HOUSTON -- Like the azaleas bordering the 13th hole, 87-year-old Jackie Burke is a colorful Augusta National perennial who in retirement was accustomed to showing up and blooming at just the right moment. As the oldest living Masters champion, Burke enjoyed teasing some of the younger players, regaling other legends at the Champions Dinner and signing autographs for "people who see me in my green jacket and squint at me, wondering if I'm somebody famous."
This year Burke will watch the Masters on TV at Champions Golf Club, the famed club he co-founded with Jimmy Demaret in 1957, the year after Burke won his only Masters by roaring from eight shots behind in the final round to overtake Ken Venturi. Burke won the PGA Championship the same year. He isn't feeling the usual magnet-pull to return to Augusta, citing a small decline in his extraordinary energy level after suffering a mild stroke 18 months ago. But there's another, more poignant reason. "All my friends are gone," he says. "Sam [Snead]...Tommy [Bolt] and a hundred other guys I knew have passed away. The last time I went, I felt like I hardly knew anybody. We move on in life, but those guys were important to me. We had a lot of common experiences. I miss seeing them."
But Burke, who remains surprisingly current on today's PGA Tour, offered a quick bit of advice for Phil Mickelson, who, in Burke's opinion, should have won more than two jackets by now. "It's obvious watching Phil on TV he's trying to energize his swing," says Burke. "He goes at it with the driver too hard and too early in the swing, and it throws his balance off. He needs to speed up his downswing gradually, like a kid sitting in a swing when he begins to go forward from the top. If he'd just let gravity run its course and stop trying to energize the motion, he'd probably kill every cat in the alley. Let's face it, the rest of his game is ready. His putting looks beautiful to me. You can tell him I said that."
Burke's absence will benefit at least one player: Tiger Woods. Burke and Woods share a permanent locker together and with Burke gone, Tiger will have more room to stash his gear.
-- *Guy Yocom