Nobody’s Fool: Want to know how to play golf, how to teach golf, and how to run a great club without spending a fortune? Ask Jackie Burke, who doesn’t pull any punches – Jackie Burke Jr., co-founder of Champions Golf Club in Houston, Texas

Nick Seitz

JACKIE BURKE JR. IS A PEPPERY CONTRARIAN OF SALTY language deservedly called “America’s grand golf sage.” He’s in the Hall of Fame for his playing record–17 victories, including the Masters and PGA Championship in 1956 and a 7-1 Ryder Cup record–but he just as well could be in for his success coaching tour stars like Phil Mickelson, Hal Sutton and Steve Elkington. Or for running perhaps the best local golf club in the country, Champions in Houston, which he co-founded with Jimmy Demaret and which he believes is home to more single-digit handicappers–more than 400–than any other club (you have to be a 15 or better to join). Or he could be in the hall for his fervid and influential punditry.

Fifty years ago, Burke became the last man to win four consecutive PGA Tour events in as many weeks. He was a boyish, wavy-haired 29, the nation’s best-looking athlete according to Dagmar, a voluptuous sex symbol of the time. To Bob Hope, he was “the pro from Boys Town.” Today he’s a boyish, wavy-haired 79, the hair going silvery but the energy level a match for four 20-year-olds.

Retirement? “I watch retired guys who ran corporations go down–a big deal is screwdrivers on sale at Home Depot,” he says in an expressive Texas twang moderated slightly by a hint of irony and straight-faced humor. “The mind has to keep working. When you don’t want to help people anymore, the game’s over.”

Burke cannot help helping people who share his passion for golf, even if they inevitably fall short of it. He is scornful of modern gurus, or gu-RUS as he mockingly inflects the word, and tells tour pros, “If they can’t beat you, they’ve got nothing to teach you.” By any definition, Burke qualifies as a guru himself, particularly when it comes to the demonic art of putting.

One of the best putters the tour has ever seen, he has become a high priest of putting to latter-day disciples like Ben Crenshaw. “Just look at the guys he’s helped,” says Butch Harmon, whose first lesson was from Burke, at age 6, and who remains close to him.

Burke debunks systems, teaching through a gadflying Socratic approach and caustic parables, but he won’t bother with you if he doesn’t like you, and he will get your attention. Billy Ray Brown was working with Burke one day and missed a makable putt. Burke whacked him on the head and said, “Son, I want you to feel pain when you miss a putt.”

Jim McLean, the well-regarded gu-RU, tells a Burke story on himself. When McLean was playing for the University of Houston, he spent as much time as he could around Champions. One day he and Burke were discussing driving the ball under pressure. “McLean,” Burke barked like the Marine drill instructor he once was, “I’ll tell you what I want you to do: I want you to go down to Galveston, tee up three balls on that hard sand and hit them into the Gulf of Mexico.”

The next day McLean, knowing his was not to reason why, drove an hour to Galveston, teed up three balls, drove them into the gulf and returned to Houston. Burke asked him what he learned. McLean said he wasn’t really sure. Burke then asked how he hit the three balls. McLean said he hit them well, very well. “Well, gawdam, that’s it!” Burke said. “You’ve been steering that s.o.b. out there! You’ve got to let it go! The Gulf of Mexico’s not big enough for you! Think of the Atlantic Ocean–there’s no way to miss it!”

McLean says being befriended by Burke was the most important development of his career. Burke helped him land club jobs when McLean was young and employers were leery of hiring a bachelor. So Burke came up with reasons why hiring a pro who was single made sense. Then Burke traveled to New York to do clinics with McLean and impress his new customers.

Sutton says, “Mr. Burke is a psychologist. The man gave me my career back. He likes to say your clubs don’t know when it’s raining, which in my case meant they didn’t know I was playing poorly, and it was time to turn the page and start a new chapter. Most of my lessons from him have been over lunch at Champions.”

That’s where a visitor finds Burke and his wife, Robin, during the Tour Championship (Champions gets a fifth Tour Championship in 2003). One of his prize pupils, Robin is a nationally ranked amateur who won the Southern and Doherty tournaments last year.

