Veterans Day Has Special Meaning for Jack Burke Jr. November 11, 2017 | Houston, Texas By Lisa D. Mickey

Before winning two majors and creating Champions G.C., hall-of-famer Jack Burke Jr. served four years in the Marines during World War II. (USGA/Darren Carroll)

U.S. Women's Mid-Amateur

Jack Burke Jr.’s office at Champions Golf Club is brimming with a historic collection of golf memorabilia, ranging from his 16 PGA Tour wins to photos of longtime pals Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, both of whom shared Burke’s love of the game.

But there are also some subtle salutes in his treasure trove, including his four-year stint in the U.S. Marine Corps, for which Burke served from 1942-1946.

While the Fort Worth, Texas, native turned professional in 1940 at age 17, he felt a call to duty when America entered World War II. He put his golf career on hold, enlisted and headed to San Diego for basic training.

“My dad wasn’t a hunter and I never even saw a gun before I joined the Marine Corps,” said Burke, 94, the 1956 Masters and PGA champion who co-founded Champions Golf Club, site of this week’s 31st U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur Championship, with fellow major champion Jimmy Demaret in 1957.

He also had never experienced the recoil that came from an M1 Garand rifle. And he learned pretty quickly that hand-grenade training was about as far from the caddie yard as a Texas golfer could be.

“I didn’t know that rifle would push your shoulder back when you fired it,” said Burke, who was 5-foot-9 and 150 pounds when he enlisted.

But as always, the feisty Texan held his ground. Demonstrating unusual poise for an 18-year-old, Burke was a quick study in the martial arts and soon began teaching the skills to his fellow Marines.

“They asked me to help with teaching martial arts because, as a golfer, I’m familiar with timing and balance -- and both are very important,” said Burke, who also earned a black belt in karate through the Marine Corps.

Burke also learned to instruct soldiers in hand-to-hand combat, judo and how to fight with a bayonet. And it was the lithe Texan who was tapped to teach pilots at Camp Pendleton how to defend themselves and survive if they were shot down over the Pacific Ocean.

“I had been instructing golf all my life because my dad taught me how to teach,” said Burke. “So teaching these other things was not a problem. I just went wherever they sent me and did what they told me to do.”

During World War II, U.S. aircraft carriers were frequent targets of kamikaze suicide attacks by Japanese fighter pilots. When those planes exploded on a ship deck, lives were imperiled.

Jack Burke Jr. served his country during World War II. (Courtesy Jack Burke Jr.)

“The only way off an aircraft carrier is to jump 70 feet,” said Burke. “So they created a jump school in the Mojave Desert and they had me running it and teaching pilots how to leap off a platform.”

One day at Marine Corps Air Station Camp Miramar near San Diego, Burke was talking to a fellow soldier in their bunks. He had learned that an American plane had dropped a bomb on Nagasaki and Burke asked the soldier where that was located. The soldier pointed to a map of Japan.

“Little did I know that World War II would be over in a few months and that I would be heading back home to Houston,” said Burke, who never served abroad.

But heading into the civilian world would prove its own challenges for Burke, who made $70 a month while serving in the military. He left the Marines with $300 in his pocket, which wasn’t much to launch a professional golf career.

So Burke borrowed money and traveled to St. Louis for a tournament, only to miss the cut. A friend helped him connect with a member at Hollywood Golf Club in Deal, N.J., where he landed his first job as an assistant pro.

Burke later became an assistant pro at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y., under the tutelage of Claude Harmon, before getting the head professional job at Metropolis Country Club in nearby White Plains.

In 1952, Burke won four consecutive PGA Tour events and claimed the Vardon Trophy for low scoring average. Four years later, he won a pair of majors and was named PGA Player of the Year.

The following year, he used the same savvy he developed as a dice-playing, 9-year-old caddie who often wagered his 89-cents-per-round fee at River Oaks, by partnering with Houston native and 31-time PGA Tour winner Demaret to open Champions Golf Club. The club has gone on to host some of the game’s most prestigious competitions, including the 1969 U.S. Open and 1993 U.S. Amateur, and will be the site of the 2020 U.S. Women’s Open.

“Champions Golf Club was a big gamble for both Jimmy Demaret and me,” he said with a sparkle in his eyes. “When we built this course, golf was called cow-pasture pool. We only had ranches and farms around here.

“But there’s a certain recklessness to being good, whether it’s in golf or business or whatever. It isn’t always a cinch. You win and lose.”

What golf taught Burke was focus. And he used it to beat his buddies in friendly gaming, in training soldiers how to fight and in honing the skills that would, in 2000, earn him induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame.

During Veterans Day, Burke’s American flag will be snapping proudly in the steady Texas wind to honor those who have served while top 25-and-older female amateurs tee off in the U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur.

“There are a lot of people who have lost kids defending this country,” Burke said. “We need to remember them.”

And if he were a young man again facing today’s uncertain world, what would he do?

“I would serve again,” he said. “I would do whatever it takes to defend our country.”

Lisa D. Mickey is a Florida-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA. 

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