quick. I was telling this story in Houston not long ago, and a member overheard it and disappeared. He came back an hour later and placed his pipe, which was shattered to bits, in front of me. "Your tip doesn't work for long irons," he said.

Live your life so that when you die, you fill up the church. A big funeral says something about how much you were loved, or at least respected. These people who get to the church by way of the electric chair don't get much of a turnout. They have to rent the pallbearers.

Stomping around in search of a sprinkler head that has "162" stamped on it is a complete waste of time. Before they invented the 150-yard marker, we used a formula that worked better than numbers. Determine what club you'd need to use — with $1,000 riding on it — to fly the ball over the green. You have to be honest with yourself: There's $1,000 at stake, so you better not underclub. If that club is a 6-iron, simply take one club less — the 7-iron — and hit it firmly or softly depending on whether the hole is front, middle or back. The formula never fails. It also teaches you feel, touch and a sense for wind and elevation. One more thing: It'll cut half an hour off your round.

When I won the 1956 Masters, I had a downhill putt on the 17th hole that was lightning quick, and it was made even faster because the 40-mile-per-hour wind had blown sand out onto the green. I just touched that putt, and I immediately thought, Oh, no, I didn't get it halfway there. Then the wind grabbed that thing and kept blowing it down the hill, until it plunked dead in the middle of the hole. It was a miracle, the best break of my career. You better believe wind affects putts. A golf ball weighs 1.62 ounces. Can a 20-mile-per-hour wind affect that ball as it rolls? You tell me.

When I look down the fairway from the tee and want to play a fade, I see a huge wall on the left edge of the fairway. I see a jai-alai court, where the ball will bounce off the wall and back into play if I miss the fairway. That gives me mental freedom and the ability to swing with a bit of recklessness, which is necessary to be a good driver of the ball. Take that wall down, and you get tense and start steering the ball short and crooked. Let it go, man! Freewheel it!

Hang the Mona Lisa in a country club boardroom, and sooner or later an incoming president will lobby to have her hair repainted.

When you're playing as a guest, offer to pay for your caddie. And don't ask your host how much you should pay him. Be generous. Think of what you paid a caddie the last time you used one, and give him $20 over that amount. For God's sake, help the guy. I've never seen a caddie leave the parking lot in a Cadillac.

Sometimes winning is easy. In 1958, Ken Venturi and I toured Japan. The morning after we landed, they took us out to our first "exhibition," which happened to be the Japanese Open, their national championship. Ken played great. He finished the last round thinking he'd won comfortably and sank himself in one of those huge, luxurious tubs, with enough sake to drown Godzilla. But Jack Burke, playing a couple of hours behind Venturi, got hot and tied him. I found Ken in that tub of hot water and told him to get his butt out of there and onto the first tee, that we were in a playoff. A few minutes later, they got Ken to the first tee. Like I said, sometimes winning is easy.

To succeed at golf, you have to master the art of not being embarrassed. It's incredibly hard to erase thoughts of how you're going to be perceived by others, and the challenge never ceases. You think Arnold Palmer doesn't feel embarrassed when he yips a four-foot putt in front of a big gallery? He mastered the art of not being embarrassed years ago, and now he's learning it again.

I was raised in a good house. The worst luck someone can have is coming up in a bad house. It can be too much to overcome. Remember that when you look around.

Can you guess the sport? You check in and they hand you a scorecard. They may ask for your credit card. You put on special shoes, then play the game without knowing or meeting the people playing all around you. You get in the car and leave, thinking maybe you'll do this again someday, and maybe not. If you guessed bowling — or resort-course golf — hop to the head of the class.

Everybody wants to retire early. Well, I've seen early retirement, and it's not pretty. These 50-year-old guys hang out at the club constantly, because they have nowhere else to go. They get sick of golf; you never see them smiling when they're coming up 18. Don't retire. Leisure time is dangerous. You might wind up inside a bottle of bourbon. You are put on this earth to produce, so get with it.

These high-end public courses can't possibly work. A family of four for $400? When it's over you look in your wallet and think, I hope the kids don't ask if we can do this again tomorrow.

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