Historic Champions Cup Begins its 52th Edition
Jackie Burke Jr.’s father at one time gave golf lessons to Babe Didrikson Zaharias, regarded as the greatest female athlete of all time. When the younger Burke was a teenager, there was a defining moment when he knew he could play golf at a high level.
“My dad taught her,” said Burke, who was raised in Houston. “And when she got through with her lesson, she would say, ‘Come on little Jackie, I’m going to kick your butt.’ The day that I out-drove Babe, was my day.”
From that moment on Burke was on his way to becoming a Texas legend. Winner of the Masters and PGA Championship in 1956, Burke and the late Jimmy Demaret co-founded Champions Golf Club in 1957 in northwest Houston.
Now at age 96, and a World Golf Hall of Fame member, Burke has built quite a legacy. A proponent of amateur golf, Burke and Demaret started the Champions Cup Invitational in 1961 as a means for the top amateurs in the country to test their skills.
The four-day Champions Cup begins on Thursday, with golf instructor Billy Harmon being the guest speaker following the first round of the 72-hole, two-team, four-ball competition for mid-amateurs (age 25 and over) by invitation only.
Among the top Texas players competing is Gary Durbin, a 1999 winner of the Cup and two-time winner of the Houston city amateur.
“When you play amateur golf, and I play national events around the country, Champions, like Winged Foot, are those historic courses you like to come play and see how it was played historically, and how it plays today,” said Durbin, who as well as son Eric, have won the club championship at Champions. “Kind of match your game to how it was played in the past.”
Durbin, 62, and Eric, 31, are part of the 56 teams competing in the 2019 Champions Cup, which will be contested on the recently restored Cypress Creek Course by architect Chet Williams.
“If you’re an amateur golfer, and you have some amount of ability and you can play in this Champions Cup tournament, it’s a bucket list thing,” said five-time Cup winner Brady Exber of Las Vegas, who is part of the ownership group of the Astros. “The whole atmosphere of the place. I do think people In Houston may take it for granted a little because it’s so close. But there’s very few places in the county that have the golf atmosphere of Champions.”
Champions hosted the 1967 Ryder Cup, 1969 U.S. Open, 1990 Nabisco Championship, four PGA Tour Championships, five PGA Tour events, as well as the 1993 U.S. Amateur. The Cypress Creek Course will be the site of the 2020 U.S. Women’s Open, June 4-7.
“Mr. Burke has always stood for higher level golf,” said 1983 PGA Championship winner Hal Sutton, who has his name etched on the Champions Cup trophy (1981). “And he’s always wanted to have big tournaments at Champions and it be on a national level.
“He stood for great golf himself. To have a great player with a great history like him around, and then the great club that they built, he and Mr. Demaret, I would think that every person that comes for the Champions Cup would be in awe of the history here.”
A player who will be making his first appearance this year is former NFL quarterback Billy Joe Tolliver, who has regained his amateur status. Tolliver was aware of the Champions Cup with conversations among friends like Exber, Randy Sonnier, Kyle Maxwell and Kyle Williams, who played 13 seasons for the Buffalo Bills, and again is in this year’s field.
“It’s just a great golf tournament on a great course,” said Tolliver, a five-time winner of the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship. “And as you get along in golf, you’re looking for stiffer competition. You love to get in great events like this and you see how your game stacks up against the best in the country.”
The maximum handicap for the Cup is 3.0. Players from 27 states are represented as well as from Japan, Canada and Scotland.
“As we travel around the country, you see a lot of the same guys,” said Buzz Baker, who plays out of Shadow Hawk Golf Club, and partnered with Mike Booker for a co-championship with Exber and Kevin Marsh in the 2009 Cup. “Guys are asking about, ‘Hey, how can I get in this thing?’ So there is a demand to get in. This is absolutely at the top of the list.”
The idea that inspired Burke to come up with the Champions Cup was based on what Winged Foot Golf Club did when he was an assistant pro at the New York course. Winged Foot had a competition among members only who dressed in the upper locker room against those who dressed in the lower.
A passionate supporter of amateur golf, Burke and Demaret expanded their tournament to more open eligibility, drawing in players from around the United States.
“I knew that to grow, you’re going to have to grow with the amateur game, you’re not going to grow with the professional game,” said Burke, who stresses that if you’re not hitting the golf ball well, it’s because of one of the four Ts – timing, tempo, tension, trust. “These (amateur golfers) want to compete. The competition provides that for them.”
Since last April’s tournament, the Cypress Creek Course has had the greens returned to its original size and the bunkers have also been redone. The routing remains the same, but the course plays longer with the back tees placed farther back. Drainage has been built under the greens, which are a little higher now, bringing the short game and chipping more into play.
For more information on the Champions Cup, click here.