He was an eternal Eagle icon and golfing immortal.
He was the oldest living Masters Champion and staged the greatest final-day comeback ever at Augusta National.
He was a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame while contributing to the game’s rich tapestry with a fashion and flare rarely seen and never duplicated.
He was famed as a pre-eminent instructor and one of his game’s great ambassadors. His signature opinions were hard and straight, like the drives off the tee which led to 17 tour wins and two major titles separated by a matter of months.
Within the St. Thomas community, he was raised to the school’s Hall of Honor, always ready and willing to champion the cause for his treasured alma mater.
An original by any standard.
On January 19, Jackie Burke ‘40 passed away just 10 days shy of his 101st birthday. Distinguished player, teacher, club owner, author, influencer, and preserver of the best things in golf. And in many ways, life itself.
Burke was celebrated in 2017 at the annual St. Thomas Auction & Gala for his lifetime of contributions to the game and institution he cherished with equal depth and passion. There was no greater authority to paint the picture of the St. Thomas experience and the Basilian values that served as his bedrock throughout an expansive life.
“They instilled that goodness, discipline, and knowledge, didn’t just talk about it,” Burke said of the St. Thomas priests from his time 85 years ago. “That’s just the way they were. You couldn’t have gotten a better education than what I received from the Basilian Fathers. They were older guys. The rest of us kids didn’t know what the hell we were doing.”
Burke was part of the last St. Thomas graduating class at the original downtown location before the move to the current 4500 Memorial address.
“We didn’t have playing fields,” Burke said. “Played basketball on dirt. Had a handball court and boxing gloves. That was it. And we fought sometimes at lunch.”
Presumably without the gloves.
Fitting given that Burke was never known to pull a punch, verbal or bare-knuckle. He was literally born into the game. Jack Burke Sr. was the teaching pro at River Oaks Country Club and also an accomplished player, the runner-up in the 1920 U.S. Open at Inverness Club.
By age 13, Jackie was running his father’s pro shop and by 20 was a working pro at Galveston Country Club, nurturing a love for the game rivaled only by the loyalty to his faith.
“Why did golf give us 26 rules when God only gave us 10 commandments?” Burke was frequently known to ask with a certain amount of seriousness.
“My dad was from Philadelphia. Anything Catholic was what I was going to be doing. Went to St. Anne Church. Grade school and every Sunday. Always sat in row one. Dad would say that way you get to hear the Mass first.”
Burke Sr. died when Jackie was serving in the Marines during World War II, where he taught combat skills at Miramar near San Diego. After his discharge in 1946, Burke accepted a position at the renowned Winged Foot Golf Club where he was embraced by 1948 Masters champion and acclaimed teaching pro Claude Harmon Sr. (grandfather of brothers Rick ‘95 and Chris Harmon ‘96).
Soon Burke was fully immersed in his outstanding playing career. In 1952, he finished first five times on tour, including four tournament wins in a row, and secured the Vardon Trophy for low scoring average.
In 1956, he orchestrated the grand dramatics at The Masters in the first year the prestigious tournament was televised. His staggering Sunday rally from eight shots down defeated Ken Venturi to stake his first major title. Burke then captured the PGA Championship to earn PGA Player of the Year.
Burke followed by striking his boldest move. He left the full-time tour at age 35 and founded Champions Golf Club with three-time Masters winner and close friend Jimmy Demaret in their hometown Houston. Burke’s golfing cathedral, along with Pinehurst Resort’s No. 2 course, are the only two clubs to have hosted both a men’s and women’s U.S. Open, a Ryder Cup Match, and a Tour Championship, with Champions adding the U.S. Amateur in 1993 (the year before Tiger Woods would win three in a row).
Burke refused to dwell on past performances while maintaining vivid memories of his iconic times, including five U.S. Ryder Cup teams with the likes of Ben Hogan and Sam Snead. Burke captained an American squad that included Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, and Billy Casper to a victory at Muirfield Village Golf Club.
His thunderous tough-love instructionals and theories on competitive nature were later cast upon numerous top-tier touring pros including Ben Crenshaw, Steve Elkington, and Hal Sutton, plus hundreds of anonymous club members and rising juniors simply striving for improvement.
But there was so much more to Burke than his playing and mentoring credentials. He fervently drained from his vast reservoir of wisdom when asked why he retained such deep connections to his beloved St. Thomas, including a multi-year stretch welcoming the school’s annual tournament to Champions to benefit tuition assistance and Eagle Athletics.
“My father always told me to leave more than two footprints on this world,” Burke says.
In 2021, Burke pragmatically parted with his prized possession, selling Champions to his son Mike and ending a 64-year ownership. Among the changes, Mike’s son and Jack’s grandson Dean became the new club president and public face of the organization.
“It’s just something I had to do in the interest of amateur golf and the interest of our members,” Burke said at the time. “Don’t be bringing yesterday forward. You can’t do it. You have got to move on.”
Burke forever made his mark by never backing down, whether an argument, a conviction, or a $2 Nassau press. Yet the World Golf Hall of Famer remained a traditionalist at heart. He never found a better twosome than with wife Robin, the former President of Champions and a significant player in her own right. She was inducted into the Texas Golf of Fame in 2016 after a stellar career that included the 1990 and 1991 Texas Women’s Amateur titles and a second-place result at the 1997 U.S. Women’s Amateur.
No couple in America felt more zeal for golf than the Burkes, every day, working to grow the game, teach it, and play it. Even in his advanced years, Jackie’s advice was sought and he usually delivered succinctly, even painfully.
And Burke was equally commanding and direct when sharing his respect and reverence for St. Thomas.
“Kids today are lucky if they get a Basilian education similar to mine,” Burke said. “That’s where the value is. The rest are amateurs compared to the Basilians. Don’t think anyone can touch them. I just hope the Basilians don’t run out of priests.”
Among the honorary pallbearers at Burke’s burial Mass were Elkington, Sutton, 1981 U.S. Amateur champion Nathaniel Crosby (sixth son of Bing), and multi-platinum-selling recording artist Clay Walker. His stirring rendition of “Amazing Grace” awed an emotional gathering at St. Ignatius Loyola Catholic Church in Spring.
The Lord has promised good to me
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.
Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
Catholic. Basilian. Teaching Goodness, Discipline and Knowledge since 1900.