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From the Golf Digest Archive: My Shot with Jack Burke Jr. (2004)

Check your ego at the door and listen up. Golf's greatest living sage gives you a talking-to you'll never forget.
January 19, 2024

Editor’s Note—On Jan. 29, 2024, legendary golfer Jack Burke Jr. would have celebrated his 101st birthday. But 10 days shy of that milestone, the oldest living Masters and PGA Championship winner passed away in Houston. Almost 60 years removed from his retirement as a tour pro, Burke managed to remain, as Guy Yocom wrote for Golf Digest a year ago, “a vital part of golf history, a singular individual who distinguished himself as a player, teacher, club owner, author, influencer and preserver of the best things in golf.”

Yocom knew Burke well, speaking to him on numerous occasions for Golf Digest. Among the best conversations was this “My Shot” interview that ran in Golf Digest in 2004. Burke’s insights hold up quite well nearly two decades later.

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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.

The First Tee program may or may not succeed. Why it became necessary to build these facilities for kids is a black mark on the record of all local clubs and courses. If local clubs made an effort to include young people rather than exclude them, The First Tee wouldn't require the huge amounts of money and effort they're putting out. What if every club in America brought kids in twice a year and did all they could to make them feel welcome? The kids would aspire to be a part of that club. They'd study and work hard so the club could be attainable one day.

The game is growing all right — just look at the stomach of your basic country club member. The emphasis on food in clubs is just unbelievable. The chef is praised or vilified more than the head pro.

To get into Champions, your handicap has to be 15 or less. I don't care how much money someone has, what race, sex or religion they are, none of that stuff. All I want are people who have invested a lot of hours in the game. A respectable handicap usually reflects that. I have nothing against high-handicappers, but I don't want them in the majority. It doesn't make a lot of sense filling a yacht club with people who can't sail a boat.

Don't get me wrong: I believe that if you lock a hundred bulldogs inside a yard, you're going to wind up with some funny-looking bulldogs. I believe in diversity. I don't lock the gates. I want all kinds of people from all walks of life, with one thing in common: a sincere appreciation for golf and what it should be. I liken us to Stanford University, or Yale or Harvard. They don't accept D students academically, and we don't accept people with a D average in golf.


Jackie Burke, photographed Feb. 24, 2004, at Champions Golf Club in Houston. (Photo by Darren Carroll)

At the top of the backswing, imagine your right hand is filled with seeds. You want to spread those seeds on the ground evenly over as wide a distance as you can. Through impact, you can only disperse those seeds properly if you maintain an angle in your right wrist. If you flip your right wrist too soon, those seeds will fly up in your face or go anywhere but across the ground in front of you. I believe in throwing the club aggressively into the ball with your right hand, but you'll only get power and accuracy if you release the club as if you were spreading those seeds.

Most casual golfers aren't inclined to follow the rules. It's a reflection of how society today views rules in general. If the people at Enron knew where the out-of-bounds stakes were, they wouldn't have wound up in a courtroom.

People today ask, "Is it legal or illegal?" We used to ask, "Is it right or wrong?"

A guy presented himself to me as being a "self-made man." I said, "You must be the first SOB who ever came out of the womb self-made." We all learn from other people. We need other people. I've had 30,000 teachers in my lifetime. We all have.

How many weddings were conducted at country clubs in the last year? Is 50,000 a good guess? Golf for some reason was chosen to stage all these things in society — real-estate developments, business meetings, civic functions, weddings and so much else. Country clubs do a hell of a job. It irritates me when someone who doesn't know any better presents golf as the bad guy. The next time Martha Burk wants to throw a wedding, maybe she'll phone a handball court — and send invitations to the 1,000 women who played Augusta National the year before she attacked it.

I like helping tour players with their short games, but the full swing, forget it. I don't want them phoning me and calling me "coach." That is the last thing in the world I need. Or they need.

When a primitive hunter threw a spear at his prey, you better believe he followed through and finished with his weight on his left foot. Reverse pivots in the jungle could be fatal. That saber-toothed tiger would eat you. Any throwing motion requires a weight shift to the left. Stone Age man realized that. Millions of years later, poor golfers do not.