Tulsa, Okla.He’s the last of a rare breed, the last of the old pros from the Hogan-Snead era, and the last of the golf philosophers to tell it like it really is. Still, Jack Burke Jr., with wavy silver hair and a boyish face at 84, couldn’t understand why he was named to receive the P.G.A. Distinguished Service Award last night on the eve of the 89th P.G.A. Championship at Southern Hills.
“I’ve never given service to anybody,” he said. “To me, service is a military term.”
That’s understandable. Burke served in the Marines before he won the Masters and the P.G.A. Championship in 1956, but as the owner of Champions Golf Club outside Houston for nearly half a century, he has served both golf and golfers. And at Tuesday night’s champions dinner, he served notice that Tiger Woods still had a way to go just to tie Jack Nicklaus.
“I told Tiger, ‘When you have four more kids, tell me,’ ” Burke said, alluding to the recent birth of Woods’s daughter. “To tie Jack, he needs six more majors and four more kids. Jack was a magical person, winning those 18 majors between running around to all his kids’ games.”
In an hour’s conversation yesterday involving a scattering of firm opinions, Burke remembered how Ben Hogan predicted 20 years ago how a “big man with the touch of a violinist” would someday dominate golf. At 6 feet 1 inch and a ripped 185 pounds, Woods has emerged as that big man, winning two P.G.A. Championships and 12 majors at age 31, but Burke sees flaws.
“He doesn’t stay down in his swing; he comes out of it,” Burke said, referring to Woods’s occasional wide-right tee shots. “He doesn’t think his Ryder Cup record will be on his gravestone.”
Yes, the Ryder Cup, another burr under Burke’s saddle. He was a two-time Ryder Cup captain with a 1-1 record, and in 2004 at Oakland Hills outside Detroit, he was Hal Sutton’s assistant as the Europeans routed the Americans, 18 ½-9 ½. Including last year’s victory in Ireland, the Europeans have won five of the last six matches. Woods’s record is 10-13-2.
“The Europeans have a certain recklessness about them now, a feeling of entitlement,” Burke said. “And when you get the commerce side away from the art side, you’re going to get beat.”
To Burke, golf is an art, and all the commerce — the various dinners and functions early in Ryder Cup week — detract from the job at hand for the Americans. He remembered his first Ryder Cup match in 1951, an alternate-shot duel with his partner, Clayton Heafner.
“Heafner was the meanest man in golf; he hated people who could putt,” Burke recalled. “I made a big putt early, and he growled, ‘You knew you could make that putt.’ I said, ‘Wait a minute, I’m on your side.’ ”
Burke’s secret to success, and to serenity, is that “I’ve never worked for anybody.” As a touring pro, he was on his own, and he’s been on his own ever since. Long before the Champions Tour was a haven for golfers 50 or older, he and his mentor, the three-time Masters winner Jimmy Demaret, built Champions Golf Club, where Orville Moody was the surprise winner of the 1969 United States Open.
“I’m the president of both the club and the pro shop,” he said. “I’ve got 133 employees. And that word owner — that’s ‘owe’ before the ‘ner.’ ”
He’s not the club pro at Champions, where you need a handicap of 15 or lower to be a member, but touring pros often stop by for his inspection.
“Guys can’t fix themselves, it’s constant change,” he said. “One guy told me he was working on a power fade and I said, ‘What’s that, a sports drink?’ Years ago, John Revolta, Toney Penna, Tommy Armour, if they were on the range, you’d say, ‘Come over here and watch me.’ If a guy was your friend, you’d watch him. One time Hogan asked me: ‘Why are you helping that guy? We’ve got enough guys that can play.’ ”
With Burke, as with any golf professor, the swing is the thing.
“There’s a swing in you,” he said, “but you’ve got to get it out of you. You can have golf thoughts — timing, balance, aim — but you can’t go out there with a manual: what page is this shot on? And one guy said to me, ‘What would Hogan do here?’ and I told him, ‘Before we get to Hogan, let’s stop toppin’ it.’ ”
Even at 84, he’s not about to stop teaching.
“Retire?” he said. “I know one guy who retired, he used to be the head of an oil company. He tells me that screwdrivers are on sale at Home Depot. He has to go make his wife a chair. No thanks.”