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Golf's (Augusta) National Treasure: 99-Year-Old Past Champion Jackie Burke

The 1956 Masters winner, 66 years after toughing out a blustery and wild final round, still has a sharp mind and strong thoughts on the game.

He is 99 and the oldest living Masters Champion. One of golf’s all-time treasures. One of but three men, along with Sam Snead and Jack Nicklaus, to win the Masters and PGA in the same year (1956). One of the most sought-after teachers to pros yet today. He is Jackie to the public, Jack to his friends and Mr. to me.

The facts are well-known: he came back from eight strokes down in that 1956 Masters to edge then-amateur Ken Venturi (he skied to an 80, with a 42 on the back) by one and defending champion Cary Middlecoff by two. But the numbers alone do not tell the story; Burke did not exactly storm back from eight down.

Rather, he hung tough, and hung on, in the face of perhaps the worst wind in Masters history, shooting a miraculous 71 and keeping his head while all around him were losing theirs. As they say, the field came back to him.

His winning score of 289 tied Sam Snead for the highest winning score ever at the Masters, since equaled only in 2007 by Zach Johnson.

When we caught up recently, he gave Morning Read/ some thoughts about the 1956 Masters he has never shared publicly. But first, the setup:

The Protagonists

Some of the great names from the 1956 Masters: Sir Henry Cotton (T68, but the next year at age 50 the great one was able to muster T13 ), Snead, Hogan, Tommy (Thunder) Bolt, Gene Littler, Billy Joe Patton, Arnold Palmer (two years before his first of four Masters wins), Claude Harmon, Lawson Little, amateur Don Cherry (a famous Texas crooner who almost won the famous 1960 U.S. Open) and Burke’s life-long pal and eventual business partner, three-time Masters winner Jimmy Demaret. It reads like a Who’s Who from yesteryear.

But the three leaders coming down the stretch were Burke, Middlecoff and Venturi. No slouch in the bunch.

Middlecoff, the best-playing dentist in golf history, won 39 times on tour including three majors, two of which were prior to 1956. He would go on that year to win the U.S. Open. A sweet-swinging and courtly Southerner (he was an All-American at Ole Miss), he later became one of televsion’s first great color commentators.

Venturi, then 24, is one of the most interesting figures in Tour history. A fabulous amateur whose San Francisco Bay Area patron was car dealer Eddie Lowry, more famous as the young caddie who packed Francis Ouimet’s bag in the famous 1913 U.S. Open. Venturi was arrogant and very, very talented.

Most people under a certain age today remember Venturi for his many years as a color commentator on PGA Tour golf telecasts, and he was a great one. But he was a terrific player, winning 14 times on Tour, including the 1964 U.S. Open in death-defying heat. Most of his professional life was plagued by hand issues that today would likely be alleviated, but back then led him to a truncated career.

And then the third member of the 1956 final round triumvirate: Jack Burke Jr. Born into golf royalty — Jack Burke Sr. finished second in the 1920 U.S. Open and was the head pro at the famed Donald Ross-designed River Oaks Golf Course in Houston — Burke 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.

By the way, Jack Burke Sr. once hired a young Jimmy Demaret as his assistant.

Burke had not won since 1953. His final tour win came in 1963, just before his 40th birthday. Burke was on 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 won seven of his eight Ryder Cup matches, only losing his singles match in 1957.

All five of his Ryder Cup teams were winners, as was the 1973 Ryder Cup team when he was an assistant captain.

Jackie Burke, 1956 Masters Champion.

Jackie Burke, 1956 Masters Champion.

The 1956 Masters Final Round

It began with a choice made benignly but would later become controversial. The tradition at the time was for the 54-hole leader to play the final round with Byron Nelson. However, Lord Byron was Venturi’s muse, and the Masters leadership — Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts — felt it would look unfair and frankly would be unfair to the field to pair them together in these circumstances. They thus invited Venturi to name his playing partner, and he chose Sam Snead. So far, so good.

But after the tournament was over, a reporter claimed Venturi complained that Snead’s chilly demeanor helped cause Venturi’s poor final round play — and that Snead behaved that way because he and other pros did not want to see an amateur win. Venturi would vehemently deny having whined about Snead. He further claimed he had no idea that Eddie Lowery had penned an apology on Venturi’s behalf to Jones and Roberts, making him look even more culpable about the allegation — seeking forgiveness for something he claimed never transpired.

Jones, ever the ultimate amateur (winner of 13 majors including four U.S. and three British Opens), valued wonderful players who were not professional golfers. And to this day great amateurs are prized at Augusta National and the Masters.

