It was 55 years ago when lifelong friends Jack Burke Jr. and Jimmy Demaret decided to create a golf club in Houston. Champions Club is what it would come to be called, and it has seen its share of golf history.
The American team routed the Great Britain squad in the 1967 Ryder Cup, back when that was largely routine and the Europeans were not yet part of the festivities. Arnold Palmer won a PGA Tour event at Champions in 1966. Orville Moody, better known as “Sarge,” won the 1969 U.S. Open at Champions. An amateur named Ben Crenshaw won the Southern Amateur there in 1973, and John Harris won the U.S. Amateur in 1993. Tiger Woods won one of the four Tour Championships played there, as did David Duval.
But it is the Champions Cup Invitational that really captures the essence of the club. Started in 1961, this event, played last week, is one of the premiere four-ball events in America. It’s a 54-hole mid-am tournament played on the famed Cypress Creek course. Players are required to walk and, until recently, were required to wear slacks as well. Names like Downing Gray, John Grace, Randy Sonnier, Mike Rice and Kevin Marsh appear on the winner’s trophy.
Two things contribute to the specialness of this event. First is the golf course. Chances are you have never heard of the architect – Ralph Plummer – but that’s okay, since most people suspect he got quite a bit of “help” from Burke and Demaret. One of two courses at Champions, the par-71 track stretches out to just over 7,300 yards. Its distinctive features include tree-lined fairways and very large, very swift greens. On the so-called “walk in the park” test, Cypress Creek is a wonderful stroll.
The other distinctive feature of this event, unmatched anywhere, is the co-founder, frequently referred to simply as Jackie. Since the beginning, Burke has been omnipresent at the Champions Cup, patrolling the practice tee, giving tips on the putting green, dispensing wisdom and telling stories at breakfast and lunch. Imagine entering a four-ball event and getting to spend time with a living legend. It only happens at the Champions Cup.
Jackie Burke is sui generis in golf, one of a kind. He is opinionated but always thoughtful and insightful. To borrow from Hollywood, don’t ask Jackie a question unless you can handle the truth. And the truth, in this game, is often at odds with conventional wisdom or industry dogma. Burke, refreshingly, doesn’t do politically correct. Texas golf writer Melanie Hauser perhaps wrote it best several years ago when Burke became a Memorial Tournament honoree. “He’s like the gruff uncle with a heart of gold who isn’t afraid to get in your face and tell you what you need to hear.”
He came from the caddie yard, like Hogan and Nelson, and found his way to the World Golf Hall of Fame. Burke won 17 times on Tour, including The Masters and the PGA Championship in the magical year of 1956, a year in which he was named player of the year. He played on five Ryder Cup teams and captained two; he went 7-1 as a player. He’s won a ton of awards, perhaps none greater than the USGA’s Bob Jones Award in 2004.
He created and successfully ran Champions Club, one of the very first golf-only facilities in America, at a time when many were skeptical. Champions is a reflection of Burke; it is a players club, plain and simple. Head golf professional Tad Weeks tells the story of a new member who showed up and couldn’t find his name in the championship flight for an event. When asked what his handicap was, the newbie replied, somewhat proudly, “Six.” Well, pointed out Weeks, that would put you in the sixth flight. The new member was astounded.
Today, Champions has 725 members, and the vast majority are better players. In fact, Champions may be the only club in America that has a handicap requirement for admission. If you aren’t 14 or better, you need not apply. And it’s these members who make the Champions Cup work. As Weeks points out, without the 70 or 80 volunteers, there is no tournament.
Most of all, Jackie Burke is a teacher of golf – and of life. And he has real concerns about the state of the game. He finds most of it to be too expensive, which means that kids are not getting the opportunity to play, which jeopardizes the future of the game. He thinks today’s touring professionals are overpaid and not giving enough back to the game. He doesn’t have a lot of time for today’s pro posse of instructor, psychologist, trainer, etc. And he worries that today’s private golf clubs cannot support all that has been put on its shoulders – fitness centers, swimming pools, fancy dining rooms, etc.
Some might consider Burke, nearing 90, to be hopelessly old school. Most others, however, appreciate him and the club he built. Observed Crenshaw some years ago, “He commands authority in the game. People listen to Jackie Burke.”
This is included in your Champions Cup entry fee, and it may be the best deal in golf.