Q&A: Champions GC founder Jack Burke Jr., on amateur golf
Jack Burke Jr. (Photo courtesy Robin Burke)
Jack Burke Jr. (Photo courtesy Robin Burke)

HOUSTON – For decades, Jack Burke Jr., has served as amateur golf’s biggest champion, guardian, promoter and critic.

As the founder and still the driving force behind the famed Champions Golf Club in Houston, Burke, 96, started the Champions Cup Invitational in 1961 as a way to honor amateur golf and his commitment to it.

The two-man four-ball tournament is now in its fifth decade, and the 2019 event begins Thursday. Burke, who still runs day-to-day club operations with his wife Robin will be there for every moment, including a pre-tournament dinner which includes golf students and major champions Hal Sutton and Steve Elkington, as well as Billy Harmon, whose father taught with Burke.

Burke rose from a hard-working caddy at Houston’s River Oaks Country Club (who shot dice and hauled clubs with the other caddies while his dad, Jack Burke, Sr., served as head pro there) to a golf professional by age 17 in Galveston. He went on to become a 16-time PGA Tour winner, two-time major winner, Masters and PGA Championship winner (both in 1956), a Ryder Cup player and eventually a Ryder Cup captain and assistant.

He withstood 50 mph winds at Augusta National Golf Club in 1956 and rallied from eight shots back on the final day to capture the Masters title over amateur Ken Venturi. It was his first major championship, but he validated it by also winning the PGA Championship that year over Ted Knoll at Blue Hill Golf Club in Boston.

His Houston course, Champions Golf Club, soon lived up to its name as it became the only course in Texas to have hosted a U.S. Open (1969), Ryder Cup (1967), U.S. Amateur (1993), PGA Tour Houston Open (1966-71) and a Tour Championship (five times) and will host the U.S. Women’s Open in 2020. After the latter, Champions will join Pinehurst Resort as the only courses in America to have hosted that list of prestigious championships.

But unlike Pinehurst, which has had an ever-changing cast of executive leadership, only Burke has been at Champions for every famous event there, including Ben Hogan’s last competitive round of golf.

The membership (prospective members still must have Burke’s approval to get in, by the way) include more than 200 single-digit handicappers and Burke doesn’t consider anyone with a handicap higher than 15, which is up from 12 in recent years.

Never one to hide his feelings about the game he loves and has devoted his life to, Burke recently spent more than an hour talking with senior writer Art Stricklin during a lively pre-tournament lunch.

AMATEUR GOLF: Mr. Burke, you’re in your ninth decade of golf. Why do you think your love for the game, particularly the amateur game itself, has continued to grow over the years?

JACK BURKE, Jr: I don’t know anything but golf. That’s what I’ve done my entire life. But I think sometimes people forget when you’re a golf pro, that’s just short for promoter. We are here to promote the game, that’s all I wanted to do.

AG: What about the amateur golf at the tournament this week, and in general, keeps you excited?

JB: Son, the Amateur is the heartbeat, the backbone of the game. The day the amateur leaves the game of golf, it’s over, it’s finished. We always have to remember that.

AG: Is that why you founded you Champions Cup Invitational with good friend and former Masters Champions Jimmy Demaret?

JB: Yes, and that’s why the Masters is still going strong today. Because the amateur is still held in high esteem there. Of course, I’m the one who stopped the one of the best amateurs (Venturi) from winning.

AG: People love to talk about a secret to golf. Have you found any secrets to the game in your decades around it?

JB: Golf has always been governed by rules, and people want rules in their life. God gave us 10, and the USGA gave us 34, that’s all the rules you need. If you break the rules in golf, it’s just a different kind of game.

AG: It has been said that most people are a product of their environment. How did growing up with an early Texas golf pro as your father at prestigious River Oaks Country Club in Houston affect you?

JB: My dad came down here to River Oaks as a golf pro from Philadelphia, and we were facing first- and second-generation golf clubs and golfers in Texas. They knew banking and oil and manufacturing, but not golf. My dad got Donald Ross to go down to River Oaks to design a course.

AG: Did being around your dad and all the famous golfers in the 1920s and ‘30s make you want to be part of the game yourself?

JB: My dad was a golf teacher primarily and taught all kinds of players. I was shooting dice with the caddies, making 85 cents for a caddie fee, and had to work with all kinds of people – those who threw their clubs and I had to go pick them up, and those who knew the game.

AG: Is that when you started to work on your own game?

JB: Yes, around the greens. I’ve never seen anybody give away a trophy in the fairway. They always give it away on the putting green. That’s where you’ve got to spend your time.