Burke, wearing a loose-fitting dress shirt open at the collar, jumps up from his fried chicken to brace Bob Estes, a Texan who enjoyed his best season in 2001, with two victories and almost $3 million in earnings. Burke lectures the taciturn Estes animatedly.

That’s an opportunity to ask Robin, who is almost exactly half her husband’s age, about living with a hypercaffeinated mate for 15 years. “I’m quiet and have selective hearing,” she says with a smile. “And I can kick him when we do martial arts. That’s good marriage therapy. With pads, of course.”

They met when her wealthy father sent her to Burke for a summer’s worth of lessons. “He says he taught me how to hold the pro, not the putter,” she says. Under his tutelage she went from shooting in the high 80s to making the Curtis Cup team. The two have a 13-year-old daughter together, Meghan, like Robin a reigning club champion. (Burke has five grown sons and daughters by his late first wife.) Robin practices all day two to three times a week, until Meghan’s out of school.

How much does Jackie play? “He hits balls every day, and we’ll play nine holes together occasionally,” Robin says. “We’re undefeated against members. He’ll go to the back tees and I’ll go to the men’s, no strokes. He misses a shot and gets hot as ever.” Tommy Bolt, the chief victim of Burke’s record streak, has always contended that Burke was as volatile as he was on the course but buried clubs in the ground instead of throwing them–and looked innocent doing it.


Burke returns to overhear the end of our conversation. “I’m still teachin’ her to putt,” he says. I ask what he told Estes, who looked somewhat taken aback.

“That he looks too organized–like he’s gonna dive off a tower,” Burke says. “I told him I never saw Hogan go to the bag till he was ready to play. These guys today look so prepared, so precise. You need some young kid in your swing. It’s like Meghan said to Robin the other day: ‘Mom, just hit it and don’t worry about it.’ This game’s not risk-free, man. You need to play with a certain recklessness to release the club. There’s no steering wheel on the downswing. Tom Watson scares me, because he’ll hit it a hundred yards out-of-bounds but turn it loose. Lanny Wadkins, too–he’ll hit it in the middle of the lake, not the edge of the lake. But they’ll fix it and shoot 62 at you tomorrow.”

Burke rejects the widespread emphasis on a pre-shot routine: “I can’t remember that much and be creative with a shot. It gets in the way of feeling the shot. Some days I brush my teeth left-handed.”

He also rejects the reliance on videotape: “I’ve never seen video that could show you what’s in a guy’s brain–have you?”

The world according to Burke–stimulating, witty, challenging, politically incorrect, opinionated. You can disagree with him, but you cannot ignore him. You wouldn’t want a flu shot with his needle. When he followed the joyously tearful Juli Inkster and Judy Rankin to the podium during the 2000 World Golf Hall of Fame induction ceremony, he said, “Girls, you’ve got me in casual water up here.”

Crenshaw is across the dining room at Champions disguised in a suit and tie to receive the Payne Stewart Award, and, lunch complete, we talk about Burke. Ben’s wife, Julie, is admiring the thousand fresh roses displayed artfully through the clubhouse. “Jackie has a full-time horticulturist from England,” she says. “He says, ‘Every day’s opening day.’ “

Ben says, “I love him and all he stands for, but taking a lesson from Jackie is a full-contact sport. I want to show up with a catcher’s mask, chest protector and shin guards. You’ll be about to hit the ball, and he’s liable to knock you over and say, ‘Man, you’re off balance. What if a sudden wind comes up? You gotta be ready for that.’ You’re just in shock.”

Mickelson, like Crenshaw known as an especially well-mannered citizen, says nobody ever talked to him the way the bombastic Burke did. After a first pilgrimage to Champions, he returned home and, still under the Burke influence, called his wife a “dumb ass” when she was late meeting him. He apologized contritely.

Burke challenged Mickelson to pass his putting-pressure test: making 100 straight three-footers. A confident Mickelson bet him the best dinner in Houston he could do it on the first try. Burke surrounded the hole with 10 balls. Mickelson missed his fourth putt.

