Jack Burke Jr., the hero of '56, renews Augusta National ties

Tuesday April 14th, 2009
Recovering from a stroke, Burke returned to Augusta National after a seven-year absence.
Bob Martin/SI

So Bob Goalby walks over. "Jackie Burke," he says, extending a hand. "Damn, nice seeing you. How you doin'? Always great to see you." Jack Burke Jr., who is sitting on a sofa in the Augusta National clubhouse, grins and shakes his old friend's hand.

It's Tuesday morning, and a biting wind is keeping the old men indoors. They're bundled up in windbreakers, but come evening they'll slip on their green jackets and go upstairs for the annual champions dinner. "I really want to talk to you," says Burke, who at 86 is the second-oldest living Masters winner. "I need some war stories."

"Hey, I've got some!" The 80-year-old Goalby, the 1968 winner at Augusta, chuckles and then leans a little closer. "How are you doing? Heard you haven't been feeling too good."

"I got a little stroke hit me, that's all. That guy had me zeroed in in his scope, but he missed."

Goalby smiles at the Grim Reaper reference. "After all you went through with the Marines? All that?"

Burke, who saw action in World War II, nods emphatically. "He missed!"

Missed so badly, in fact, that ol' Jackie looks fit enough to play. He walks without a cane, reads scoreboards at 100 yards and dispenses the famous critiques and aphorisms with his usual vigor. "I've got 133 employees and a thousand members at Champions Golf Club," he says, reminding everyone that he still runs the private club in Houston that he started a half century ago with three-time Masters champ Jimmy Demaret. But if you ask Burke to talk about his one-shot victory at the 1956 Masters — the first televised Masters — he'll tell you he doesn't dwell on the past. "Owner," he explains, "comes from the word owe. You're constantly making payroll, so it's pretty hard to think about a tournament you won 50 years ago."

But now 87-year-old Doug Ford walks over, triggering memories of a stormy Sunday in April of '56, the day Burke became a lifetime member of the ultraexclusive Masters club. "I'm telling them the story where you and I are standing on the putting green before the final round," Burke says, giving the '57 Masters champ a two-handed handshake. "It was blowing harder than it is today, and raining. I said, 'I'll take 77 and pull these shoes off right now!'"

Ford smiles and nods. "I played with [Cary] Middlecoff that day. On the par-3 4th he hit driver. Hit the back of the green and lost his ball in the woods."

"I couldn't get to the green," Burke says. "I had to hit a wedge to the back edge."

It's only in dribs and drabs, then, that you get Burke's version of the '56 Masters. He doesn't mention that he began the day eight strokes behind the third-round leader, amateur Ken Venturi. He won't brag about his final-round 71 — or mention Venturi's closing 80. What he does instead is watch the Mickelsons and the Furyks, icons of the modern game, glide through the clubhouse in their logoed sportswear.

"These kids have never given a lesson in their life," Jackie says, launching into one of his favorite tropes. "We were teachers. There were only 16 events, and if you won all 16, you'd take home $32,000. So we weren't playing for a living. We were playing because you could get a better club job if you won some tournaments." Furthermore, he points out, the Masters of yore was not far removed from its quasi-member-guest origins. "It was a good tournament, but it wasn't the Masters that it is today. I think I got $6,000 for winning here, and no endorsements. None. Zero."

Burke is not saying there's anything wrong with today's seven-figure winner's share; he simply wonders if one good week of golf should be worth more than he banked in his 17-win career. He's certainly not sour on the Augusta National Golf Club, which he calls a "beacon for the game." His retort to those who complain of green-jacket imperiousness or gripe about the recent course changes is typically brusque: "I hear a lot of guys talk, but they have no money up. Augusta National's got a lot of money up, and they're puttin' it back in the club."

So why has it been seven years since the mouthy Texan unfolded his napkin at a champions dinner? Burke shrugs. "It's just too hard to get here. Rent a house in Augusta, fly to Atlanta, rent cars to come down here, fight the crowds..." He's here this time to please his wife, Robin, a crack amateur golfer and former Curtis Cupper, and to introduce their daughter Meghan, a sophomore at Mississippi, to the glories of Augusta National. He's pleased, therefore, when Meghan — after a tour of the course with her parents and boyfriend Pittman Harrison — is bowled over. "I love it," she says, watching Jackie field questions from players and swing coaches at the putting green. "It's great meeting all my dad's old friends. They tell the best stories."

She's right about that. Goalby, for example, shares one about Jackie and another old pro, Miller Barber. "You know Miller?" Goalby arches an eyebrow. "He's got about 14 curlicues in his backswing, and then he sticks the club straight up in the air with no wrist cock. Anyway, he asked Jackie for a lesson. They went out on the range, dumped the balls out. Miller said, 'I'm mixed up on my backswing. Watch me hit some.' So he hit about a dozen balls before Jackie turned and started walking away. Miller's got this squeaky voice. He shouted, 'Jackie! Jackie! Where are you going?' And Jackie said, 'Back to the clubhouse. I'm not going to live long enough to figure out that backswing.'"

Burke tells good stories, too, and he spices his conversation with oddball maxims ("The word pro comes from the word promotion, not professional") and geriatric humor ("It's hell when your wife can outhit you"). But when he's pressed to say more about the '56 Masters, he minimizes his achievement. "Well, I mean, I thought Venturi was going to win. But with that wind" — it gusted to 50 mph — "you could only play your best and hope you didn't shoot a hundred." Burke didn't realize he was in contention until he walked off the 16th green. "Going to 17 I knew I had a chance," he says, "because Mike Souchak told me they were all falling dead behind me." He scratches his nose. "I was playing pretty good. The 17th, I hit this big old high slice over those people sitting on that mound, and my ball stayed on the front edge. Got my birdie. I had to par 18 to win, but the wind was blowing, and if you went left of the green, you'd make double bogey, because you were chipping with the wind. So I put it in the bunker, got out of the bunker and had a downhill putt. I took one look at that putt and hit it. Didn't look at it twice."

That's all the old Texan will say about the day he won his green jacket. And there's no point in even bringing up his prowess at that year's PGA Championship, where he defeated Ted Kroll 3 and 2 in the final. Or his '56 player of the year award. Or his memorable '52 season, which saw him win four straight tournaments. Burke mutters, "I don't need someone to remind me of what I did."

Perhaps not. But the rest of us do.

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