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Champions Golf Club lives up to its name again

Jack Burke Jr. and his wife, Robin
Jack Burke Jr. and his wife, Robin, will welcome the best female golfers in the world to their Champions Golf Club in Houston, site of this week’s 75th U.S. Women’s Open.

Jack Burke Jr. and wife Robin land this week's U.S. Women’s Open for their Houston club, which is home to out-of-this-world golf

HOUSTON – The green Masters jacket hangs neatly on a coat rack in the huge, museum-like office, which features a photo signed by the late Alan Shepard, one of three club members who have walked on the moon. Those are merely two of the many indications that a visitor to Champions Golf Club is walking on hallowed golfing ground.

No living couple in America today has dedicated more energy promoting championship golf – especially for women – than Jack and Robin Burke, the owners and driving forces behind Champions. This week, their club will play host to the 75th U.S. Women’s Open, which was delayed six months because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Play begins Thursday as the 156-woman field will compete on the Cypress Creek and Jackrabbit courses before the 36-hole cut will send the low 60 and ties to Cypress Creek for the weekend rounds.

A young Jack Burke Jr.
As a PGA Tour player, Jack Burke Jr. won 16 times from 1950 to 1963, featured by his Masters and PGA titles in a phenomenal 1956 season that led to enshrinement in the World Golf Hall of Fame. 

Each of the Burkes has created a legacy in the game. Collectively, through 33 years of marriage, they are unmatched.

At 97, Jack Burke Jr. is golf’s oldest living major champion, having captured the Masters and PGA titles in 1956 en route to 16 PGA Tour victories and a spot in the World Golf Hall of Fame. He played on five consecutive U.S. Ryder Cup teams in the 1950s, including the 1957 edition as a player-captain, and captained the 1973 team.

Robin Burke, 58, a two-time winner of the Texas Women’s Amateur and the Southern Women’s Amateur, also racked up eight Houston Women’s City Amateur titles and was runner-up at the 1997 U.S. Women's Amateur. She played in the 1998 Curtis Cup and captained the Americans in the 2016 Curtis Cup.

Jack and Robin Burke are the only husband-wife duo in the Texas Golf Hall of Fame.

“I think sometimes when a golf pro takes a job, he forgets that golf pro is short for promoter,” Jack Burke said in his slow, gravelly voice, a common soundtrack during his daily workload at the club. “That’s what we should be about is promoting the game. That’s what my father [the former pro at nearby River Oaks Country Club] did, and that’s all I wanted to do.”

Burke opened the aptly named Champions in 1957 with his good friend the late Jimmy Demaret, a three-time Masters winner. Champions joins Pinehurst (N.C.) Golf Resort as the only courses to have hosted a Ryder Cup, men’s and women’s U.S. Opens, U.S. Amateur, Tour Championship and a PGA Tour event.

The big difference between the two? Though Pinehurst has been through a succession of corporate overseers, only Jack Burke Jr. has been here for every historic event and shot hit at Champions.

“I’m looking forward to seeing the ladies play here, but they’d better not be studying the course or the history,” he said in his signature blunt style. “They’d better be concentrating on their next shot. That’s what they need to be studying.”

Robin Burke said the U.S. Women’s Open “adds to the legacy of championship golf here. We want to bring championship golf to Texas, and we’re not nearly done yet.”

 Champions Golf Club Cypress Creek Course 18th hole
The 18th hole at Champions Golf Club’s Cypress Creek Course, site of this week’s 75th U.S. Women’s Open

Nobody in the U.S. Women's Open field is more aware of the courses’ championship nature and the dynamic duo who oversee it than Stacy Lewis. As a Houston resident and Champions member, she will be one of the favorites this week.

“When you become a member, you have to go in his [Jack’s] office and you have to know how many Rules of Golf there are and all that kind of stuff,” said Lewis, a two-time LPGA player of the year whose 13 victories include two major championships.  “But during the tournament, I think he'll be on that putting green probably most of the day. He offers up a lot of advice, yes, for sure."

Champions will host only the second U.S. Women’s Open to be played in Texas, after Meg Mallon won the 1991 edition at Colonial in Fort Worth.

“Robin put us over the top for having the tournament here," Lewis said, "and everyone knows what Mr. Burke has meant to the game.”

Asked what it would mean to win the U.S Open this week on her home course, Lewis paused to imagine the possibility. “I don’t think I could even speak if I won here,” she said. “I wouldn’t even know what to say. I would be speechless.”

Knowing what to say, and in the most direct manner possible, never has been a problem for Jack Burke, who passed the trait on to his wife.

“I still remember the first text I sent to Matt Sawicki [the USGA’s senior director of championships],” she said. “I still have it on my phone. I told him about the championship nature of Champions and told him we would really like to host. Then, I kept bothering him and reminding him how much we wanted it here.”

In early 2016, the Burkes got their wish with the awarding of the club’s third USGA women’s championship, after the 1998 and 2017 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateurs. The dates were to have been June 4-7. But then the worldwide pandemic scrambled all golf schedules, and the Women’s Open ultimately was pushed back into December. The time slot would not have worked in most other parts of the country, but the weather in southeast Texas is forecast to be in the 60s and 70s this week.

“We wanted to make sure a champion was crowned in 2020,” Robin Burke said. “That is one thing that the USGA and Jack and I were very insistent on: Make sure we have a [2020] winner. With hurricanes [a seasonal threat to Houston, just inland from the Gulf of Mexico] and COVID in our way, we just had to find a way to get around it. We got lucky with no hurricane this year, and while COVID is still out there, we’re going to get this done.”

Though the club was closed during the spring pandemic outbreak, the courses remained open. Members lined up on the first tee, where Jack Burke could see their swings and offer advice. Though he quarantined earlier this fall because of possible close contact, he soon returned to the club – fit, strong and ever-present, to no one’s surprise.

“I just love it, the tournament being here,” said Robin Burke, who competed in three U.S. Women’s Opens. “As a player, I just loved to compete in events, and when you can’t compete, the next-best thing is hosting those who can.”

As a college freshman at Texas in 1984, Robin Moran first met Jack Burke when her father sent her to Champions for a putting lesson. Three years later, after Burke’s first wife died, they were married and have been together ever since for life and championship golf.

“Son, you don’t get lost on a straight road,” Jack Burke said. “I’ve done a pretty good job staying on a straight road. I’ve had the consistency.”

This week, the straight road leads to his beloved club for the 75th edition of the women’s national championship, adding one more chapter to the Champions legacy.

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