He wanted to double the bet, but Burke said, “Man, I can’t eat that much.” When Burke played the tour, he would make the 100 putts every night before allowing himself dinner. “You’d get to 89 and you were a little tired and hungry. The key is to strike a carpenter’s 90, with the blade square to the line, and concern yourself less with sinking putts. Losers are result-oriented–winners are execution-oriented. On long putts, your target is that three-foot cup. You need mental aids. Phil’s a great putter. As good as he putts, he should never be hitting that flop shot.”

Burke does not charge tour players who seek him out. “Mickelson gave money to our junior program,” he says. “I don’t want to get into the gu-RU business and don’t want them dependent on me. One guy brought his teacher along to a putting lesson and told him to remember a point I made. I said, ‘No, you remember.’ I try to teach players to be independent, because you have to make a lot of changes and adjustments from day to day. Hell, Hogan made a hundred changes a day. I went out of my way to watch him when he was beating my ass. I’d be following Tiger today.”

‘Grab that thing by its throat’

Mickelson went on to become one of the tour leaders in putting after working with Burke, but Burke’s most fruitful putting lesson has to be the one he gave a desperate Mike Souchak in 1955. He told Souchak, a former receiver at Duke, “Football players don’t hold the putter at the end like a sledge hammer. You need to go all the way down on the shaft and grab that thing by its throat, down there where the business is.”

Souchak took the advice to the Texas Open in San Antonio soon after and, gripping down on the putter, set the tour scoring record of 257 that stood for 46 years until Mark Calcavecchia broke it by a stroke last year at Phoenix.

Souchak was paired with Burke when Jackie set a Masters comeback record in 1956 that still stands, vaulting from eight strokes behind the final day to overtake amateur Ken Venturi, who shot an infamous 80. Burke and Sam Snead were the only two players to break par on maybe the worst weather day the tournament has seen.

Souchak says, “I shot 80 with 42 putts and finished in the top 20. Jack shot 71 with 22 putts–it was miraculous.”

How bad was the weather? Burke says, “It was cold, the wind was blowing 40 to 50 miles an hour, and it rained all day. On the fourth hole, the par 3, I hit a driver, plus a full wedge. We had bad weather at Augusta all through the 1950s, and the scores reflected it.” Burke won with a 289, the record high along with Snead’s winning total of 1954. Burke was second to Snead’s 286 in 1952, the year of his four-week unbeaten tear.

In the turbulent conditions of the ’56 Masters, Burke changed to a short tap putting stroke.

“I always had one putter and several dozen strokes,” he says. His biggest putt Sunday was a 20-footer to birdie the downwind 17th after his ball was the only one to hold the green. “Sand had blown out of the bunkers all over the green,” he says. “I’d putted on sand greens in east Texas that were really fast, and factored that in, but I still thought I’d hit it about halfway–till the wind blew it right in the center of the cup. Mike’s a cheerleader-type guy, and he ran to pick the ball out of the cup and then clapped me so hard on the back I had to walk around on the 18th tee to recover. I put my second shot on 18 in the right bunker and had to make a downhill four-footer to save my par. It still makes me almost ill to think about that putt with the outcome riding on it.”

The ’56 Masters was the first to be televised, and Burke was shown only as he was finishing.


Burke comes by his devotion to golf naturally. His father, Jack Sr., was a Texas club professional who played well enough to tie for second in the 1920 U.S. Open. He invented the rubber grip and mentored Texas legends like Hogan, Nelson and Harvey Penick. Jackie coaches Champions members as readily–and cheaply–as he coaches tour players. “If they support the club, and I see ’em struggling with a problem that will take a couple words to fix, I’ll jump in,” he says. “But I don’t want to compete with our staff. I teach the head pro, the same as I teach the rest of the staff through the department heads.”

A brawny low-handicap member, Ricky Raven, is at the expansive range. “He’s given me at least 50 lessons and never charged a dime,” Raven says of Burke. “There hasn’t been a time I was hitting balls that he didn’t come out, even in the worst August heat. I know he’s improved me five shots. He’s always teaching. Like today, he was saying you learn from a load on a truck that you don’t shift weight, you turn weight. He knew I was working on my weight shift–I mean turn.”

