Oldest living Masters golf champion dies at age 100
(AP) — Jack Burke Jr. loved to play golf as much as he enjoyed teaching it.
In a golfing life that spanned just over a century, he delivered the largest comeback in Masters history, built the fabled Champions Golf Club in Houston and left everyone he met with homespun wisdom on golf and life.
“Leisure time is dangerous. You might wind up inside a bottle of bourbon,” Burke once said about retirement. “You were put on this earth to produce, so get with it.”
Burke, who was the oldest living Masters champion, died Friday morning in Houston. He was 100, just 10 days short of his next birthday.
“I went to see him last Friday and he did what he did best, giving me golf lessons and life lessons,” PGA champion Hal Sutton said. “He lived a productive life. This is a celebration of his life more than anything.”
Sutton said Burke’s wife, Robin, sent him a text message about his passing.
Burke was a Marine during World War II. His induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2000 was as much about his influence on golf as the two majors he won in 1956. And he was renowned for his sharp wit that never left him.
“Why did golf give us 34 rules when God only gave us 10 commandments?” he said over dinner at his home in Houston in 2020.
Burke won the Masters and the PGA Championship in 1956 when he was the PGA player of the year. He was best known for staging the greatest comeback in Masters history when he overcame an eight-shot deficit in the final round to beat Ken Venturi.
In conditions so blustery only two players broke par, Burke posted a 1-under 71 for a one-shot victory over Venturi, who shot 80. Burke recalled a key putt on the 17th hole when the wind was so strong it had blown sand out of the bunker.
“The wind grabbed that thing and kept blowing it down the hill, until it plunked dead in the middle of the hole. It was a miracle, the best break of my career. You better believe wind affects putts,” he said. “A golf ball weighs 1.62 ounces. Can a 20-mile-per-hour wind affect that ball as it rolls? You tell me.”
Later that year, Burke defeated Ted Kroll, 3 and 2, to win the PGA Championship.
Those were among his 16 victories on the PGA Tour, including four straight in early 1952, three of them by six shots or more. He was on five straight Ryder Cup teams and won seven of his eight matches. The lone loss was in 1957 when Burke was a playing captain and Great Britain won for the first time since World War II.
Burke’s last PGA Tour victory was in 1963, but his career was far from over. He was as much a teacher as a player, and a Texan through and through. He joined with another Masters champion, Jimmy Demaret, to found Champions Golf Club for only serious golfers.
Burke once had a policy that members had to have a handicap of 15 or better to join.
“I don’t care how much money someone has, what race, sex or religion they are, none of that stuff,” he once said. “All I want are people who have invested a lot of hours in the game. … It doesn’t make a lot of sense filling a yacht club with people who can’t sail a boat.”
Champions went on to host the Ryder Cup, the U.S. Open, the Ryder Cup, the U.S. Women’s Open and the Tour Championship. Tiger Woods won at Champions in 1999 — he shared a locker with Burke at Augusta National.
Born in Fort Worth, he grew up in Houston while his father, Jack Burke, was the head pro at River Oaks Country Club. His father died when Burke was serving in the Marines during World War II, where he taught combat skills at Miramar near San Diego.
“They asked me to help with teaching martial arts because, as a golfer, I’m familiar with timing and balance — and both are very important,” Burke told the USGA in 2017. “I had been instructing golf all my life because my dad taught me how to teach. So teaching these other things was not a problem.”
When the war ended, Burke became a teaching pro in New Jersey and then got a job as an assistant under Claude Harmon at Winged Foot. That led to a club pro job at Metropolis Country Club in New York.
For all he achieved inside the ropes, Burke is equally known for his teaching skills. He could be funny and harsh, always getting his point across, all for the love of the game.
“When a primitive hunter threw a spear at his prey, you better believe he followed through and finished with his weight on his left foot,” Burke once said. “Reverse pivots in the jungle could be fatal. That saber-toothed tiger would eat you. Any throwing motion requires a weight shift to the left. Stone Age man realized that. Millions of years later, poor golfers do not.”
Burke was perturbed when a member at Champions asked him for a quick look at his swing. Burke offered a suggestion and as he walked away, the member said, “Thanks for the tip.”
“I don’t give tips,” Burke wrote in his book. “This isn’t Churchill Downs. It took me 60 years to acquire the knowledge necessary to offer that man a suggestion. Just because the advice comprised one sentence doesn’t mean it didn’t include a lot of thought.”
His book was titled, “It’s Only a Game,” and was published in 2006, two years after he served as an assistant captain at the Ryder Cup in 2004 at Oakland Hills, where Europe recorded its biggest victory. Burke cited the high-priced tuxedos they wore to the gala as an example of how riches in golf had softened the players. He also mentioned how much players seemed to enjoy their time playing table tennis and video games.
“I closed my eyes and imagined Ben Hogan sitting at the car racing game, his hat turned backwards, giggling and shouting to Arnold Palmer, who was waiting his turn,” Burke wrote.
Burke was part of the original PGA Hall of Fame in Pinehurst and was among PGA champions not ushered into the new World Golf Hall of Fame when it opened in 1998 in Florida. But he was the first one selected through the Veteran’s Category in 2000.
Burke was among eight inducted that evening and as he stood at the podium on a typical emotional ceremony, he quipped, “With all these tears, I might be standing in casual water.”
His second wife, Robin, was the Curtis Cup captain in 2016 and helped Burke run Champions. The club hosted the U.S. Women’s Open in December 2020. Burke was 97 and still engaging, a twinkle in those blue eyes, irreverent as always.
“The USGA has never owned a golf course,” he said that week at his home. “But they come to your course and tell you how to run it.”