Inducted June 9, 2005
Born William Burkowski in Union City, Connecticut, Burke played on the PGA Tour with great success. His first tour victory came in his second year on tour winning the prestigious North-South Open in 1928. Playing with a slightly unorthodox grip because of the loss of parts of two fingers on his left hand, Burke made golfing record books when he won the 1931 U.S. Open at Inverness in Toledo. He was the first person to win a major playing steel-shafted clubs and he did it by outdueling George Von Elm in a 72-hole playoff. It was the longest playoff ever played. He won 10 times on the tour and twice finished third in the Masters. Burke was also considered one of the finest Ryder Cup team members of his era being undefeated in Ryder Cup play in 1931 and 1933. He was inducted in the PGA Hall of Fame in 1966.
Billy Burke — U.S. Open and Ryder Cup Champion
By: Tom Tarapacki
NPASHF Board Member
In the early part of the 20th century there were increasing numbers of Polish immigrants in America, but not many were playing significant roles in sports. The reason for that was mainly twofold: in large part they were unfamiliar with American sports, and were too busy working to find time to play. When their children did start to play sports in large numbers in the 1920s and 1930s, they tended to gravitate to “working class” sports like baseball and football. It was therefore quite surprising when, in the 1930s, the son of Polish immigrants known as Bill Burke became one of the most prominent names in the sport of golf.
In 1931 Burke — born William Burkowski in Union City Connecticut — became the first person to win a major playing with steel-shafted clubs when he won the U.S. Open. He did it by out dueling George Von Elm in the longest playoff ever played.
For many years, American golf was largely considered the domain of the wealthy, a “country club sport” like tennis or polo. It was unusual for the son of a Polish-born foundry worker to even take up the sport, much less excel at it. The story goes that 15-year-old Burkowski was with playing some friends when the caddie master at the Naugatuck Golf Club, desperate for caddies, recruited him to carry clubs for golfers. He eventually started playing the game himself. He couldn’t afford clubs or a bag, so some members gave him clubs and he carried them in his hands. He kept playing despite losing the ring finger and severely injuring the little finger on his left hand while working in a local foundry. At age 16 “The Boy Marvel” won the Naugatuck club championship in a driving rainstorm. Supporters bought him a golf bag so he could play in the state amateur, which he lost on the final hole. They following year, 1923, he went on to win the state amateur. That victory led to Burkowski, who anglicized his name to Burke, getting a job as a golf pro at the Mattatuck Golf Course in Waterbury.
In 1931 Burke went to the U.S. Open at the Inverness Club in Toledo. He trailed the leader, George Von Elm of California, by two strokes at the start of the 36-hole final round on Sunday, July 4th. At the end of regular play, Burke and Von Elm were tied. On Monday following day they played a 36-hole playoff to decide the title, and ended the day still tied. On Tuesday they launched another 36-hole playoff, but this time Burke ended up winning by a single stroke. After 144 holes and 589 stokes, Billy Burke was the U.S. Open champion. Burke’s victory was particularly significant not only because he used steel-shafted clubs, but also because the lengthy playoff caused a change in all future playoff formats.
Although the Open win was the high point, Burke enjoyed a fine career. He won 10 career tournaments, and finished third at the Masters twice. Burke played in 159 career PGA Tour tournaments and finished in the top 10 an amazing 80 times. He was also considered one of the finest Ryder Cup team members of his era going undefeated in the 1931 and 1933 Ryder Cups. Burke was inducted into the PGA Hall of Fame in 1966 and died in Florida in 1972.
Billy Burke was a true pioneer, excelling in the sport of golf years before other outstanding Polish-American golfers like Ed Furgol and Bob Toski appeared on the scene.