At 97, Jack Burke Jr. is still teaching the game. Darren Carroll, who has photographed the Masters and PGA champion for the past 15 years, sat with Burke for an intimate portrait series at the club he built and found he still has lessons to share.
Maybe it’s a Texas thing. But in more than two decades of shooting professional golf, I’ve reserved the title of “Mr.” for just two of my subjects, never using their first name during a shoot out of respect and awe. There was, of course, Mr. Byron Nelson. And Mr. Jack Burke Jr.
As I’m an Austin resident, magazines like Golf Digest or Sports Illustrated will ask me to make the drive over to Houston to photograph Burke when they need images of the 1956 Masters and PGA winner. Starting with my first visit, in 2004, I’ve been to Champions Golf Club—which he founded with three-time Masters champion and fellow Texan Jimmy Demaret—seven times to shoot him, making him my most photographed subject. Each time, I’ve learned something new from his wisdom, relentless love of the game and cantankerous charm.
Like our first meeting, when he invited me to lunch and launched into a remarkably detailed soliloquy on the proper way to make bleu cheese dressing. Or our second, when I met his wife of 30 years, Robin, as he gave her a lesson on the driving range. He chuckled throughout our third shoot as a bulldog in a leather bomber jacket sat beside him. (“I believe that if you lock a hundred bulldogs inside a yard, you’re going to wind up with some funny-looking bulldogs,” he quipped.)
Once I brought a clunky, old-fashioned 4-by-5-inch camera, the likes of which requires a bit of patience—to put it mildly—on the part of both photographer and subject during the setup. “You’re very pragmatic, aren’t you?” he needled me as I fiddled with the camera’s knobs and dials. Naturally, the next time, a few years later, brought a wary look: “I remember you. You’re very…pragmatic.”
It wasn’t exactly the right word to use in either situation, but here’s the thing with Mr. Burke: It doesn’t matter. He gets his point across whether he’s teaching on the range (which, at 97, he still does), posing for a portrait or just chatting in his office adorned with what feels like hundreds of historic photos along with awards and mementos that illustrate a golf life lived to the fullest. I learned that you don’t visit with him to get precise quotes; don’t make the mistake of trying to draw something out of him with a question and expect a concise, on-point answer. You’re there to take it all in, to listen, to envelop yourself in a whirlwind of philosophies, bon mots and old-school lessons that resonate long after you’ve left.
The plan for my eighth and most recent visit to Mr. Burke was to photograph him using that same clunky, “pragmatic” 4-by-5 camera. This time, I used a film stock long since discontinued: Polaroid Type 55. An instant film that creates both a print and a negative at the same time, Type 55 hasn’t been made in more than a decade, and some of us old photographers saved our last boxes of it, waiting for the perfect opportunity. The last subject I’d used it with was Mr. Nelson, back in September 2006.
But Type 55 is inherently unpredictable, even when it was in production. Add 15 years of sitting in the fridge and I was genuinely worried. So I did what I was supposed to do: awkwardly focused the old beast of a camera with my head under a light-proof cloth, best-guessed the exposure and tripped the shutter. Much like a conversation with my subject, I didn’t get what I expected.
The ravages of time have taken their toll. The film is a bit fuzzy around the edges, fogged up by age, brittle and deserving of more-careful handling than in its prime. Digital it’s not. But in spite of everything swirling around the periphery, in the heart of the lens is the unmistakable visage of a legend—the face just as determined, the eyes just as sparkly as they are in those black-and-white pictures of when he was at the top of the golf world.
They’re one of a kind. Irreplaceable.
Following quotes by Jack Burke Jr.
There’s four Ts: timing, tension, tempo and trust.
Timing is in everything. When you eat food, you time the food up to your mouth. Surgery, driving a car—there’s nothing where timing isn’t involved. So in golf it’s paramount that you time things and don’t get an urge to [do something different] or decide that [you’ve] got to do this or that to win. You don’t interrupt that swing for any occasion.
With tension, you’ve got to be this way to play. [Relaxes shoulders.] Our arms hang. You don’t freeze them with your shoulders. They hang. And your hips swing freely.
Tempo is just that: You stay out of the swing. When you start your club down, you don’t want to try to control it. Trust the club.
And trust the swing. I can’t go to Havana or Japan and have a new swing. I’ve got to have a swing that I’ve been using for a long time. As you start it, don’t anticipate where you’re going to let go; just let the swing do itself. Quit trying to guide everything.
I believe Sam Snead had the best swing. Sam was a natural. He had it all. He said you grip the club like you take toothpaste out of your container before you brush your teeth. You hold it there and put your brush on it, and that’s the way your left hand goes on, the way you squeeze your toothpaste.
There’s a certain recklessness to being good. If a pitcher throws a pitch or a quarterback throws a football, there’s a certain recklessness to it that has to be put up with; you can’t run around trying to be sure every day.
You have intensity [as a competitor], and when that leaves you, you have nothing to do. Both of us [he and Jimmy Demaret] had been out there a long time, and you just lose your interest. Then it’s hard to find a job. I’d already been a pro at a club in New York, and I wasn’t going back to New York. I asked a friend of mine named Jack Valenti [then the president of the powerful Motion Picture Association of America] if he thought Demaret and I could pull a club off, and he said, “Not only do I think you can do it, but I’ll do the advertising and you guys can pay me down the road.” And so he named it the Champions Golf Club. I said, “Valenti, that sounds like a takeoff on Augusta.” He said, “That’s what the name has to be.” And that’s what it was.