Jones and Venturi enjoyed, by all accounts, a very warm and respectful relationship prior to the 1956 Masters. Regrettably, the alleged Snead incident damaged Venturi’s relationship with Jones. It was also a precursor to other Masters controversies for Venturi, most notably a contretemps with the King, Arnold Palmer, two years later in the 1958 Masters at the 12th hole in the final round. Venturi, by then a pro, threatened to win again that year, but he came out on the short end of the dispute, and the tournament, as well.

The real story though, on that Sunday in 1956, was the wind. Estimates are it was blowing at 40-50 mph. Contrast to this year’s Players Championship, where on Saturday the wind was “just” 25-30 mph and yet carnage reigned. By way of illustration, Justin Thomas in his round that day at the Players hit two wedges, each over 190 yards downwind, while on the other hand he could only muster 197 yards with a flushed 5-wood into the wind.

In 1956, Burke, having never come even close to the par-5 second hole in two in his career, was that day over the green with a 5-iron for his second shot.

“That’s the kind of wind there was. I was not thinking about winning, ever, until my last putt — I was just trying to survive," Burke said. "I was paired in the last round with my friend Mike Souchak, a very long hitter, and I had to steel myself not to try to compete with his length in this wind."

Burke played very steady golf that day. Middlecoff, on the other hand, had two blow-up holes, including the fateful 17th. And Venturi, on that frighteningly windy day, hit 15 of 18 greens – truly heroic stuff. Amazing, frankly. Surely he had the tournament by the throat, what with an eight-shot lead over Burke and four over Middlecoff as play started — and then all those greens hit.

That left just one culprit: Venturi was betrayed by his short stick. He three-putted six times, twice on the front nine and four times on the back nine, and by so doing let both Middlecoff and Burke back into contention.

The 17th was the pivotal hole of the tournament. After each finished 16, Burke was one shot back of Venturi and Middlecoff. Actually, an argument could be made that, given the incredible turn of events, 17 that year was the most pivotal hole in major championship history.

Burke was the first to play 17, hitting downwind and making the green with a driver and 8-iron (usually it was a 2-iron or wood for him). Hoping, as he said, “just to make a check and two-putt for my par from 15 feet,” he added that “instead the damn thing went in — helped by the wind — for a birdie.” It was the kind of putt that wins majors.

Burke’s heroics on 17 put enormous pressure on the other two as they came up behind him, and they were not up to the task.

Middlecoff came through and made double bogey, and then Venturi came through and made bogey. With his birdie on 17, after the carnage was over, Burke had vaulted over both Middlecoff and Venturi with a one-shot lead that held up.

“Playing several groups ahead of them, I was yet unaware of their adventures on 17," Burke said. "I still had my head down, just trying to get out of that wind and into the clubhouse."

Burke hit a good drive on 18. His focus before he hit his second shot was, with the huge wind behind him, to not miss left. “If you did, coming back down the green you would be well down the fairway. So I shot at the flag, and I was prepared to be in the right bunker if I missed, but certainly not the left."

Burke landed in the right side bunker, blasted out into the wind and the ball stopped about four feet from the hole.

“That’s what I needed for my par — a 4-footer, downhill and into the wind," Burke said. "Kenny was en route to shooting a huge number on the back — easy to do that day. I allowed myself to think that a par would put me in the clubhouse in great shape because who the heck knew what would would happen to Kenny and Cary behind me.

He allowed that he had not asked his caddy Pappy for a read all day; another Burke-ism is that you should read your own putts.

“I don’t believe in that — what if he sees it differently than me? How can you make a putt with conflicting thoughts about line and speed in your head? But for some reason I said to him ‘this is how I see it Pappy, what do you think’? Pappy smiled and said “put it on in there pro.” And I did."

After their issues at 17, neither Middlecoff nor Venturi would be able to catch Burke. All three ended up making par on 18, and when the final whistle blew Burke had gained nine shots on Venturi and won the tournament by a shot.

For his labors, Burke earned $6,000. And became a major champion.

The Aftermath

In 1963, at the age of 40, Burke morphed full-time into a businessman, having founded Champions with life-long pal Jimmy Demaret in 1957 and turning all his attention there.

It’s not impossible to write about Mr. Burke without some airtime for Jimmy Demaret, but it would sure be misleading. The beloved Demaret was an iconic figure. Winner of 31 tour events, including three majors (all Masters), four T3s in the PGA and a second in the U.S. Open, and with forearms that could make Popeye envious, Demaret’s prodigious golf gifts were almost overshadowed by his huge personality.

