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Jack Burke Jr. Wants to Bring Great Golf to Houston

Even in his upper 90s, the legendary player's work is far from over.

By Timothy Malcolm April 28, 2021 Published in the Spring 2021 issue of Houstonia Magazine

On a rainy Monday in December, 97-year-old Jack Burke Jr. offered 25-year-old A Lim Kim a membership to Champions Golf Club. Without context, the transaction occurring 23 miles north of downtown Houston might not seem important, but this was historic: Burke, the oldest living winner of the famed Masters tournament, was giving the young Korean player who had just taken the 2020 U.S. Women’s Open the highest honor he can bestow. 

The tournament had been unlike any other. It was delayed for six months because of Covid-19, so there were no crowds or cameras as Kim, sporting a face mask, made a furious final-day push to the top ranking. Still, despite the face masks and the lack of spectators, the 2020 U.S. Women’s Open was a banner weekend for Champions, but its co-founder, the godfather of modern Houston golf who’d spent decades building to this moment, was already thinking about what would come next.

“I want to build on this national event,” he says. “Houston is a good golf town, and it needs to have more events like this.”

As always, Burke, a living legend in “the royal and ancient game,” is focused on the win. And a victory for Champions is a victory for him. “I always play to try to win,” he explains. That’s how he’s come this far, after all.

The Burke family have been fixtures on both the Houston and the national golf scene for roughly a century. Burke’s father, Jack Burke Sr., was a successful golfer in his own right who turned professional around 1907 and finished second in the 1920 U.S. Open. Burke was born in 1923 in Fort Worth, and a couple of years later the family moved to Houston, where his father settled in as the club pro at River Oaks Country Club shortly after the club opened. Back then golf was still a sport for the Bayou City’s moneyed denizens. “It was only Hermann Park and Houston Country Club where there were wealthy people,” Burke says. “When River Oaks went up there would be a competitive thing with them, but on the money side.”

From an early age, though, Burke felt there was more to the sport than a game played while businessmen made deals. Burke started at 9, happy to be outdoors learning the game his dad loved so much.

After graduating from St. Thomas High School, he went pro in 1941. His career was paused during World War II—in 1942 he joined the Marine Corps and spent the war serving as a combat trainer in San Diego—but he was back on the links by 1946 and won his first PGA Tour event in 1950. Over the decade he quickly became one of U.S. golf’s most accomplished players, notching victories at multiple tournaments, including the 1952 Houston Open at Memorial Park. After winning his iconic green jacket at the Augusta National Golf Club in 1956 (the same year he took the PGA Championship, another of the four major tournaments in the men’s game), he was a star in golfing circles. But after noting on tour how the U.S. Open and PGA Championship were always played on northern courses like Merion and Oakmont in Pennsylvania—never in Houston—Burke was inspired to come home and start a new project.

Growing up, Burke had watched his father attempt to raise the popularity of golf at River Oaks, “but they went into building a tennis court.” What Burke wanted was a club for golf alone, a place that would serve as a training ground for top golfers and host major tournaments. While the Houston Open had already become a popular local competition, Burke was intent on building a club that would further draw the national spotlight.

There were obstacles, of course. For one, only two of the men’s and women’s majors are hosted at different American courses annually, and the competition for those slots is fierce. Typically, the PGA and LPGA favor courses with an established track record, plenty of space for fans and media, and nearby accommodations. It takes money, a reputation, and commitment even to be a serious contender for one of those spots.

With all that in mind, in 1957 Burke partnered with his dad’s old assistant Jimmy Demaret, a Houston native and three-time Masters champion himself, and founded Champions Golf Club. The first course, Cypress Creek, opened in 1959, and the second, Jackrabbit, came in 1964.

Jack Burke Jr. hits a shot on the second fairway during a round of the Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta, Ga., April 3, 1959. Burke, who plays out of Kiamesha Lake, N.Y., carded a 71 yesterday for a tie for second place.

In the decades since, Burke has worked doggedly to promote the club, which is dedicated solely to golf—no tennis courts or other distractions from the game, he notes proudly. So far Champions has hosted the Tour Championship of the PGA Tour (in 1997, ’99, 2001, and ’03); the 1993 U.S. Amateur Championship; the 1998 and 2017 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur Championship; and both the 1967 Ryder Cup and the 1969 U.S. Open, along with the 2020 U.S. Women’s Open.

Hosting smaller tournaments helps set the stage for major play; if they hadn’t taken on the Women’s Mid-Amateur, the U.S. Women’s Open might not ever have come to Champions, Burke explains. But hosting majors has been elusive for Texas clubs, with the last men’s major being that ’69 U.S. Open. Why? Mainly because the PGA prefers the historic northern clubs and picture-perfect Florida and California courses like TPC Sawgrass and Pebble Beach Golf Links, respectively, but change may be afoot. PGA of America’s national headquarters will move to Frisco in 2022. That means more eyes will be on Texas courses, and Champions aims to be at the front of the queue, Burke says.

Champions has a leg up because it’s where some of the greatest golfers already come to play with, and learn from, Burke. Tiger Woods won a Tour Championship here, and Ben Crenshaw, Ben Hogan, David Duval, and Arnold Palmer all took their hacks at Champions. Phil Mickelson came to Champions just for putting lessons from Burke.

With the reputation it’s carved out for itself, the club has a good future ahead. Its founder, who is approaching his 100th birthday, envisions even bigger successes on the horizon. The Women’s Open went well, despite the pandemic; he’s hoping Champions will score another women’s major, or that the PGA will give Burke’s club renewed attention. There’s still work to do to bring great golf to Houston, but it’s an endeavor Burke says is well worth the effort. Nobody can doubt that in Burke’s presence. He talks about his love of the sport—he still gets out on the green to hit a little to this day—in tones that make it seem like he’s talking about life itself.

“I know I’m going to hit good shots and bad shots,” he says. “They’re going to put you in a grind with anybody else, so I just try to run this thing and make sure we don’t go broke.”

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