They came from across Texas. Hell, they came from across the
country, 900 strong, to gather in the ballroom of a Houston hotel
on Feb. 29. Butch Harmon surveyed the crowd and peered down to
his right at the roastee, the white-headed guy with the bright
smile. "How many people," Harmon said to Jack Burke Jr., "do you
think you've pissed off all these years? They all showed up!"
With his penchant for impolitic opinions and profane language,
it would be heresy to declare Burke the pope of Houston golf.
Still, in the 42rd year of his reign over Champions Golf Club,
which he and Jimmy Demaret built, Burke's stature in the
nation's fourth-largest city is as clear as his ice-blue eyes.
("More ice than blue," Ben Crenshaw said at the roast.) With
apologies to local resident and golf nut George Bush, Burke is
Houston's First Golfer.
That's no mere honorific, not in the town that kicked off the
Tour's Texas swing last week with the Shell Houston Open. From
the University of Houston, which has produced enough golfers to
win 16 NCAA championships, to Jeff Maggert, who grew up on the
TPC at The Woodlands course where the tournament was played, to
Colin Montgomerie, a Houston Baptist alum who committed to play
in the event, then pulled out at the last minute to search for
his missing putting stroke on the European tour, to an array of
late champions like Demaret, Jay Hebert and Dave Marr, you could
pick an all-star team from Houston and give one stroke a side to
just about any other city out there.
One look at the dais at the roast told you all you needed to know
about Burke's place in the game. Steve Elkington, Phil Mickelson
and Hal Sutton, who among them have won 38 tournaments, including
four Players Championships and two PGAs, all owe a goodly chunk
of their success to Burke's teaching. Miller Barber, Don January
and Mike Souchak fell victim at one time or another to the
magical putting stroke that brought Burke 17 Tour victories, two
of them majors. Crenshaw, like Burke a Masters champ and
victorious Ryder Cup captain, was there, as were the four Harmon
brothers, all of them renowned teachers. "There's no one I know,"
Butch Harmon said that night, "who loves the game of golf more
than Jackie Burke does or has done more for the game, especially
for the wonderful town of Houston."
The 77-year-old Burke has been around golf so long that he is
godfather to one of Bing Crosby's children and one of
Elkington's. Last week, when Robert Allenby of Australia took
advantage of Craig Stadler's turncoat putter to win on the
fourth playoff hole, Burke was too busy at his beloved Champions
to drive the 20 miles north to The Woodlands. On Saturday
morning, with the blueprints for overhauling Champions'
Jackrabbit course folded loosely on his desk, Burke was eager to
get out of his office and onto the course. "You've got to keep
updating," he said. If a top-shelf championship has been staged
in Texas over the last generation, more often than not it has
been at Champions' Cypress Creek course. In the 1990s alone
Champions hosted three season-ending Tour Championships and two
USGA championships--the '93 Amateur and the '98 Women's
That the USGA came to Champions at all is a tribute to Burke's
tenacity. Every chance he gets, Burke voices his distaste for the
USGA, which he describes as an organization unaware that golf is
played in the South. Burke and Demaret first lured the USGA to
Champions for the '69 U.S. Open, won by Orville Moody. When all
that June humidity melted the starch in their shirts, USGA
officials decreed Houston too hot for an Open, and they've never
brought it back. Houston in August, however, was deemed
appropriate for an Amateur. "Isn't that unbelievable?" Burke
says. "As if people don't play in hot weather. I've resigned
myself that the USGA guys are going to sit over a museum in New
Jersey and that's going to be it."
Sutton, hotter than a jalapeno for the last two months, credits
Burke for leading him out of the golfing wilderness in the
mid-1990s. "He's so blatantly honest," Sutton says. "I only talk
to him when I feel like I need some of what he's got to rub on
me. He's a psychologist about the swing. He talks about having
fight in what you do. He has told me, 'Be prepared to get it up
and down from the hardest place on the 1st hole,' or, 'If they
put you and me in a rubber room, you're going down.'" It's no
accident that Sutton displayed that attitude in holding off
Tiger Woods at the Players in March and Andrew Magee at
Greensboro two weeks ago.
Though former University of Houston players such as Bruce
Lietzke--who made his 23rd and, he says, final appearance at the
Houston Open last week and tied for 17th--and John Mahaffey have
been a significant presence throughout the tournament's history,
no Cougar has won it. Neither has Maggert, who moved to The
Woodlands as a 12-year-old in 1976. "Back then the tournament was
run on a smaller scale," he says. "It was easy to come hang out,
and somebody would put you to work carrying a sign or in
At 15, Maggert graduated to caddying for Tour rookie Scott
Simpson. "I waited until I was on the Tour a few years before I
asked him if he remembered," Maggert says. "Scott looked at me
and said, 'Man, I didn't know I was getting that old.'"
Maggert has won three state Opens at The Woodlands. His Houston
Open history has been more heartbreaking. In his rookie season,
1991, he led after 54 holes only to shoot an 80 in the final
round. On three other occasions he held the lead on Sunday, and
each time he finished second. Last week Maggert also tied for
17th, five shots back, thanks to three double bogeys. Then again,
considering he had to work in his golf around the four Little
League games of his son Matt, 11, and his stepson, Phillip, 8, he
may have been distracted. Ah, the comforts of home.
