The day I met Jack Burke Jr in his Houston Office

Bernie McGuire
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John 'Jack' Burke Jr in his office in Houston (Pic: Golf by TourMiss)

Bernie McGuire

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Hearing the very sad news of the passing of double-major winning American John ‘Jack’ Burke Jr, just 10 days short of his 101st birthday, I recalled having the great pleasure of meeting the man in his Houston office five years ago, just ahead of the 2018 Masters.

Burke was the son of a professional, Jack Burke Sr., and capped his career by winning two major titles, the Masters and PGA Championship, both in 1956.

Burke also won 16 PGA Tour events between 1950 and 1963. He won four times in 1950 and five times in 1952, including four in consecutive weeks in February and March. He had not won since 1953, before being fitted for a famed Augusta members’ Green Jacket with his victory in the 1956 Masters, coming from eight strokes behind in the final round to overtake leader Ken Venturi, an amateur, who posted a closing 80.

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Later in 1956, Burke won the PGA Championship, beating Ted Kroll 3&2 in the final. His last tour win came in 1963, just before his 40th birthday.

Burke was a member of five successive American Ryder Cup teams from 1951 to 1959, serving as playing captain in 1957, when Great Britain won for the first time since 1933, and as the non-playing captain in 1973. He had a successful playing record, winning seven of his eight matches, his only loss coming in a singles match in 1957.

In 1957, Burke and Jimmy Demaret founded Champions Golf Club in Houston. The club has hosted a number of important events, including the 1967 Ryder Cup and the 1969 U.S. Open.

News of Burke’s passing means the mantle of ‘oldest living men’s major golf champion’ now passes to 88-year-old Gary Player.

When I met Burke, he was the then second oldest major champ, being six months younger than the then 95-year-old Doug Ford, who passed away in May, 2018.

Texas-born Burke lived in Houston, with the famed Champions Club his second home, and that’s where he kindly arranged for me to meet him.

The clubhouse is a virtual shrine to his golf achievements, and to those of his dear friend and fellow Champions member, the late Jimmy Demaret, who won the Masters in 1940, 1947 and 1950. Burke also has an office within the clubhouse that would put the St. Andrews located British Golf Museum to shame for the golfing memorabilia in just this one room.

I chatted with Burke late in March 2018, at which time Tiger Woods had not won a major since capturing his 14th (and third US Open title) at Torrey Pines in 2008.

Burke revealed that Woods had the distinction of sharing a locker with him, and though he’d not attended the Masters for some years, the still mentally sharp Texan insisted there was room in their shared locker for a fifth Woods Green Jacket. And of course, little over a year later, 14 became 15 as Tiger duly collected his fifth Jacket.

“Of course, there’s room for another jacket and it would be great to see as Tiger’s shown already this year he’s playing well enough to win the Masters,” said Burke back then.

“But then some guy could come up from nowhere, particularly if the poor weather comes in, so there’s no telling you if there will be wind.

“Knowing Tiger, he will not be thinking Thursday he can win, as winning Sunday is all that matters.”

Burke contested 22 Masters championships from 1950 to his last in 1974 and while he still drives himself about Houston, he’s stopped venturing to the Masters.

“I’ll watch part of the Masters coverage if I can but I am not much of a TV fan as there are too many ads,” he said.

“I’ve also been there so many times but the real attraction now is for those who’ve never been there.

“I haven’t been back to Augusta for about eight years as I can’t fly there and I don’t want to drive and why would I want to find somewhere to stay for just one meal.

“Then I don’t know the players who attend the dinner as Snead’s gone, Hogan’s left us, Demaret’s gone. They’re all gone so I would just not know anyone. Like I wouldn’t know Jordan Spieth. I don’t know Bubba Watson.

“I’ve met Tiger a few times at the dinner but I don’t know him all that well.”

Burke spoke about the amount of prize money now being offered in golf, with that 2018 Masters offering a whopping $11m in prize money – the richest of any event that season.

“There is far too much prize money in golf and it’s all got out of hand as they are playing for an amazing amount of money,” he said.

“Also, they’re really not interested in others as they are more consumed in looking after themselves.

“It’s just normal these days and when they start to show any sort of form, their college fees are all paid for and they’re winning enough to pay for all sorts of people to work with them.”

And Burke revealed to me in our meeting that he’d never been to St. Andrews, the Home of Golf.

“I fought in World War II as part of the Marine Corps but for a long while after the War there were no airplanes going to Europe, and though the Queen Mary sailed to the UK, it was about $2,000 for a return ticket and first prize for winning the British Open was about $500,” he said.

“So, I never got to do that sadly.”

RIP Jack

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