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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Jack Burke Jr., Who Won 2 Major Golf Titles in a Season, Dies at 100

Jack Burke Jr. was elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2000. (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

By Frank Litsky

Jack Burke Jr., a top player on the PGA tour in the postwar years who won two major golf championships in one season, then became a sought-after instructor to some of the game’s greatest stars, died Friday in Houston. He was 100 and the oldest living winner of the Masters and PGA championships.

A representative of the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, which inducted him in 1978, confirmed the death.

Burke’s banner year was 1956, when he won both the Masters and the PGA titles and was named the PGA’s golfer of the year.

His Masters victory surprised almost everyone.

Only weeks earlier, having gone winless since the Inverness open in Ohio in 1953, Burke, who was 33, had announced that he was considering retiring. And going into the final round at Augusta National Golf Club, he was eight strokes behind the Masters leader, Ken Venturi, and had not drawn much attention.

All eyes had been on Venturi, who at 24 was vying to become the first amateur to win the Masters. But as Venturi faltered, Burke crept up the leaderboard, passing eight players, and won by a stroke.

He had received some meteorological help.

“I had a downhill putt on the 17th hole that was lightning quick, and it was made even faster because the 40-mile-per-hour wind had blown sand out onto the green,” Burke told Golf Digest in 2004. “I just touched that putt, and I immediately thought, ‘Oh, no, I didn’t get it halfway there.’ Then the wind grabbed that thing and kept blowing it down the hill, until it plunked dead in the middle of the hole. It was a miracle — the best break of my career.”

That June, Burke won the PGA Championship, defeating Ted Kroll, at the Blue Hill Country Club in Canton, Massachusetts, in match-play format, which is based on holes won in a head-to-head contest, not the number of strokes on a score card.

All told, Burke won 16 tournaments on the Professional Golfers’ Association of America tour, including four in four weeks in 1952.

The son of a Houston golf club pro, Burke turned professional at 17 and joined the tour at 23, hailed as one of the most promising golfers of his generation.

In 1949, by then living in Kiamesha Lake, New York, in Sullivan County, Burke recorded his first professional win, in the Metropolitan Open, on his home course, the Metropolis Country Club, in White Plains, defeating veteran Gene Sarazen. The victory came 24 years to the day after Burke’s father defeated Sarazen in a tournament, as Sarazen ruefully but good-naturedly pointed out to Jack Jr.

In 1952, after his four straight tour victories and a second-place finish at the Masters, behind Sam Snead, Burke was profiled by Collier’s magazine as “Golf’s New Hot-Shot.” At 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds, he could hit 265 yards off the tee and was an excellent putter. His boyish good looks only added to his appeal.

“His curly faintly auburn hair, blue eyes and occasional shy smile have made him the darling of the feminine links addicts,” the magazine wrote, identifying Burke as “one of golf’s most eligible bachelors.”

In 1957, Burke joined his mentor, Jimmy Demaret, the first three-time Masters champion, in founding the Champions Golf Club in Houston. Demaret had been an assistant pro under Burke’s father since Jack Jr. was 10.

Burke and Demaret instituted a membership policy — still in force — under which only golfers with a handicap of 14 or lower are admitted. “I liken us to Stanford University, or Yale or Harvard,” Burke told Golf Digest. “They don’t accept D students academically, and we don’t accept people with a D average in golf.”

The club hosted the 1969 U.S. Open and the 2020 U.S. Women’s Open Championship, among other tournaments.

Burke went on to earn distinction as a longtime instructor of Phil Mickelson, Hal Sutton, Steve Elkington and other professionals. In his 70s, Arnold Palmer dropped by for a lesson.

Jack Nicklaus once said of Burke, “I can’t tell you how many times we were playing golf and he’d say, ‘Jack, how are you going to play from that position?’”

John Joseph Burke Jr. was born Jan. 29, 1923, in Fort Worth, Texas, the eldest of eight siblings, one of whom died young. He grew up in Houston, where his father, who had tied for second in the 1920 U.S. Open, was the pro at the River Oaks Country Club.

Jack Jr. first played golf at age 6. At 12, he shot a 69 on a tough par-71 course. At 16, he qualified for the U.S. Open. But at 17, at the insistence of his mother, he entered Rice Institute (now Rice University) in Houston. He left before he completed his freshman year, however, and became the head pro at the Galveston Country Club.

When World War II broke out, Burke joined the Marine Corps and taught combat conditioning, including judo. He joined the PGA tour after the war (it officially became the PGA Tour in 1968), moved to New York state and also taught golf at clubs in New Jersey and New York City.

He first gained wide attention in 1951, when he recorded two commanding victories in that year’s Ryder Cup competition. That led to his selection to four more Ryder Cup events in the 1950s, in which he compiled a 7-1 match record against his European competition. He was twice Ryder Cup captain, losing in 1957 and winning in 1973.

In 1952, he won the Vardon Trophy, given to the tour leader in scoring average. (His was 70.54.) When Burke was 81, Sutton, the 2004 U.S. Ryder Cup captain, named him an assistant captain.

Burke was elected to the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2000. In 2003, he was voted the recipient of the PGA Tour’s Lifetime Achievement Award and the U.S. Golf Association’s Bob Jones Award. In 2007, he received the PGA Distinguished Service Award.

Burke married Ielene Lang in 1952. She died in the mid-1980s. Burke had turned 60 when he met Robin Moran, a freshman golfer at the University of Texas, in 1984 on the putting green at the Champions Golf Club, where her father had sent her for a golf lesson, according to PGA historian Bob Denney. The couple married in 1987. She was a finalist in the 1997 U.S. women’s amateur championship and was inducted into the Texas Golf Hall of Fame. She survives him.

Burke had a daughter with his second wife and five children with his first, including a son, John J. Burke III, who died in 2017. Complete information on his survivors was not immediately available.

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