Not everyone who has contributed to the rich tapestry of Masters history will be at Augusta National this week. In the case of Jack Burke Jr, his absence is at his own behest. Sometimes you need not visit remarkable places to encounter remarkable people.
In the wood-panelled office of an attractive golf club on the bustling outskirts of Houston, the 94-year-old Burke reflects on his Masters triumph of 1956. He would be the oldest living holder of a Green Jacket but for the fact that Doug Ford, the 1957 winner, is his senior by 176 days.
Burke prevailed on that Sunday 61 years ago when the then amateur Ken Venturi, who had led for the first three rounds, slumped to an 80. “I was standing on the putting green beside Doug Ford,” Burke says. “I said: ‘Doug, I’ll take a 77 and take my shoes off.’ That wind was blowing 50mph, it was raining, I knew I couldn’t reach the 1st green in two. I’d never been on the 2nd in two with anything; I went over the green with a five-iron. At the 4th, a par three, I hit driver-wedge then made the putt. I thought Jesus Christ was on my bag at that point.
“At the 17th, my partner Mike Souchak turned to me and said: ‘These guys are falling dead back there.’ I had a 25ft putt with the sand blowing out of the bunkers. I had played a lot of sand greens in my life so I knew how fast the putt would be. I hit that putt, actually thought it was only halfway there, and it went in to send me one under par.
“I went to the last hole with a chance, I thought. I hit my second in the bunker because the wind was blowing so hard that if I missed it left, my chip shot was never staying on the green. I didn’t much care being in the bunker. I got it out of there and made another putt. Venturi had a 30ft putt on the last to tie but he missed it. It was no cinch for me, it was just a hole by hole deal.”
The cheque, for $6,000, was at least valid. When he won the US PGA Championship, also 61 years ago, the payment bounced. His career had been kick-started in extraordinary circumstances, with the help of a member at the River Oaks club who identified the talent in a youngster who was a US Open competitor at 18.
“I was in the caddie yard, carrying bags for 85 cents,” he recalls. “I didn’t have any ambition of doing anything in golf except ‘carry this bag today.’ I just learned it all from watching better players when I was caddying. Nowadays they ride so much in carts. That really isn’t a thing for a young person to do because you get to your problem too soon. If you hit a slice, you want some time to figure out how to stop it before the next shot.
“It was after the war. The locker room man, Oscar Collins, was a good friend of mine and my dad’s. He asked me what I was going to do. I told him I had $300 in my pocket and that’s all I owned. He went to one of the members and said: ‘Little Jackie is having some trouble getting started.’ That man gave Oscar a blank cheque and said I was to fill it out. I made it out for $2,500 and that got me going.”
Burke never played in an Open Championship. “If you won that event, it was $500. To get over there was $2,000. That never did add up to me. Ben Hogan went [once, in 1953] because a bunch of millionaires sent him over there. And he won.”
If it is understandable that Burke can retain such vivid memories of iconic times, that he retains such wisdom with regards golf as a whole is hugely endearing.
This is a man who regarded Hogan, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Arnold Palmer and other members of the aristocracy as friends. Just do not ask Burke to pick out the greatest of all time. “I don’t see that having anything to do with anything,” he says. “And I don’t know how you prove it.”
On the clubhouse wall at the Champions Club outside Houston, which Burke co-founded, he and Palmer are pictured in a warm embrace at the Augusta champions dinner, an event that the 1956 winner no longer attends.
“What happens is you get to where you don’t even know the players,” Burke explains. “I won’t go back, it is too hard; you have to drive 150 miles [from Atlanta] for one dinner. I don’t see the reason for it now.”
Even Augusta National’s offer of $10,000 for expenses is not enough for Burke to change his stance. The inference is that this champion, who shares an Augusta locker with Tiger Woods, was never particularly sold on the most exclusive golf club in the world.
“I like the golf course,” he says. “I’m pretty much for a family club, I like to see a father playing with his kids.”
Burke’s strongest link to this, the 81st Masters, is via another past champion. After a call from a mutual friend, he helped an aspiring young left-hander by the name of Phil Mickelson.
“Phil just has an unbelievable feeling for the game,” Burke says. “He has such a great touch around the greens that he can recover from just about anything. He was a gambler .He would bet on two flies coming down the wall in his early days.
“He came down here, I put the head of the putter in the cup, lay it down, put a ball on the end of that shaft and made a circle around the hole with 10 balls.
I said: ‘When you hole 100 in a row, I’ll be in my office.’ He said: ‘I’ll do that right now.’ I said: ‘Well you are a big gambler, for how much will you do that right now?’ He replied: ‘For the best dinner in Houston.’ He missed the fourth ball. He called me from Phoenix three months later to say he had done it.”
With that comes a beaming smile from Burke. It is to the detriment of those at Augusta National that they no longer get to see it.