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The toughest Masters ever: How 1956 winner Jack Burke Jr. claimed victory at Augusta National

1956: Jack Burke, Jr At The Masters Tournament  (Photo by Augusta National/Getty Images)

Editor’s Note—This story originally appeared in the April 2006 edition of Golf Digest, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Jack Burke Jr.’s victory at the Masters. Burke died Jan. 19, 2024, 10 days shy of his 101st birthday.

IT’S BEEN 50 YEARS SINCE Bob Rosburg made forgettable history at the 1956 Masters, but he remembers it like the name of his firstborn (Bob Jr.). He was on the tee at Augusta National’s 155-yard 12th hole, paired with the eccentric Moe Norman. A raging wind faced them, and after watching Norman’s shot fall far short in the water, Rosburg chose a 4-iron for the scary carry. But the wind reversed, and he powered the ball far over the green, over the fence and onto Augusta Country Club next door, a feat not achieved before or since.

As Rossie would have announced in later years, he had absolutely no shot.

Never known for a placid temperament, Rosburg was paired the next day with the equally volatile Billy Maxwell. Both shot 81 in continued horrific conditions. “The weather was foul, and so was the language,” Rosburg says today. “That year was the hardest test of golf I saw in my 17 years of playing the Masters. I shot 74 the last round and moved way up.”

How hard was it?

• The Masters was televised for the first time in ’56, and writer Charles Price observed that the swirly wind almost blew down the camera towers.

• Bobby Jones called that 20th Masters the toughest ever, and the record book supports him still. The 72-hole scoring average of 77.2, third-round average of 78.6 and final-round 78.3 all stand as tournament highs. Jackie Burke Jr.’s 289, one over par, is tied for the highest winning total.

• Charles Kunkle Jr., a Pennsylvania amateur, shot a record 95 the final day. His frightful number should have been eclipsed by Billy Casper’s 105 last April, but Casper didn’t turn in a scorecard. Kunkle, who also set a record with his 52-over-par total of 340, told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “I was just trying to get out of there.”

• Twenty-nine players shot 80 or worse the last day, including 24-year-old Ken Venturi, bidding cockily to become the only amateur winner after leading for an unprecedented three straight rounds. Jimmy Demaret, a three-time winner, shot 81; two-time winner Byron Nelson 80. Only Burke and Sam Snead broke par 72—by one stroke. No one matched par.

• Tour pro Sam Urzetta completely whiffed one shot, and cold-topped another. Another pro shot 86.

It’s no coincidence that the 36-hole cut was instituted at Augusta the following year. That inaugural cut would claim recent Masters winners Ben Hogan and Cary Middlecoff, which probably wasn’t the idea.

Nelson traditionally had been paired with the leader for the final round, succeeding Jones in the role, and is proud of bringing home five champions. But in ’56 Jones and the pairings committee decided that assigning Nelson to Venturi could invite unwelcome perceptions because Nelson was Venturi’s mentor. Venturi instead was paired with Snead in a move that provokes conjecture to this day.

“It was so much different in those days,” says Nelson, who turned 94 this winter. “People ran their tournaments pretty much to suit themselves.”

Mike Souchak still does not understand why he was paired with Burke the final round, because they were separated by two strokes. “Two years I was paired with Hogan, for no apparent reason,” he says. “Cliff Roberts [the autocratic co-founder, with Jones, of Augusta National] did the pairings. You didn’t go by USGA rules, you went by Roberts’ rules.”

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Craig Wood, Vic Ghezzi, Jack Burke, Jr., Jimmy Demaret and Sam Snead pose during the 1956 Masters.

Augusta National

Souchak and Burke also were good friends, and Burke, who became a legendary teacher (see this month’s book excerpt), had helped Souchak with his game. He gave the burly ex-football star a putting lesson shortly before Souchak shot 257 at the 1955 Texas Open—the lowest score on tour for the next 46 years.

Souchak remembers that critics accused him of reading the greens for Burke the next year in the ’56 Masters. He admits he was rooting hard for his close pal —he always called him Jake—but says the charge was absurd. “I was three-putting and taking 42 putts and shooting 80,” Souchak says. “He was one-putting and taking 22 putts and breaking par. How could I help him?”

Phil Harison has been the starter and first-tee announcer, without benefit of a microphone, for the past 58 years, and also serves as the longtime chairman of the starters and pairings committee. He says the pairings in ’56 were made by Jones, Roberts, himself and his brother William (Gummy) Harison.

“All four of us felt alike about Ken’s pairing, and Byron agreed with us,” he says. “Mr. Jones always wanted to be more than fair. Byron had been playing a good deal of golf with Ken and coaching him.”

Harison makes an overlooked point about Venturi’s pairing with Snead. “People said Sam didn’t talk to Ken. Ben [Hogan] didn’t talk. I’ve played tournaments, and I’ve played with Sam, and just watching that beautiful, smooth tempo calmed me down. And he moved along. The worst thing under pressure would be a slow, talkative player.”

Reports of Venturi’s reaction to the pairing at the time differ widely, but he now says that he was thrilled to play with Snead, that Snead was his choice as a substitute for Nelson, and that Snead tried to talk to him early in the round but he was too nervous.

“I couldn’t believe Venturi wasn’t paired with Byron, and neither could a lot of other guys,” says Don Cherry, who recorded a top10 single as a singer and a top-10 finish in the U.S. Open as a golfer. “The other thing I remember vividly is our quartet singing in the main dining room at night—me, Demaret, Claude Harmon and Snead. Sam sang good harmony, and always insisted on doing ‘Home on the Range.’ ” (Think of Phil, Tiger, Vijay and Ernie entertaining clubhouse diners this year.)

