PGA Champion Jack Burke Jr. proves that age is only a number
Golf’s oldest living major champion isn’t about milestones. He is about focusing on the next shot in life.
By Bob Denney
PGA Historian Emeritus
Black-and-white photographs adorn the halls and locker rooms at Champions Golf Club in Houston. It’s a winding exposition of signature moments for Jack Burke Jr., co-founder of the facility where he celebrated his 98th birthday Friday.
Yet, golf’s oldest living major champion isn’t about milestones. He is about focusing on the next shot in life.
“I concentrate on what I’m doing and not what I’m not doing,” said Burke, explaining his longevity. “There are many things to it, like the family you come from. I’ve never had a headache in my life.”
One of nine sons of a PGA Member to capture a PGA Championship, he “double-majored” in 1956. He won The Masters that April and in July weathered a grueling PGA Championship by playing 173 holes in seven matches at Blue Hill Golf and Country Club in Canton, Massachusetts.
When you meet Jack Burke, you never forget those ice-blue eyes piercing through you as if you were a target on a practice range. This former Marine can dish out a blunt assessment of life, then follow with an impish grin after depositing a pearl of a story like a long-distance putt.
“When I was on the Tour, I remember always getting there on time,” he said. “There’s four things to golf: Tension, Timing, Tempo and ya’ got to Trust it.
“Playing golf is just a game. I’ve never tried to win, I just put the next shot out. They’ll come tell you if you win.”
Some memories, said Burke, never fade.
“When I won the Masters, the wind was blowing 50 miles per hour the first round,” he said. “I have played at Augusta many years, but that day I was hitting shots I’d never hit there before in my life. The second hole, a par-5, I’d never come close to that green in two with anything. Well, my second shot, I went over the green with a 5-iron.”
The wind died down that weekend, and Burke went on to win by a stroke over amateur Ken Venturi.
In the final 36-hole match of the 1956 PGA Championship, Burke was paired against Ted Kroll, a longtime acquaintance on tour.
“We were coming down a fairway, and Ted came over to my side and said, ‘Why don’t you let ol’ Krollie win one?’”
Burke’s response: “The very second I can do that, I’ll let you know.”
Burke came from a family of eight; he is both the oldest and only surviving member.
“I’m amazed by his passion for the game and his desire to ‘go down hitting it well,’ “ said his wife, Robin Burke. “He has never lost interest and still comes to Champions seven days a week and believes every day is Opening Day.”
The couple met on the putting green at Champions Golf Club in 1984, when Robin Moran was a freshman at the University of Texas. Her father had sent her to Champions for a putting lesson. Three years later, after Burke’s first wife died, they were married. The couple celebrate their 34th wedding anniversary on Feb. 16.
“Jack often teaches others to speak in broader terms and not about one’s self,” said Robin. “He says, ‘If you take the word ‘I’ out of your vocabulary, you would be speechless.”
For 64 years, he has reported daily to work at Champions Golf Club, which he partnered with Jimmy Demaret to build in 1957.
Five PGA Champions have held membership at Champions: Burke, -- joined by Jay Hebert, Dave Marr, Hal Sutton and Steve Elkington. It also is the only golf club to have three members walk on the Moon: Alan Shepard, Charlie Duke and Gene Cernan.
The club has been host to a long roster of premier golf: the 1967 Ryder Cup, 1969 U.S. Open, the 2020 U.S. Women’s Open, along with the1993 U.S. Amateur, the 1998 and 2017 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur, five TOUR Championships and six Houston Champions International events (today’s Houston Open).
“We’ve never had an assessment here, and that’s an accomplishment,” said Burke.
Champions Golf Club has annually held large birthday parties for Burke, but this year COVID-19 is an uninvited guest and precautions are in place. Robin has prepared a birthday cake for display that members can view while visiting the clubhouse.
Burke is a man of routine:
“I have cereal in the morning, any kind of soup at lunch and whatever Robin is fixing in the evening. I’m in bed around 8, and up at 6 a.m.
“If your goals are in front of you every day, you can go forward,” said Burke.
Posted in his home, Burke authored “Amendments to the Ten Commands,” and he gets the last word.
- First Things First.
- Fifty--Fifty One (Translation: If you make 50, don’t spend 51)
- Them apples don’t fall too far from the tree.
- My way, or the highway.
- Two words necessary for a happy marriage: “Yes, dear.”
- Be patient. Like the leopard on the limb.
- If you can put a match to it, it’s not worth anything.
- The clubs don’t know it’s raining
- Just remember: you cannot take it with you; there are no Brinks trucks in a funeral procession.
- Anything that walks around with its head down will eventually be eaten.