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Winds of Change

Burke's comeback victory in 1956 was anything but a breeze, as amateur Venturi let eight-shot lead get away in final round

April 02, 2006|Thomas Bonk | Times Staff Writer

The first time the Masters was televised 50 years ago, the images caught by those CBS cameras during the final round were not easily forgotten, especially by Jackie Burke and Ken Venturi, who remain framed for posterity on that not-quite-picture-perfect day.

In fact, the day was a blowout -- not a competitive rout, but the force of the wind.

On that Sunday at Augusta National -- April 8, 1956 -- the wind could have shredded the pine trees lining the fairways. Burke said he hit a putt on the 17th green that went 15 feet when it was supposed to go 30, and then watched it take off.

"I thought I hit it halfway," Burke said. "I swear, the wind blew that ball in the hole.

"It was a miracle."

No, it was a birdie.

What Burke did, coming from eight shots behind on the last day, was a miracle -- or close to it. So was winning with a 72-hole score of 289, still the highest by a Masters champion.

Not that it matters much to Burke, 83, who lives in his hometown of Houston not far from Champions Golf Club, which he started along with partner Jimmy Demaret. The 1956 Masters title and the first green jacket of the television era belong to Burke, thanks to a wind-blown birdie putt on the 71st hole.

"Venturi is still crying about that," Burke joked. "I wish I could write about every damn one I lost. I'd be on the typewriter forever."

As a 24-year-old amateur, Venturi held the 54-hole lead by four shots over Cary Middlecoff, the defending champion. Venturi, whose first-round 66 is still the lowest round at the Masters by an amateur, needed only three words to describe the weather conditions that day.

"Windy and bad."

The first Masters telecast was a work of art from CBS. The network had six cameras to cover the action, one each at the 15th, 16th and 17th greens, one at the 18th fairway and two at the 18th green. The color announcers that year were Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts, the founders of Augusta National.

Although Venturi did not win, his high-profile defeat eventually paid off when CBS hired him as a color analyst, a job he held for 35 years.

No amateur has won the Masters in its 69 years, but Venturi said Jones would have offered him the position of chairman at Augusta National if he had won, because Jones revered the status of amateur golf.

But that's not what was blowing in the wind.

"It would have been one of the greatest victories in the history of golf," Venturi said, "but then I wouldn't have had the life of golf that I enjoyed."

Burke is still active at Champions and helped Hal Sutton as an assistant captain at the 2004 Ryder Cup. He also just finished a book, along with Guy Yocom, called "It's Only a Game," a collection of Burke's words of wisdom about golf. He is also staying busy these days by fielding questions about how he came through at the Masters half a century ago.

Actually, Burke probably shouldn't have come through it the way he did. The wind was gusting up to 50 mph on the last day and Burke found himself eight shots behind, with Middlecoff the closest to Venturi.

"I didn't think about Ken Venturi," Burke said. "Middlecoff was only a few shots ahead, and I figured Venturi had already got it won.

"The wind was so bad. I remember standing on the putting green and saying, 'Man, you give me a 77 and I'm going back to the locker room right now and taking these shoes off.' "

But he kept them on. In what Burke remembers as 40-mph wind and rain, he started out in anything but routine fashion. He made par at the first and at the second, his five-iron flew the green, but he got up and down for a birdie.

At the 220-yard, par-three fourth, Burke hit a driver that came up short and had to hit a wedge to the green. He made par.

After that, Burke had a little talk with himself: "Well, you know, you're going to shoot 90 today."

Of course, he didn't shoot anything close to that. He made the turn at 35 and toured Amen Corner in par -- a bogey at the 11th, a five-iron to three feet and a birdie at the 12th, then laid up at the 13th and made par.

Burke won the Masters at the 17th, where the wind had scattered sand out of the bunker and onto the putting surface. Figuring it wasn't much different than when he played back in Texas, Burke simply tapped the ball a little and worried that it wasn't going to get even halfway to the hole. Then he stood there in amazement as a gust of wind caught the ball and carried it into the bottom of the hole.

Once Burke recovered his breath -- playing partner Mike Souchak had pounded him on the back -- he knew victory was close, but only if he could par the 18th.

Burke did just that, but not without some drama after knocking his approach into the right bunker. His next shot lifted the ball out to five feet. He then rolled in the putt, signed for his 71 -- Sam Snead also had 71, the only two sub-par rounds of the day -- and waited to see how Venturi would fare.

Not so well was the answer.

Venturi, who had a 38 on the front, was worse on the back side and shot a 42 for a round of 80.

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