The lion of Lahinch

As some of the best professionals in the world come to North Clare it’s only right to extoll the golfing powers and prowess of Lahinch’s greatest ever player in John Burke and wonder how he would have fared against those in the paid ranks of the game, writes Joe Ó Muircheartaigh.

John Burke in action.

THE Pathé newsreel team crossed the Atlantic with the Walker Cup team of 1932 — Ireland may have secured its independence a decade previously but the Royal and Ancient Golf Society wouldn’t deign to call it the British and Irish Walker Cup team.

“Seventh time lucky?,” wondered Pathé, “Great Britain’s Walker Cup team show good form at practice. As America has won every match so far, they need to,” it added.

Then the few minutes of newsreel that followed put John Burke front and centre stage.

“John Burke, the Irish champion.”

It’s a graceful swoosh through the ball; then it cuts to him in a sand trap. “And now watch John Burke play out of this bunker, oh, lovely shot.”

Burke is the only member of the Walker Cup team featured twice in action, he’s also the only player sporting a tie as the eight-man team poses for a photograph.

He was 33 and only five years playing golf, but was at the height of his powers and would remain on top of his game for a further 15 years before the curtain came down on a 20-year career at the very top when he got the better of his heir apparent Joe Carr on one final occasion in the Irish Amateur Open at Royal Dublin.

The Lion of Lahinch, as the Moy man was called, had phenomenal stats. 

He played over 70 times for Ireland at international level, famously taking the West Clare Railway from Ennistymon to Ennis with his bag of clubs over his shoulder on the first leg of his mammoth journey to Hoylake for the Home Internationals in 1931, while two years earlier had made his international debut.

“I had made the Irish team for the first time and had made it the hard way,” he revealed years later. “Mr Wilson Smyth, President of the Golfing Union of Ireland, and come to me in Portrush and told me I was being considered.

“The place was mine, if I could meet and beat the top professional in Ireland. At the time that was Sid Fairbrother of Malone. The match was to be played at Portrush. I beat Sid and that was that,” he added.

Simple really, after flirting with the game in his teenage years before taking up the gun and wielding it for Ireland instead wielding his clubs around Lahinch he came back to golf in 1927, aged 27. Within two years he was an international, having learned everything about the game with his friends teacher Dan Sexton and butcher Mick O’Loughlin from Ryder Cup player George Gadd’s instruction series in Sunday newspaper they learned everything they needed to know.

“One day, things went right,” he revealed.  “I equalled the bogey for the course, 77 – and a fortnight later I turned in another 77. It was eight months since I had started. I was delighted with the world and myself.

“So my first official handicap was scratch. If there is another other golfer in the world who set out from the same starting-point, I have yet to hear of him. Burke had served his apprenticeship and could now call himself a golfer.”

And one of Ireland’s greatest.

That Irish Amateur Open Championship in 1947 as a 47-year-old was the denouement to his prolific career — before that he had eight Irish Close titles to his name and six West of Ireland titles, not forgetting his record 11 South of Ireland titles between 1928 and ’46, a figure that would have been much greater only for he left the competition for others to win for seven years in the 1930s.

“Over Lahinch Burke would probably be a match for Bobby Jones himself,” reasoned The Irish Independent in 1931 after his fourth South of Ireland title in a row. 

The paper’s golf correspondent then revealed that “like a good sportsman Mr Burke offered to be an absentee form the South of Ireland” but that this offer was “wisely refused” by the club committee because for anyone,”to win the South of Ireland title without having the vanquished Burke would be like eating beef without mustard”.

Still, he stayed away from 1932 to ’38 before returning to the fold and taking up where he left off in ’39 and winning six more titles in the 1940s.

But how good was he? How would that swing with its Tiger or Seve-esque follow-through have fared in the paid ranks, something he was sorely tempted to do when the carrot of professionalism dangled.

“I wonder how I would have fared if I had accepted an offer made to me in a certain hotel in Boston when I was in America for the Walker Cup,” he revealed in his 1962 memoirs. 

“As offers go it was remarkably generous. It would have meant giving up my amateur status and turning professional as a player and teacher. The financial inducement was fairly considerable, and I gave the matter a lot of earnest thought. It certainly had its attractions.”

Lahinch legend John Burke photographed with trophies he won in his brilliant career in golf that stretched from the 1920s to the ‘50s.

We’ll never know, of course, but Fred Daly, who was Irish Open champion in Portmarnock in 1946 and the British Open champion at Hoylake a year later was in no doubt, describing Burke as “the finest natural golfer I’ve ever set eyes upon”, while he also had the distinction of giving putting lessons to 11 times major winner Walter Hagen.

This quality was famously put to the test when he squared off against another Irish Open and British Open champion in the making in Bobby Locke in Rosses Point that was to kindle a friendship between the two that was maintained over many years.

All after Burke, together with his partner Cecil Ewing, had beaten Locke and Norman Von Nida in that Rosses Point clash in the summer of 1946 — it was just a week after the British Open where South African Locke had finished second to Sam Snead, with the Australian Von Nida in fourth.

“Tell you what,” said Locke on the first tee, “we’ll give the amateurs two or three holes up”.

“Not on your life,” barked Burke, “we’ll play you level.”

“It would have been no satisfactory victory to win by a hole or two with a three holes start,” said Burke afterwards. “It would be cause for undying satisfaction to go down by a narrow margin playing level. After all, these were two of the top men in the professional game. We always had the situation well in hand and were full value for our win by three and two.”

John Burke, the Lion of Lahinch, was able to mix it with Irish and British Open champions. He was so great, he’ll be talked about this week. 

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