A Chat with History
It's been 58 years since Jackie Burke, Jr. staged the greatest final-round comeback in Masters history to capture the green jacket. Now 91, Burke is the oldest living Masters champion, and time has not dimmed his memories of that blustery day at Augusta National.
At 91 years old, Jackie Burke, Jr. is the oldest living Masters champion.
Burke, a gritty Texan who began playing golf at age 7 and turned professional 10 years later, slipped into his green jacket at the 1956 tournament thanks to a final-round comeback that stands -- to this day -- as the most impressive in Masters history.
Entering the final round trailing 54-hole leader Ken Venturi, then an amateur, by a massive eight strokes, Burke fired a 1-under 71 to edge Venturi by a single shot to claim his only Masters and the first of his two career major championships (he also won the PGA Championship later that same year).
While it surely took a little luck for Burke -- Venturi closed with an 8-over 80, after all -- it also required some serious fortitude. Burke's 71 matched the same number carded by Sam Snead, who tied for fourth. Those 71s were the only two sub-par rounds recorded in that final round, made even more impressive when you consider that 77 of the world's top golfers played that day.
The 1956 Masters was the last one played without a 36-hole cut. The current 36-hole cut rule at the Masters has the top 50 players and ties and all those within 10 shots of the lead advancing.
"When you're playing, it's always nice to win but it doesn't change the person you are -- you're still the same guy," said Burke, who was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2000, during a recent phone interview. "People make it more important than the player does."
Burke's 1-over 289 total remains the highest winning total in Masters history, a record that was first set by Snead in 1954 and matched by Zach Johnson in 2007.
"What I remember most about that last day was the weather," he said. "We played through about a 50-mph wind all day long and it turned the golf course upside down. During that period of time, weather was everything at Augusta National. I led it once with a 71 and I led it once with a 67. The weather was strange like that all the time it seems, and still can be. Augusta sits in a bowl so the wind goes in circles."
Burke said that as impressive as many believe his 1956 Masters to be, he wouldn't even call it his best performance at Augusta National.
"I played better in 1952, the year I finished second to Snead," he said. "I had won four consecutive tournaments before that 1952 Masters and a win there would have made it five in a row."
So was it heartbreaking to come up just short in that 1952 Masters?
"When you're a player at that level, you don't pay attention to heartbreak," Burke, who won 16 PGA Tour events during his career, said. "You can ask Snead, Middlecoff, Hogan, Demaret -- you're playing every week with two tee markers and a flag and you deal with it. You don't get involved with winning and losing. I've never approached the game as if I enjoyed it or not -- I just did it."
Today, Burke spends most of his time in Houston at Champions Golf Club, the world-class facility he founded with friend and three-time Masters winner Jimmy Demaret in the 1950s.
"I've been on this project 57 years -- Champions," said Burke of the club that has hosted a number of the game's most high-profile events, including the 1967 Ryder Cup, 1969 U.S. Open and 1993 U.S. Amateur. "The golf in this part of the country is in just its second generation -- Philadelphia is in its 10th or 11th generation. It's a different game down here in Texas. People here know oil rigs and ranches. Golf in Texas is still in its infancy."
Really? Golf is in its infancy in a state that has produced legends named Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Burke, Demaret, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Lee Trevino and Ben Crenshaw?
"Yes," Burke explains. "There just weren't a lot of courses to play on and that's still the case. There aren't a lot of municipal courses. We're still dealing with people who haven't been exposed to the game the same way they have in a lot of other places.
"My dad built River Oaks Country Club in Houston. There were no generations before that. Members there were two hours off the oil rig. We need more municipal courses because it's the amateurs who are putting all the money up to play. The pros aren't."
How about Burke? Is he still playing?
"I can play," Burke said, "But it's like an unsharpened pencil. It has no point. I played competitively. But just to go out and play? I don't like that. I'd rather do something else. I spend my time turning memberships over and getting younger kids in here at Champions. We have 50 people that are scratch players here. That's been a big job."
Fifty-eight years removed from his historic Masters win, Burke, whose storied golf career was interrupted by four years in the Marines during WWII, will not be at Augusta National for the annual Champions Dinner come tournament week. Which means that the former champions locker that Burke shares with four-time Masters winner Tiger Woods, who will not compete in this year's Masters due to back surgery, will go unused for the first time since 1998.
"I'm 91 now and in pretty good shape, but it's too much to go back there between getting a flight, a hotel, a car," he explained. "Plus, most of the guys I'd really want to see are gone. Billy Casper, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus are still there -- and Doug Ford too -- but that's it. I miss Hogan. I miss all the guys I played with. I miss Demaret and I miss Craig Wood."
And, this year, attendees of 2013 Masters winner Adam Scott's Champions Dinner will miss Burke.