Jack Burke, golfer who won the 1956 Masters thanks to his putting prowess – obituary

Jack Burke at the Masters in 1956
Jack Burke at the Masters in 1956 - Augusta National/Getty Images
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Jack  Burke, who has died aged 100, was a golfer who was a formidable opponent in the 1950s; he once had four tournament victories in successive weeks, a record that still stands, and he won the 1956 US Masters with a display of peerless putting. “He was always magic on the greens,” Arnold Palmer recalled, “but especially that Sunday.”

John Joseph Burke was born into a Catholic family on January 29 1923 in Forth Worth, Texas. His father Jack was the club professional at the River Oaks Country Club in Houston, and the boy took up the sport aged seven. He attended Rice University but soon left to become a club pro in Galveston, still only 19.

Then in 1942, feeling the call of duty, he enlisted in the US Marine Corps and spent the war years teaching combat skills: “I had been instructing golf all my life because my dad taught me how to teach,” he recalled. “So teaching these other things was not a problem. They asked me to help with martial arts because, as a golfer, I’m familiar with timing and balance.” Burke became a karate black belt himself during his time in the military.

Given that aircraft carriers were frequent targets for kamikaze attacks, Burke also taught escape tactics: “The only way off an aircraft carrier is to jump 70 feet,” he said. “So they created a jump school in the Mojave Desert and they had me teaching pilots how to leap off a platform.”

At war’s end he briefly considered heading for the oilfields of Texas, but instead took up a succession of club-pro posts in New York state and New Jersey, and in 1949 finished third at the Long Beach Open. He began to accrue tournament wins and top-10 finishes, and in 1952 set his record of winning four events in a row, three of them by six strokes or more, and the other in a three-way play-off.

But his greatest achievements came four years later. He went into the final round of the rain-sodden, windblown 1956 Masters eight strokes behind the leader, Ken Venturi, but played his way into contention.

Burke, second left, is congratulated after his Masters victory by, l-r, the Masters chairman Clifford Roberts, the previous year's winner Cary Middlecoff, and the great Bobby Jones
Burke, second left, is congratulated after his Masters victory by, l-r, the Masters chairman Clifford Roberts, the previous year's winner Cary Middlecoff, and the great Bobby Jones, founder of Augusta National - Augusta National/Getty Images

On the 17th hole he had a 30ft downhill put to make a lead-tying birdie. He hit the ball as softly as he dared, and thought he had left it short – but, he recalled: “A big gust of wind came up and took the ball with it. That ball kept rolling and rolling and rolling until it dropped in the centre of the cup. It was a miracle.” When Venturi made a bogey, Burke took the lead, which he held until the end. He would, in time, become the oldest living Masters champion.

Three months later he won his second major, the US PGA Championship, and he went on to accrue 19 tournament victories in all, as well as appearing in consecutive five Ryder Cups in the 1950s, once as playing captain; he also served as non-playing captain in 1973.

Burke’s brilliant teaching was lauded as much as his own playing skills. In 1957 he had created Champions Country Club near Houston, and a succession of good and great players made the trip to receive his putting wisdom – though he eschewed sports psychology, saying: “In my day, our sports psychologist was Jack Daniels.”

Burke at his Champions Country Club near Houston in 2004
Burke at his Champions Country Club near Houston in 2004 - Darren Carroll/Getty Images

Phil Mickelson for one, credited Burke with transforming his short game, while Jack Nicklaus recalled how once, during a practice session at the US Open, Burke roared: “Nicklaus, what the heck are you doing putting like that?”

“I had only won 10 majors by then and he’s giving me this. But that’s Jack Burke. One of my favourite all-time guys.”

Jack Burke married Ielene Lang in 1952. She died in the 1980s, and a few years later he married Robin Moran, a golf scholarship student 40 years his junior who had gone to him for putting lessons (she would go on to captain America’s Curtis Cup team). She survives him with their daughter and four of his five children from his first marriage; a son predeceased him.

Jack Burke, born January 29 1923, died January 19 2024

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