Raven, a trial lawyer, lives 40 miles from the outlying Champions, but was so impressed with the atmosphere (which Burke’s friend Hogan privately called the finest in golf) he gladly committed to the long commute. “You can get all the game you want, even on a Wednesday afternoon,” Raven says. “Shoot 74, you get your ass handed to you. There are a dozen tournaments throughout the year, and the Rhubarb is a terrific year-end event where the South wing of the locker room plays the North wing. Burke and Elkington are the captains, then there’s a great dinner afterward.”

(Elkington and Burke are two of four Champions members who have won the PGA Championship, along with the late Dave Marr and Jay Hebert. When a local sportscaster asked Burke if that’s unusual, Burke said, “Hell, we’ve got three members who walked on the moon,” referring to astronauts Alan Shepard, who hit a golf ball there, Gene Cernan and Charles Duke.)

Burke blames his South team’s failed effort in the latest Rhubarb on “too many gin partners.” His losers bought dinner. Country-and-western singer Clay Walker, a member, provided entertainment, and Burke followed tradition by honoring two 20-year employees, waitress Connie Schmidt and salad maker Sylvia Randolph, with luxe gifts: gold necklaces with diamonds.

Secrets of a successful golf club

“A lot of our people have been here that long,” says Burke, the club president and majority stockholder. “I like continuity, and committees can’t accomplish that. We don’t have committees; I’m the committees, and there’s a board. The question has always been whether two dumb asses like me and Demaret could make this work.

“If you take care of the staff,” he goes on, “the staff takes care of the members. If a member doesn’t like the way his sandwich is toasted, he’s told to write the board, not chastise the help. I don’t believe in extra staffing. Our people fill different roles depending on the needs of the day, and they get paid a lot of overtime. They like it that way–they’re tired but rich.”

The L-shaped men’s locker room that inspires the Rhubarb format is the grandest feature of the understated clubhouse, and reflects the studious thought Demaret and Burke put into their dream of creating a great golf club as they traveled the world (the women’s locker room is less grand but impressive nonetheless). It is Texas scale, with high ceilings and wide aisles, yet feels comfortable, with cozy alcoves, thick carpeting, stuffed chairs around big card tables, spacious wooden lockers and a convivial bar where, according to local lore, Demaret would stand by the hour telling stories, buck naked.

The club never closes, with security and cleanup crews on duty seven nights a week until breakfast is served. One of the two courses might be shut down for maintenance on a Monday, but the other will be open. The Cypress Creek Course, which has become the biennial home of the Tour Championship, also has played host since it opened in 1958 to tour events from 1966-’71, the 1967 Ryder Cup, 1969 U.S. Open, 1993 U.S. Amateur and 1998 Women’s Mid-Amateur. The pros love it, because it puts the driver back in their hands. Vijay Singh spread his arms wide and told Burke delightedly, “I can swing my arms here.”

The course, heavily treed with huge greens, can play at 7,200 strategic yards now, and there’s enough land to add another 250 yards. “Every time you add a hundred yards, you add a stroke,” Burke says. “We left extra room in case we needed it, but we didn’t know Tiger Woods and these kids were coming.”

Tom Fazio finished a major reworking of the tighter Jackrabbit Course last year, and the early reviews are glowing. Lengthened to its limit of 7,100 yards, it will be used for a day of the Champions Cup that draws two-player amateur teams from different states, as well as for USGA qualifiers and college competitions.

Burke is famously frugal, and negotiating with Fazio for the Jackrabbit project, he reminded the architect what Fazio’s uncle George had been paid to do the course in the early 1960s. Fazio in turn reminded Burke that his fee ran to a million dollars and up. But Fazio says he planned all along to waive the fee, because of his special feeling for Burke and Champions and what they have meant to the game and his design company.

“I told Jackie I’d charge him a fee he couldn’t refuse,” Fazio says. “Nothing.”

Burke quickly said, “That’s exactly the figure I had in mind.”

He paid expenses for Fazio and his people, and made a sizable donation to Fazio’s youth charities. Fazio says, “He thinks of everything to save the club money. He’s proud of having his own laundry to wash tablecloths and towels, because it’s expensive to send them out.”

The late player/teacher Gardner Dickinson once told Fazio how Burke economized in the days when tour pros had to provide their own practice balls: Burke would work his way down the line on the range before a round, dispensing swing tips and demonstrating what he meant by hitting a few balls belonging to one player after another. By the time Burke finished, Dickinson said, he had hit every club in his bag and was ready to tee off. Dickinson added that the instruction from Burke was welcome.