In any case, weather and experience factors influenced the outcome much more heavily than the pairings. The boyish, tousle-haired Burke might have looked as youthful as Venturi, but he brought eight years of added maturity to the final-round pressure of a major—along with nine tour victories, including a record four in a row in 1952 when he was runner-up to Snead at Augusta.

Venturi had finished a surprising 16th as a Walker Cupper in the 1954 Masters to qualify for the next year, but in ’55 he was overseas in the military, hitting golf balls in combat boots. Nelson lobbied his fellow past champions to grant Venturi their special ballot exemption (no longer given) in ’56.

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Jack Burke, Jr. and Ken Venturi shake hands after the 1956 Masters.

Augusta National

Venturi and Burke recall Sunday’s blustery conditions as borderline unplayable. Burke says, sardonically, “Talk about playing one shot at a time—how about taking one step at a time?” Furman Bisher, the veteran Atlanta journalist, says the wind gusted to 50 miles an hour and was “hellacious.”

Burke attracted scant attention early in the round; no one had ever come from eight strokes behind. Venturi had begun the tournament by birdieing the first four holes in a 66 he credited to Nelson—it’s still the low round by an amateur at Augusta—and radiated a brassy confidence staying ahead throughout.

Ron Green Sr. of The Charlotte Observer: “He walked into the locker room where a bunch of us had gathered after the 66, put his feet up on a table and said, ‘What can I do for you, gentlemen?’ He was dead-sure of himself.”

Dan Jenkins, who will cover his 56th consecutive Masters this year, quoted a callow Venturi as saying before Sunday’s play, “The wind don’t bother me. I practice in it.” Asked about coming down the home stretch, Venturi said, “That’s when I make my move.”

He led his closest challenger, Middlecoff, the defending champion, by four, but Burke was known for his wind play. “You lean in against the wind and restrict your finish to keep your ball flight down,” Burke says. “You learn that in Texas at 8 years old.”

Burke says he changed his putting grip the night before the final round. Feeling he was missing too many little putts, he typically did not hesitate to do something about it. “Golf’s about adjustment. I held the club entirely in the tips of my fingers the last day, both palms off the shaft. Got all the short ones.”

Burke had seven one-putt greens, no three-putts. “He was always magic on the greens,” says Arnold Palmer, “but especially that Sunday.”

Venturi was extremely unmagical. “I hit 15 greens —the first nine in a row,” he says, “but I had six or seven three-putts.” From the aesthetic distance of a half century’s remove, Venturi willingly relives his demise with ready but rueful chuckles. “I was trying to two-putt, and that’s the hardest thing to do. I missed four straight six-footers on 8 through 11. On 14 my putt nearly went in but wound up 25 feet past. When you’re losin’ it, it snowballs.”

Venturi was using a hickory-shafted putter he’d picked out of a barrel in Austria while stationed there. “You had to hit it perfectly with the torque,” he says. He didn’t use it again.

“The ball was bumping all over, and the greens were hard as sidewalks,” Venturi says. Dow Finsterwald says, “The wind dried them out—at night, too —and chilly temperatures kept them from growing. You could hear the ball roll.” Adds Souchak: “They cut ’em lower every day, until they were down to roots and sand.”

Which makes Burke’s performance all the more remarkable. The coup de grace came at the 17th hole—the hole that determined win, place and show.

Middlecoff, who four-putted earlier in the day, was only one stroke behind the faltering Venturi at 17. But he chipped weakly, took three putts and made double bogey. He finished third.

Burke then hit and held the 17th green— the only player who did on Sunday—with a high, sliced approach shot downwind. He estimates the resultant birdie putt at 30 feet, across the green.

“The sand had blown out of the bunkers and onto the greens, and there’s nothing faster than a green with a thin layer of sand on it,” he says. “I’d putted on greens like that in Galveston years earlier.”

The memory served him almost too well. “I never hit a putt more softly in my life than I did that putt on 17,” he says. “At first I thought I hit it too softly; I knew it wouldn’t get halfway to the hole. Then a big gust of wind came up and took the ball with it. That ball kept rolling and rolling and rolling until it dropped in the center of the cup.”

Souchak plucked the ball delightedly out of the hole and pounded Burke on the back so hard he needed time to recover before he could proceed to the 18th tee. “It was one miracle after another,” Souchak says. “I was flabbergasted.”

Venturi was the last of the leaders to play 17, and his on-line second shot trickled over the green and down the bank. He failed to get up and down, incurring his sixth bogey of the second nine, and finished a stroke behind Burke, who made a brave up and down from the greenside bunker on 18.

Jenkins says he saw every shot Venturi hit in the last round, none of them that bad. (Quips Burke when told of Jenkins’ comment: “That was before they had TV in the press room.”)

“I’m glad Jack won,” Jenkins says of his fellow Texan, “but I wish it had been another year. We were all rooting hard for Venturi —and journalism. He would have been the first amateur to win a major since Goodman in ’33.” That would be Johnny Goodman in the U.S. Open.

Venturi turned professional before the ’57 Masters, and won 14 tournaments playing for money. He captured the famous U.S. Open of1964 at Congressional, fending off heat exhaustion. He says he would have remained an amateur had he won the ’56 Masters, and says Bob Jones told him he would have chosen him as his successor running the tournament if he had.

In a way, it turns out that Venturi’s Masters “collapse” enabled his heroic U.S. Open triumph. That fateful Sunday in Augusta he looked at a leader board when he reached the 10th tee and thought he could win if he shot another 38 on the second nine. He could have won with a 40, but shot 42.

“The last day at Congressional on the 10th hole, Joe Dey [of the USGA] told me there was a leader board if I wanted to check it,” he says. “I said no, I wanted to play one at a time. I didn’t look at a board until I was going over the hill at 18 and saw I was the only one in red. That was a throwback to the ’56 Masters.”