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NISSAN OPEN At RIVIERA : No Early Bird Special : Azusa's Burke, Teeing Off First, Battles Elements--and Pressure


Teeing off at 7 a.m. in the semi-darkness of a winter morning is nothing unusual for public links golfers, but it can be unnerving for professionals trying to make a living at the game.

Unless you're Pat Burke, who honed his game at the Azusa Greens course while attending Citrus College a few years ago.

At Azusa Greens, golf director Jerry Herrera--ever mindful of the early birds--installed lights on the first couple of holes so they could tee off even before the sun peeked over the San Gabriel Mountains.

"I don't mind playing early, but it was really cold, I mean really, really cold, when we teed off," Burke said after shooting a two-over-par 73 in the first round of the Nissan Open at the Riviera Country Club. "I started off wearing a sweatshirt and a jacket.

"What surprised me, though, was when they told us to play the ball down. As much as it rained the last two days and Wednesday night, I thought that was a stupid decision. I expected to find mud on my ball after every shot, but it didn't happen.

"The course played fantastic. I don't think I had more than a couple of shots where the mud was a factor."

Burke struggled through the round, the way most young golfers struggle when they are trying to hang onto their tour cards. Last year, needing to be 130th or better on the PGA Tour's money list to play this year, he finished 119th, with $162,892.

The difference between the struggling and the successful is usually in the management of the game, as evidenced by the scores shot by Burke and Scott Simpson, who opened with a three-under-par 68.

Burke said, "I felt I played pretty well. I only missed a couple of fairways, but I couldn't score a lick. I was one over on the par-fives. You can't get anywhere doing that."

And Simpson said, "I didn't feel my round was that great, but I was five under at one point, so I guess I was doing something right."

Simpson played the par-fives one under par.

The high and the low points--make that the low and high--of Burke's round both occurred on No. 13, a 420-yard par-four. He hit his second shot over the green, into thick, damp rough, then slammed his club into the turf in disgust.

Facing a near-impossible shot, he lobbed his ball out of the rough, then watched it roll into the cup for one of his two birdies.

"It's a crazy game, isn't it?" he said with a wry grin.

Burke, who will be 34 next month, looks like a public links version of Craig Stadler--stocky, bearded, long hair with no cap. He was wearing a white shirt with no logos, looking as if he had just dropped in to catch a few holes before going to work.

"I don't have any sponsor, any club job, any affiliation, nothing but what I make out here and that's not been so good this year," he said.

In four tournaments, Burke has pocketed $2,763, which puts him 175th on the money list.

"I can't seem to get anything going," he said. "I was playing good golf at the end of last year. I finished seventh at the Disney Classic and 15th at Las Vegas to save my playing card. Since then, it's been downhill."

Burke's father, Mike, who got Pat started golfing as a teenager in Brocktown, N.J., died unexpectedly last November of a heart attack.

"Losing my dad has been tough to overcome," Burke said. "He was the reason I came to California. My parents moved out here so he could manage the Via Verde course in San Dimas, but things didn't work out so they went back to Florida. I stayed here and played at Citrus."

Burke won junior college conference championships in 1984 and 1985 before turning pro. Three times he earned a tour card, only to lose it. In 1994 he played on the Australasian tour and won two tournaments before coming home to get his U.S. card again.

He still lives in Azusa, but is moving next month to Coto de Caza.

"If you don't have any affiliation, the most important thing for a pro golfer is to have good practice facilities." he said. "Coto has the best."

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