"This kid sells valves to China—valves as big as this building," said Jackie Burke Jr., nodding at a player walking up to the halfway house. "Tough little son of a bitch," he adds. "Playing well, Mike?"
Mike Lockwood, a dark-haired "kid" of forty-five, did not appear pleased with his round thus far. But maybe it was just the mid-August Texas heat and his sweat-drenched golf shirt that made him look sour. In the open shade of the halfway house he slathered a saltine with peanut butter and grabbed a banana. "One under," he frowned. "Left a few out there."
"Well, pick it up on the back nine," Burke said, encouragingly but also with a note of chastisement. One under was good golf, but at Champions Golf Club in Houston, in the second and final round of the club championship qualifier, not that good. Lockwood has a scratch handicap, but here it only got him into the third flight. Not the third foursome—the third flight. As things stood, through twenty-seven holes, he trailed the leaders by five.
Burke, 83, the cofounder and president of Champions, had walked out to the halfway house (between the first and tenth tees of the club’s Cypress Creek course) thirty minutes earlier. If there’s anything going on at Champions, Burke likes to be in the center of it. Actually, even when he’s not physically present he’s at the center of things—everything about the club flows from his personality and philosophy.
As some groups teed off and others made the turn, Burke shot the breeze with Steve Elkington, the forty-three-year-old Tour player and club member who had stopped by before going out to practice. Just two former PGA champions (Burke also won the Masters and the Vardon Trophy, and was Player of the Year in 1956) sitting around chatting, in this case about a Houston club with a high membership fee but no "players."
"Where’s the game at a place like that?" Burke wondered, while waiting for the players to come through. In excellent physical shape, with piercing ice-blue eyes and curly white hair, he has the same handsome, cherubic face that in the 1950s and 1960s was among the most famous in golf. "It’s like those fancy fly-in places in the mountains—you have to bring your game with you because there’s no one there. You can take your wife and look at the elk, but where’s the game?"
Burke broke off to inquire about the scores as a group made the turn. From the back tees of Cypress Creek, at 7,301 yards with sodden fairways, two of the threesome were at three under; the third was at one under. "That’s some match," Elkington marveled.
Champions is like no other golf club in the world. Thirty-eight of its members (not counting Elkington and the handful of other pros who belong) have zero handicaps or better, another 102 are between zero and four, and a total of 454 out of 971 golf members are in the single-digit realm. The reason is that Champions is all about the game. "We let the tee markers determine the membership. Anyone who can stand up between those tees out there and post a score, that’s who gets in," Burke told me in his wood-paneled office, its walls and shelves packed with plaques, mementos and framed photographs of friends like Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Bing Crosby and especially Jimmy Demaret, the club’s cofounder. "The interest has got to be in the game, not the food or the dancing. When you start genuflecting in front of the chef, you’ve made a big mistake: The club takes on an air we aren’t interested in. Demaret and I built this club to be all about the game of golf and how well you can play it."