Jackie Burke Jr., a major champion, renowned teacher, and founder of Champions Golf Club, has died
Jackie Burke Jr. has his own chapter in golf history, some of it faded by the passage of time, but more of it vividly enduring, fueled by wisdom that grew with age.
Burke, 97, died on —-. A member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, he will be remembered for winning the Masters and the PGA Championship in the same year, in 1956, and for winning four straight tournaments in 1952.
Yet there was so much more to Burke than his playing credentials. He was a link to the era of Snead and Hogan and Nelson. He was Bing Crosby’s friend, Jimmy Demaret’s partner, a businessman, a curmudgeon, a teacher (don’t call him a guru), a sage.
He likely would not have liked being called a sage, either. But golfers routinely sought his advice, which he usually delivered succinctly, even painfully. As the story goes, he once rapped Billy Ray Brown upside the head for missing a short putt. The lesson was that it should hurt to miss a putt you ought to make.
Burke was the son of a professional golfer, his father a mentor to the late teaching great Harvey Penick. Burke himself worked as an assistant under Winged Foot pro Claude Harmon, Butch Harmon’s father, a Masters champion himself and also an acclaimed teaching pro.
But the foundation of the Burke legend was built in his playing days. A native Texan who grew up in Houston, he turned professional at 17, served in the Marine Corps during World War II, and joined the PGA Tour in 1950.
The first of his 16 PGA Tour victories came in the Bing Crosby Pro-Am in 1950 (actually a four-way tie for first, without a playoff). He won three more times that year and won five times in 1952, when he also won the Vardon Trophy for lowest scoring average.
In 1956, he overcame an eight-stroke deficit entering the final round of the Masters and defeated amateur Ken Venturi by one. Later that year, he defeated Ted Kroll, 3 and 2, in the final of the PGA Championship.
“So that allowed me to build this [Champions Golf Club in Houston],” he told Scott Michaux, then with the Augusta Chronicle. “I was married and had three children and was tired of singing ‘Happy Birthday’ from the Holiday Inn. So I knew I had to get out of that and I knew how to teach.”
Burke and Demaret built Champions Golf Club together, and then filled it with good players, nearly 40 percent of them with single-digit handicap indexes. Those with a higher index than 14.0 need not apply. His reasoning behind the handicap limit: “It doesn’t make a lot of sense filling a yacht club with people who can’t sail a boat,” he told Golf Digest's Guy Yocom.
Champions Golf Club has hosted a Ryder Cup (1967), a U.S. Open (1969), a U.S. Amateur (1993), five Tour Championships, several PGA Tour events and will host the 2020 U.S. Women’s Open in December.
More than his playing record or even Champions Golf Club, the lesson tee and practice green at Champions allowed Burke’s legend to endure. Once, he even gave a putting lesson to Phil Mickelson, who traveled to Houston from Phoenix for it. Burke gave him a drill, to put down 10 balls circling the hole, three feet from it, and challenged him to make 100 consecutive. Meanwhile, he’d be in his office waiting.
Mickelson said he’d do so right then. Burke then proposed a wager that he would fail. Mickelson missed his fourth attempt. Two months later, he called Burke from home and said he’d finally done it.
Burke was known for dispensing his wisdom in short bursts, often in sound bites.
— “When I played, we had our own sports psychologist. His name was Jack Daniels, and he was waiting for us in the clubhouse after every round.”
— “You can only release the club one time, and it better be the right time.”
— “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."
— “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.”
The well-known instructor Jim McLean was among those asked to write a foreword for Burke’s book, “It’s Only a Game: Words of Wisdom in a Lifetime of Golf,” co-authored by Yocom.
“Jackie Burke is the most interesting person I’ve ever met,” McLean wrote. “His influence has extended across the entire landscape of golf. Even those who don’t know him personally are beneficiaries of his desire to make the game better for all of us. I’m very proud to call him my good friend.”
In addition to his induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2000, Burke also was received the PGA Tour Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003 and a year later the Bob Jones Award, the high honor given by the USGA.
Burke is survived by his wife Robin.