‘It’s Always Opening Day’: Golf’s Oldest Major Champion Jack Burke Jr. Turns 100
By Bob Denney, PGA Historian Emeritus
When reminded that Jan. 29 marks his centennial birthday, Jack Burke Jr. didn’t miss a beat, dismissing another milestone as not only golf’s oldest living major champion, but the eldest of all time.
“I wouldn’t make that a goal of mine,“ says Burke from his office at Champions Golf Club in Houston, Texas, which he co-founded with Masters Champion Jimmy Demaret. “I always felt that each day was Opening Day. They have celebrations all over the place about something opening. Well, that’s daily, and I’ve had 100 years of it.”
A Marine Turned PGA Professional
That simple, yet focused routine has carried Burke, the oldest and the last survivor of a family of eight children. Born in Fort Worth, he began playing golf at age seven, and went on to attend Rice University in 1941. A year later, Burke became the PGA Professional at Galveston Country Club, and then spent 1942-46 in the Marine Corps stationed at Air Station Miramar, where he taught combat skills to Marines headed to the Pacific in World War II.
Following the war, Burke resumed his golf career after first considering work in the oil fields of Texas. He earned PGA Membership in 1947, and was a PGA Teaching Professional at Hollywood Golf Club in Deal, New Jersey, followed by an assistant role at Winged Foot where he was mentored by Claude Harmon. In early 1948, he would become the PGA Head Professional at Metropolis Country Club in nearby White Plains, New York.
His father, PGA Professional John Joseph “Jack” Burke Sr., was the 1941 Senior PGA Champion, and passed away suddenly two years later at age 54. Burke Sr. had built River Oaks Country Club in Houston, which was a template for his son to follow at Champions later in life.
“Jack is like a caretaker of a lot of people,” says Robin Burke, Jack’s second wife of 36 years. “Champions’ members are his extended family. What gets him going is meeting new people and encouraging their interest in golf. He doesn’t believe in retiring.”
Adds Burke: “Golf needs a father who plays, and then that young kid will play. It’s like going to church — if daddy goes to church, you’ll probably follow him.”
Decorated Career in Golf
Burke becomes the third oldest living PGA Member and is No. 2 in PGA Membership with 75.5 years. He has outlived the likes of PGA/Masters Champions Gene Sarazen (97 and three months) and Doug Ford (95).
For the generations who have never heard of Jack Burke, he captured two major championships in a magical 1956 season – The Masters and the PGA Championship at Blue Hill Country Club outside Boston.
In 1957, he and Demaret built Champions Golf Club, a facility that today has some 900 members. Burke won 19 overall professional titles — 16 on the PGA TOUR — and was a winning Ryder Cup Captain (1973), a five-time U.S. Ryder Cup Team member and owned a 7-1-0 record. The PGA Hall of Fame inducted him in 1975, the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2000, and he was the 2007 PGA Distinguished Service Award recipient.
Burke says he hasn’t played a round of golf in 10 years, and has not hit balls for three years, but he continues to make occasional appearances on the putting green, encouraging other members.
“He’s a master who can putt with his eyes closed,” notes Robin.
Celebrating a Personal Centennial
Burke’s daily routine at Champions begins around 9:30, and he spends the next few hours meeting members and their guests, who gravitate to his office before lunch. And, with Burke’s son Mike having purchased the club two years ago, and running operations with Burke’s grandson Dean, things continue to be in good family hands at Champions.
Mike Burke is credited for organizing a memorable Burke Birthday Bash for year 100. The party attracted two-time Masters Champion Ben Crenshaw, PGA Champion Steve Elkington, Butch Harmon, who was a Burke student, and 1994 PGA Teacher & Coach of the Year Jim McLean. Longtime family friend and Houston Astros owner Jim Crane brought the World Series trophy for all to enjoy.
Burke’s remarkable life in golf on and off the course includes having fathered five children with Ielene, his late first wife. Jack and Robin, who married in 1987, had one child, Meghan Harrison, who with her husband and two young daughters, live a couple miles from their grandparents.
“I got to experience my dad from age 65 on, and no matter what age he was for the others in the extended family, he has not changed that much,” says Harrison. “He’s gotten a little softer, but he’s still very disciplined, passionate about church, and passionate about the Marines. I remember well that if I didn’t have my room clean, he would pick up everything and toss it on the bed.”
Moving her family closer to her parents has allowed her girls to help remember their grandfather, too.
“My dad’s got crystal blue eyes and I saw him watching a daughter experience golf for the first time, and now he’s watching his granddaughters,” says Harrison. “It’s a game which teaches goals and boundaries. I hope that my girls can build their own ‘Opening Day’ in their lives. It’s one of the reasons why my dad has lived to 100. He does things like it’s Opening Day.”
Top 10 Oldest Living Golf Major Champions
Jack Burke Jr. - 100
Betsy Rawls - 94
Don January - 93
Kathy Cornelius - 90
Marlene Hagge - 88
Joyce Ziske - 88
Gary Player - 87
Sir Bob Charles - 86
Bobby Nichols - 86
Tommy Aaron - 85