IT was at one of the four Tour Championships hosted by the Champions Club in Houston around the turn of the century. Which one is not important. What matters is that Phil Mickelson was putting poorly and asked former Masters winner and Champions founder, Jackie Burke, for a lesson. Then it happened. Just after golf’s greatest-ever left-hander missed a putt on the practice green, he turned and was immediately hit by a flying rugby tackle from the former martial arts teacher.
“Every missed putt should hurt a little,” said a smiling Burke – who will turn 92 in January – as he helped the discombobulated Mickelson to his feet.
For all that he has an obvious tendency towards eccentricity, Burke has long been one of the most respected figures in American golf, a man full of wisdom and wit. Not for nothing has he twice been his country’s Ryder Cup captain, the first of those occasions a rare loss to Great Britain & Ireland at Lindrick in 1957; the second 16 years later at Muirfield, until this week the only time the biennial battle has visited Scotland.
Even now, well into old age, Burke drives himself every day to the club and course he built in partnership with another Masters champion, the late Jimmy Demaret. It is a place that reeks golf and only golf – no coincidence given Burke’s strong views on the game that has dominated his long life. His is a rare philosophy in a nation where the more diverse facilities of the typical country club rule.
“I believe that if you lock 100 bulldogs inside a yard, you’re going to wind up with some funny looking bulldogs,” Burke once told Golf Digest. “I believe in diversity. I don’t lock the gates. I want all kinds of people from all walks of life, with one thing in common – a sincere appreciation for golf and what it should be. I liken us to Stanford University or Yale or Harvard. They don’t accept D students academically and we don’t accept people with a D average in golf.”
On that subject, Burke has long been making straight As, although he looks back on Lindrick with a shake of the head.
“We had a few problems off the course that week,” he says with a smile. “One guy’s wife hit him with her shoe and split his hand open. Another came knocking at my door in the middle of the night after his wife had run him out of their room. And poor old Ted Kroll’s ass was so red he could hardly walk after a bout of food poisoning. So my guys were going down in flames.
“As a result, I had to put myself back in for the singles. But Peter Mills made birdies on three of the first five holes and I never could catch him. He was making putts from here to there for pars. He putted his butt off. That was the only point I ever lost in the Ryder Cup.
“I had a helluva team at Muirfield though. There was Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Billy Casper, Lee Trevino and Tom Weiskopf. That’s not a bad start.”
Indeed, after a shaky beginning – they were three points down after the first day – the powerful US squad cruised to a comfortable six-point victory. And, as is his wont, Burke even had time for a wee bit of fun along the way.
“Dave Hill came to me one morning and said he wasn’t playing well enough to be on the team,” says Burke. “I told him that was fine but if he wasn’t going to play he should go get all the pin positions and we would go have breakfast afterwards. So he did. He went all the way round, all 18 holes. I laughed so much at that.
“I knew Dave could play though. I was just messing with him. I needed him, too. I never wanted to pair two guys of the same ability. When that happens, they tend to tread on one another. I always liked to put rookies with the more experienced guys. Which is why Dave ended up playing with Arnold. They worked out pretty well as I recall.”
Overall, Burke’s style of captaincy was in marked contrast to, say, the in-depth statistical analysis employed by the current European skipper, Paul McGinley. Rather than pore endlessly over the numbers, the Texan relied more on instinct.
“The captain is not very important if I’m honest,” he asserts. “There are no real decisions to be made. None. Zero. You just pair the guys who you think will do OK. But it’s all guessing. Golf is not a game you can predict like that. All I really worried about was them turning up on time to play.
“I’ve never been a tactical person. I never wanted my guys thinking about anything other than what they were doing. I told them not to worry about the Ryder Cup matches – just do what you always do. And, if you wouldn’t bet your wallet on a shot, do not try it. Play shots you would bet everything in your pocket on. That was as much advice as I ever gave them.
“I did tell Jack and Arnie to stand close to the British players on the first hole so that they would be thinking more about their grips and swings than the shots they had to hit. I knew they would be intimidated. Hogan was good with that stuff too. He was called “The Hawk” for a reason. He knew when a guy was feeling pressure. One day he asked me if I had seen what one young fellah was doing. I hadn’t. ‘He’s taking three waggles instead of two,’ he said. ‘He’s out of his routine.’ Ben was very perceptive.”
As you might expect, Burke is more than a little perplexed by some of the attitudes displayed by the present generation of players. The son of a club professional who grew up during the Great Depression, his was not an easy childhood or early adulthood – “I couldn’t get in the clubhouse because I was an employee’s son. I was shooting dice at nine years old. I was a tough guy when I was young.”
He’s not exactly soft these days either. A decade ago, Burke was enlisted as an assistant Ryder Cup captain to Hal Sutton in a losing cause at Oakland Hills. It’s safe to say he made his presence felt behind the scenes.
“I told Hal not to put Phil Mickelson with Tiger Woods,” he says. “But he did it anyway. Talking to Sutton is like talking to General Patton – he don’t hear you. So they lost every point. Which is what I thought would happen. They were treading on one another. You need to put leaders with followers.
“Afterwards I watched Phil and Tiger playing on those electronic machines. Losing didn’t seem to mean too much to them. If they felt that way, why did they play? It was shocking to me.
“Losing never crossed my mind in 1973. But these days our college kids don’t play match play. They have no experience of what they are doing. That’s bad in any business. So they’re rookies who just don’t know what they’re doing. And in the Ryder Cup they are under so much pressure to play good that they don’t play good.
“We had the PGA Championship at match play back in my day. So it was different. Hell, our guys don’t even seem to know the rules in match play. Growing up, all they play is stroke play. So how match play is played is foreign to them.”
Still, culture shocks are nothing new to Burke. At Muirfield he encountered the legendary – and not in a good way – club secretary Paddy Hamner.
“I loved the golf course, a wonderful place,” says Burke. “But they had some tough dudes there. That secretary guy was unbelievable. They gave me a young boy to get whatever I needed, what we call a gopher. He had a friend – they were from Ireland – and one day the cops wouldn’t let them on to the range. I asked the officer if I could talk to my guy. He said, ‘just for a moment sir’. Man, they were so tough.”
Nah. Not really. Not like Jackie Burke. He really is tough. Ask Phil.