The year before Maggert became a caddie, three Cougars
freshmen--Fred Couples, Blaine McCallister and Jim
Nantz--skipped classes one day to watch their idols. They picked
up Johnny Miller in the rough on the 18th hole. "That was back
when we were trying to see how close we could get to the
golfer," says Nantz, who stayed with his parents last week while
anchoring CBS's coverage. "We're standing right there, watching
Johnny try to decide whether to hit it off the hardpan or take a
drop. He walks up to see where his target is, and Fred makes a
smart remark: 'Hey, why don't you just play it?' Miller snapped
his head around, but there were so many people, he didn't know
who said it."
The next year, Nantz bluffed his way into the NBC compound and
persuaded producer Don Ohlmeyer to allow him to drive the cart
that ferried the announcers from the parking lot to the TV
compound. Thus a star was born--Nantz got his first press
credential that week. He still has it.
On Monday and Tuesday, Couples, McCallister and Nantz were
scheduled to stage their Three Amigos charity tournament at the
new Shadow Hawk course outside Houston, where their former
teammate Paul Marchand is the pro. Marchand counts Montgomerie
among his students, as well as a certain former president.
Couples and Nantz have become good friends of Bush's. When Bush
arrived at The Woodlands on Friday morning and hooked up with
Nantz, Couples stood on the 18th green getting ready to make the
turn at two over. "Mr. President, Fred's going to need some
leadership to make the cut," Nantz said.
"Let's go help him," Bush replied.
They made their way to the ropes along the 1st fairway. Couples
saw them, walked over, hugged Bush and exchanged high fives.
Nantz said, "Hey, Fred, how about making a few birdies for the
prez?" Couples said, "I think I can make about six in a row." In
fact, he birdied numbers 1 and 2 and played his final nine in
four under, birdieing the 9th from eight feet to make the cut on
the number, two under. "I've been around him before," says
Couples, who like Nantz has been a guest of the Bushes at their
house in Kennebunkport, Maine. "If you don't know him, it would
be a little nerve-racking."
Ask Tour sophomore Mike Sposa, who along with Dudley Hart filled
out Couples's threesome. "It's not every day that President Bush
comes out to see me play," Sposa told his playing partners.
Sposa, the fifth alternate when the week began, didn't get into
the field until Elkington withdrew on Thursday morning because of
a bruised right wrist.
After every player in the morning half of the field had teed off,
Sposa left the course to kill some time. "I went over to Barnes &
Noble, got a cup of coffee, read Fly Fisherman magazine," Sposa
said, "and an hour later I was playing with Fred." Sposa, who had
made only two cuts this season, had a share of the lead on the
back nine on Saturday and eventually tied for seventh, the best
finish of his short Tour career.
Bush left Couples and crossed over to the back nine to watch Gary
Nicklaus and kibitz with Nicklaus's parents. That night, at a
banquet before 435 guests, Jack Nicklaus received the Dave Marr
Memorial Award, given annually for contributions to the community
and dedication to golf by Shell in honor of the '65 PGA champion
and longtime TV commentator beloved throughout the game for his
kindness and sense of humor. Marr could defuse the tensest
situation with a quip. The most famous: When he and Arnold Palmer
stood on the 18th tee at the '64 Masters, with Palmer holding a
five-shot lead, Palmer eyed the surging crowd and asked Marr, who
was in a battle with Nicklaus for second, if there was anything
he could do for him. "Yeah," Marr said. "Make a 12."
The only thing funny about last week's tournament was that it
came down to a playoff between two guys who putted cross-handed,
which may have been a first in Tour history. Allenby, 28, didn't
decide to go left hand low until he walked off the practice green
on Thursday morning. He left his first putt, a 20-footer, six
feet short, but holed it and away he went, finishing at 13-under
275. So did Stadler, 46, a 12-time winner who hadn't had a top 10
finish in nearly 15 months. He credits his resurgence to 50 lost
pounds and a new work ethic. "I've always gotten away with not
working on my game," Stadler says. "It was going downhill fast.
More than anything, I wanted to prove to myself that I could
That he did, at least until the playoff that began on the
442-yard par-4 18th. With swirling winds of up to 20 mph and a
pin tucked on the right portion of the green behind a pond, the
18th didn't surrender a single birdie on Sunday. Stadler appeared
to have the victory locked up when Allenby dumped a six-iron into
the water. But Allenby scrambled to make bogey while Stadler
three-putted, missing a five-footer for the win. On the next two
holes Stadler missed putts of six and nine feet that would have
closed out Allenby. When Stadler had to make a 10-footer for par
to match Allenby on the fourth playoff hole, he didn't hit the
The ragged finish brought to mind the philosophy of a famous
teacher: "Tension is the curse of this game." So says a fellow
with eyes more ice than blue.
slimmer Stadler. "It was going downhill fast."