In sharp contrast to the serious, sober Burke, Demaret never met a stranger, sported very colorful clothes and "hey, look at me hats," had a terrific tenor singing voice that he used frequently and was an unsurpassed storyteller. He later became a much-admired television commentator and died from a heart attack in 1983 at 73.

The Champions partnership of Burke and Demaret was a marriage of opposites and a wildly warm and successful one, from 1957 until Demaret passed, and let’s give a tip of the hat to these long-time great friends who also worked so well together.

Burke’s wife Robin liked his advice and lessons so much that she married him. Which is interesting because Robin, who was a walk-on at the University of Texas, morphed into the 1997 U.S. Amateur runner-up and 2016 Curtis Cup captain, and Mr. Burke’s tutelage was key cog. Vibrant and a full partner to Burke, they met when he was giving her a golf lesson in the 1990’s and married shortly thereafter.

Golf lessons with Burke have always been prized. He gave Nicklaus and Mickelson tips on putting and told Jim McLean, when Jim was finding it hard to find the fairway, to go hit three balls into the Gulf of Mexico. Consistent with what he taught Robin all these year ago: “LFF — let it f------ fly.”

He built his game around the four T’s, and he suggests that you do so as well: Tension, Timing, Tempo, Trust; avoid the first and strive for the last three.

Some 21 years ago I gained two shots on the field when I flew from Augusta to Atlanta, and the plane was delayed. It enabled me to pass some incredible time with my seat mates, who turned out to be Mr. Burke and Robin.

Some of the major takeaways:

  • "You have to be more mentally tough than physically to be a great golfer," and if you want tough, the 5-foot-7 Burke taught Marines hand-to-hand combat during World War II.
  • Burke always discouraged the use of carts. He strongly believes it's a walking game and that you are giving up several shots a side if you ride in a cart. “In a cart there is not enough time to think about your next shot, feel the wind, the ground, and execute.“ He encourages caddies and pull carts.
  • “Everyone has a swing in them, and it’s all about finding that swing, trusting it and letting it go. No one swing is alike. Golf is a continuous learning process and no one has the definitive answers. I will tell you one thing — I do not like the concept of “tips” — tips are for racetrack touts, not for improving someone’s golf game.”
  • Competitors and competition were always welcome at Champions. For a long time, new members were not accepted if they had a handicap higher than 14. The story goes that a prominent Houstonian, sporting a 22, asked “isn’t there anything I can do to get in?” to which Burke replied “yes, we have four terrific teachers and they would be happy to help with your game.” They helped him down to a 13, and he was admitted.

At 99, he has been old in years for a long time now, and always old-school, but he is still anything but old. Still has steel in him. For example, he likes distance gadgets as little as he likes carts: “It’s kinda silly — all you need to do is figure out what club, if you absolutely jump all over it, you will hit over the green. And then hit one club less.”

No longer attending Masters champions dinners because he is not a big fan of air travel these days, he retains a great love and respect for Augusta National. Since Masters champs have to double up with lockers in the Champions locker room, Burke certainly enjoys that he shares a locker with Tiger Woods.

He observed recently about Augusta:

“It’s always been a tough test. Every day it’s got new challenges. So many different shots to hit, a need to manufacture shots all the time. Often wind and rain and always fast greens. Keeping composure is just critical here. Golf is hard on an easy course, and Augusta is not easy (I won at 1 over).

“You need imagination and patience at Augusta. And having grown up in Texas, and been a head pro at Galveston, wind did not faze me. Same with Demaret. We both understood the importance of balance and timing, especially in the wind.”

We chatted about his Otey Crisman putter that he won the Masters with, and is still made today. And he shared that one of the things he taught Jack and Phil, to improve their putting, was “to take the head of your putter, insert in the hole, and wherever the handle stretched to, make a circle with 10 balls. Then bet a friend dinner on whether you make all 10 putts – 10 times in a row, or 100 straight. When you can consistently do that, you are ready.”

So no discussion of mechanics, just a total focus on being able to make relatively short putts with deadly consistency under pressure.

We talked some more about how he tries to be on the range and putting green every day, still preaching his gospel and enjoying golf, and life.

At the end, I said “So, Mr. Burke, I have just one favor to ask.” He smiled and said “you want some help on putting, right? I said “That’s exactly right.” He smiled again, and said “I already gave it to you.” I looked at him blankly on Zoom, and he said “well, you are not Phil, so let’s start with the 10 balls in a circle, Peter, just 10 balls. That’s your lesson.”

Mr. Burke is a treasure. He is an incredible man, gentleman, golfer, teaching pro and businessman. For so many years the golf world has been lucky to have him.

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