AG: What did you learn from being around all the great players your dad was teaching at the time?

AG: It hardens you. I remember my dad was teaching Babe Didrikson who was a fine player. She used to say, ‘Come on little Jackie, I’m going to kick your butt and take your lunch money.’ The day I outdrove her, I think I was 13 or 14, that was a proud day in my life.

AG: What about your success at the Masters Tournament and later, the PGA Championship?

JB: I finished second in the Masters in 1952 and that was a big thrill to me because my dad knew (co-founders) Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts and they were nice to me because of him. You know, the Masters went bankrupt three times when it started in the Depression and during the War, and Clifford Roberts bailed them out every time. Back then, the Masters was like a pro-am because of Bobby Jones, and people just wanted to come to see him.

I won $6,000 for the (1956) Masters victory and $9,000 for the PGA in 1956 and that (PGA) check bounced. They wrote me a damn hot check and had to make it up to me.

AG: How did most players make money back then?

JB: It was the gambling and the Calcutta we had before the tournament. I never lost much money myself and (Sam) Snead was finally a fine money player. He didn’t make many mistakes. At the Masters tournament, they would hold a huge Calcutta before the tournament at the Bon Air, which was the headquarters hotel where all the players would stay.

AG: Your most lasting legacy to golf will always be Champions Golf Club in Houston. How did that come about?

JB: In the late 1950s, Demaret, who worked for my dad, and I were going to buy land to build a new golf course. We looked at some land on the Katy Freeway in Houston and we were going to do it, but the lady who owned the land went crazy insane and that never worked out, so we bought it here (FM 1960 area) instead.

When you have your own course, you’re paying all the bills and that will keep you active for sure. When you’re running the check book, it will keep you awake no matter what age you are. We have never assessed the members here. Not one cent. Some clubs here in town are in debt up to their eyeballs, but we are not. You’re crazy if you carry debt.

AG: What makes Champions Golf Club different?

JB: At most places, they’re marketing the game to death. They’re concentrating on other things that are not nearly as important as the game itself. If you’ve got a club but the main focus is food and a fancy fitness center and swimming and tennis, you’re losing your mind. I don’t get one inch from the game myself. We want golfers who are serious about the game and families who come with them. If you’ve got a stag club, I think you’re losing your mind.

AG: You are probably most tied to the Ryder Cup having played, been the Ryder Cup Captain, the assistant to your good friend Hal Sutton and having hosted the only Ryder Cup ever played in Texas. What are your thoughts on our relative lack of success over the last 20 years?

JB: Now, I don't think it’s fun being a captain. They're worrying about the captain way too far ahead of time and they're announcing the captain way too soon. You shouldn't bother him with clothes or insignificant things like that other than the play. The PGA should deal with the clothes and the ceremonies. Give them a sweater and two pairs of pants and let's go. They allowed my wife a $10,000 credit for a dress for a dinner when I was captain, so I said, this is certainly a different PGA now. I tried to tell Hal not to pair Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson together (at Oakland Hills), but it was like talking to General Patton. It didn’t work. Damn fool.

AG: What do you think of the amateur game today?

JB: It’s gotten a little commercial for my taste, but it’s still the best and purest part of golf.

AG: How would you like to be remembered for your amateur contribution to the game?

JB: Son, I never got into this game to make me something I never was. You can’t think that way. You can’t wake up tomorrow and think about what you did 25 years ago, that’s not the way I am.

AG: Mr. Burke, some day for you and somebody for all of us, people will sit around and talk about our lives and what we did. What would you like for people to stay about you?

JB: Well, I know you don’t get lost on a straight road and I’ve done a pretty good job staying on a straight road. I’ve had the consistency. You know, if you just keep the 10 Commandments, the jails would be empty today and I’ve had that consistently my whole life.

AG: Thanks for your time and this great tournament you’ve founded.

ABOUT THE Champions Cup Invitational

Champions is Jack Burke's club, and the Champions Cup is his invitational tournament. This is a special place, full of history and worthy of the championships it has hosted, which include the Ryder Cup, U.S. Open, U.S Amateur, U.S. Mid- Amateur and multiple Tour Championships. The Champions Cup is a 72-hole four-ball event with no cut. It is a very popular tournament that attracts a very strong, competitive national field. To be considered for entry, players must maintain a maximum USGA handicap of 3, be at least 25 years old and submit playing accomplishments to be considered. Walking is required but long pants are no longer mandatory. Contestants are urged to stay at the homes of Champions members (at no cost), but can arrange their own accommodations if desiring to do so. The tournament formerly required both contestants to be from the same state but has since waived that requirement.

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