They came from across Texas. Hell, they came from across the country, 900 strong, to gather in the ballroom of a Houston hotel on Feb. 29. Butch Harmon surveyed the crowd and peered down to his right at the roastee, the white-headed guy with the bright smile. "How many people," Harmon said to Jack Burke Jr., "do you think you've pissed off all these years? They all showed up!"
With his penchant for impolitic opinions and profane language, it would be heresy to declare Burke the pope of Houston golf. Still, in the 42rd year of his reign over Champions Golf Club, which he and Jimmy Demaret built, Burke's stature in the nation's fourth-largest city is as clear as his ice-blue eyes. ("More ice than blue," Ben Crenshaw said at the roast.) With apologies to local resident and golf nut George Bush, Burke is Houston's First Golfer.
That's no mere honorific, not in the town that kicked off the Tour's Texas swing last week with the Shell Houston Open. From the University of Houston, which has produced enough golfers to win 16 NCAA championships, to Jeff Maggert, who grew up on the TPC at The Woodlands course where the tournament was played, to Colin Montgomerie, a Houston Baptist alum who committed to play in the event, then pulled out at the last minute to search for his missing putting stroke on the European tour, to an array of late champions like Demaret, Jay Hebert and Dave Marr, you could pick an all-star team from Houston and give one stroke a side to just about any other city out there.
One look at the dais at the roast told you all you needed to know about Burke's place in the game. Steve Elkington, Phil Mickelson and Hal Sutton, who among them have won 38 tournaments, including four Players Championships and two PGAs, all owe a goodly chunk of their success to Burke's teaching. Miller Barber, Don January and Mike Souchak fell victim at one time or another to the magical putting stroke that brought Burke 17 Tour victories, two of them majors. Crenshaw, like Burke a Masters champ and victorious Ryder Cup captain, was there, as were the four Harmon brothers, all of them renowned teachers. "There's no one I know," Butch Harmon said that night, "who loves the game of golf more than Jackie Burke does or has done more for the game, especially for the wonderful town of Houston."
The 77-year-old Burke has been around golf so long that he is godfather to one of Bing Crosby's children and one of Elkington's. Last week, when Robert Allenby of Australia took advantage of Craig Stadler's turncoat putter to win on the fourth playoff hole, Burke was too busy at his beloved Champions to drive the 20 miles north to The Woodlands. On Saturday morning, with the blueprints for overhauling Champions' Jackrabbit course folded loosely on his desk, Burke was eager to get out of his office and onto the course. "You've got to keep updating," he said. If a top-shelf championship has been staged in Texas over the last generation, more often than not it has been at Champions' Cypress Creek course. In the 1990s alone Champions hosted three season-ending Tour Championships and two USGA championships—the '93 Amateur and the '98 Women's Mid-Amateur.
That the USGA came to Champions at all is a tribute to Burke's tenacity. Every chance he gets, Burke voices his distaste for the USGA, which he describes as an organization unaware that golf is played in the South. Burke and Demaret first lured the USGA to Champions for the '69 U.S. Open, won by Orville Moody. When all that June humidity melted the starch in their shirts, USGA officials decreed Houston too hot for an Open, and they've never brought it back. Houston in August, however, was deemed appropriate for an Amateur. "Isn't that unbelievable?" Burke says. "As if people don't play in hot weather. I've resigned myself that the USGA guys are going to sit over a museum in New Jersey and that's going to be it."
Sutton, hotter than a jalape�o for the last two months, credits Burke for leading him out of the golfing wilderness in the mid-1990s. "He's so blatantly honest," Sutton says. "I only talk to him when I feel like I need some of what he's got to rub on me. He's a psychologist about the swing. He talks about having fight in what you do. He has told me, 'Be prepared to get it up and down from the hardest place on the 1st hole,' or, 'If they put you and me in a rubber room, you're going down.' " It's no accident that Sutton displayed that attitude in holding off Tiger Woods at the Players in March and Andrew Magee at Greensboro two weeks ago.
Though former University of Houston players such as Bruce Lietzke—who made his 23rd and, he says, final appearance at the Houston Open last week and tied for 17th—and John Mahaffey have been a significant presence throughout the tournament's history, no Cougar has won it. Neither has Maggert, who moved to The Woodlands as a 12-year-old in 1976. "Back then the tournament was run on a smaller scale," he says. "It was easy to come hang out, and somebody would put you to work carrying a sign or in concessions."
At 15, Maggert graduated to caddying for Tour rookie Scott Simpson. "I waited until I was on the Tour a few years before I asked him if he remembered," Maggert says. "Scott looked at me and said, 'Man, I didn't know I was getting that old.' "
Maggert has won three state Opens at The Woodlands. His Houston Open history has been more heartbreaking. In his rookie season, 1991, he led after 54 holes only to shoot an 80 in the final round. On three other occasions he held the lead on Sunday, and each time he finished second. Last week Maggert also tied for 17th, five shots back, thanks to three double bogeys. Then again, considering he had to work in his golf around the four Little League games of his son Matt, 11, and his stepson, Phillip, 8, he may have been distracted. Ah, the comforts of home.