‘It’s Always Opening Day’: Golf’s Oldest Major Champion Jack Burke Jr. Turns 100
By Bob Denney, PGA Historian Emeritus
When reminded that today marks his centennial birthday, Jack Burke Jr. didn’t miss a beat, dismissing another milestone as not only golf’s oldest LivingMajor champion, but the eldest of all.
“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. There are celebrations everywhere about an opening. Well, that’s daily, and I’ve had 100 years of it.”
A Marine is a PGA Professional
Burke, the oldest child and last survivor in a family of eight, has maintained a simple, yet focused, routine. Born in Fort Worth, Burke began playing golf at the age of seven and attended Rice University in 1941. Burke was promoted to PGA Professional at Galveston Country Club a year later. He then served 1942-46 as a Marine Corps officer at Air Station Miramar where he taught combat skills for Marines heading to the Pacific during World War II.
After being initially interested in work in Texas oil fields, Burke returned to golf after the war. He was a PGA Teaching Professional at the Hollywood Golf Club in Deal in 1947. New JerseyThis is followed by an assistant position at Winged Foot He was mentored by Claude Harmon. He would be the PGA Head Professional at Metropolis Country Club, near Detroit, in 1948. White Plains in 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. was the architect of River Oaks Country Club, Houston. He set the example for his sons to follow as Champions.
“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.”
Golf Career: A Decorated Career
Burke is the third-oldest living PGA Member, and is currently No. With 75.5 years, Burke is now No. 2 in PGA Membership. He has outlived PGA/Masters Champion Gene Sarazen (97 and 3 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.
He and Demaret created Champions Golf Club in 1957. Today, it has over 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. He was inducted into PGA Hall of Fame on 25th April 1975 and World Golf Hall of Fame on 20th February 2000. He was also the 2007 recipient of the PGA Distinguished Service Award.
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 with organizing the Burke Birthday Bash for 100 years. 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. Jim Crane, a longtime friend and Houston Astros owner, brought the World Series trophy for everyone 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 were married in 1987, had a child, Meghan Harrison. She and her husband, along with two young daughters, live just a few miles from 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.”
Her family moved closer to her parents, which allowed her daughters to remember their grandfather.
“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 Golf Major Champions
Jack Burke Jr. 100
Betsy Rawls – 94
Don January – 1993
Kathy Cornelius – 90
Marlene Hagge – 88
Joyce Ziske – 88
Gary Player – 1987
Sir Bob Charles – 85
Bobby Nichols – (86)
Tommy Aaron – 85