Demaret and Burke would drive together on tour, and Demaret joked that every time they had to stop to buy gas, Burke had managed to fall asleep in the passenger seat and avoid paying. “He may not be the leading money-winner on tour,” Demaret said, “but he’s the leading money-saver.”


Champions members benefit from Burke’s thrift. The initiation fee is $20,000, which buys a stake in the club, and dues are $360 a month with no food minimum–a bargain. You only get in, of course, if your handicap is low enough and you convince Burke of your unwavering love for the game. His private lecture to a new member covers mandates to play in four hours or less and to respect the rules, not moving the ball if you expect to have a handicap and remain a member. Walking is strongly preferred.

“You play your way in, you don’t buy your way in,” Burke says. “Good players don’t have $100,000 for a club. This club is an examination of your golf skills. It’s about putting a number in the brass box after a round. We have about a thousand members, and 428 of them are single-digit handicaps–145 are 5 or better. I doubt you can find 145 people who can play the piano.”

Burke gets the revenue from the golf shop and the carts. On an organization chart he reports to a board, but on the firing line he oversees the corporation with unquestioned efficiency.

His business key? “Make sure you know the most direct way to the bank, without middlemen and side deals. Keep it clean. We’ve got an Enron accountant in the club, and I said to him, ‘Man, what school did you go to?’ We’ve never had an assessment. Never. How about that? Guest fees help hold down the costs.”

Golf is the only game at Champions. When a prospective member asked about tennis courts, Burke pointed into the distance and said, “The Raveneaux Club has them. Go join there.” Champions offers no dance floor or meeting rooms or, as Burke enjoys saying, baked Alaska on the menu to burn the place down.

“The job of the club is to get something going to play in,” he says. “The true assets of a golf club are the hours the members have in the game. I’m amazed by clubs like Shinnecock and Winged Foot that have lasted. In Texas the game isn’t that old. We’re known more for barbecue and beer and stock shows. It takes a hundred years to build a club. Champions is still a work in progress.”

Burke sounds like Billy Graham on amphetamines when he talks about a club lifestyle. “Originally, we knew each other in a club, and it provided a connection for people with a common interest. Amateurs built clubs from scratch. We’re losing that. Developers can build places to play golf–that’s like building bowling alleys–but they can’t give people the close association of a club. Golf’s a game, not just a marketing tool. No equipment or person or organization can ever dominate the game.”

Burke is dedicated to developing the next generation of golfers and club members. He is donating days at Champions to The First Tee junior program, and has challenged area clubs to follow his lead. PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem, the recipient of numerous helpful suggestions from Burke, is expanding the challenge to the national level.


Burke’s junior program at Champions is a model for the serious-minded. Kids–200 of them–take lessons every summer for a nominal fee. When they can shoot 55 for nine holes, they earn a card allowing them to play on their own after 2 p.m. Burke says 20 of them, ages 12 and 13, can break 80. “We don’t give them Ping-Pong tables and that stuff,” he says. “They play golf or get out.”

How long can Burke keep going at his restlessly supercharged pace, and what happens to Champions when he cannot? “I’ve had the watch for 44 years,” says the old Marine. “We’ve gotta find somebody to pick it up. We’re working on it.”

In the meantime, people many years his junior strain to keep up with him. Says one golf luminary, “A day with Jackie Burke is golf. More than a day wears me down.” Burke’s in amazing shape, packing a mere 10 pounds more on his 5-foot-9 frame than the 165 he weighed 50 years ago in his prime. He works out daily in his home gym, everything from tae kwon do to free weights to a treadmill and stationary bike, and swims in his lap pool. He became a black belt in tae kwon do at 67.

Elkington jokes that Burke keeps a dentist on retainer in his desire to stay eternally young. Burke says, “Demaret had a dentist in a strip mall take out all his teeth, and he was never the same after that. I go every three months. I told Elk there will be no teeth in the jar when I go to bed at night–no teeth in the jar.”

As usual, he leaves no room for doubt.

COPYRIGHT 2002 New York Times Company Magazine Group, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group

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