Walter Burkemo: PGA Champ, Part-Time Tour Golfer

Walter Burkemo was a major championship winner in golf, but also the answer to a trivia question: In 1953, when Ben Hogan won three of the four majors, who won the fourth?

Date of birth: October 18, 1918

Place of birth: Detroit, Michigan

Date and place of death: October 8, 1986 in Fenton, Michigan

Nicknames: Walt, Wally, Sarge

Burkemo's PGA Tour Wins

Burkemo had only two victories on the PGA Tour:
  • 1953 PGA Championship
  • 1957 Mayfair Inn Open
He did win several other tournaments in Michigan, including, four times, the Michigan Open.

In the Majors, And That PGA Championship Win

Burkemo's first appearance in any major was in the 1937 U.S. Open, and his last was at the 1971 PGA Championship. He had eight Top 10 finishes in majors, including a best of sixth in The Masters, plus fourth- and fifth-place finishes in the U.S. Open in 1957 and 1958.

His best event, however, was the PGA Championship. Burkemo preferred competing at match play, and at the time of his success in this major it used a match-play format. In six of seven PGA Championships from 1951-57, Burkemo made it to the Round of 16. In three of the four from 1951-54, he made it to the finals.

And in the 1953 PGA Championship, Burkemo won. In the first two rounds, he defeated Louis Barbaro and Mike Turnesa. In the Round of 16, Burkemo bested Pete Cooper, 3 and 2. In the quarterfinals, it was a 2-up win over Dave Douglas. In the semifinal, "Sarge" defeated Claude Harmon, 1-up. And in the championship match, Burkemo beat Felice Torza, 2 and 1.

The tournament was played at Birmingham Country Club in a suburb of Burkemo's hometown of Detroit, and he was the overwhelming fan favorite during the tournament. Burkemo also benefited from the fact that no past champions advanced past the second round.

And Ben Hogan? He didn't enter, which was typical for Hogan in this era of the PGA Championship — due to his auto accident and the leg injuries he suffered in it, it was very painful for Hogan to walk 36 holes in a day, for multiple days. Plus, Hogan was busy playing in the British Open, whose qualifying dates made playing in the PGA Championship impossible for him anyway.

Hogan won The Masters, the U.S. Open and the British Open in 1953, but Walter Burkemo won the year's other major.

Walter Burkemo Biography

Walter Burkemo was one of golf's great straight men — meaning, when his game was on, he was famous for rarely missing fairways. The USGA Journal once referred to Burkemo as "an amazingly straight shotmaker." Some of his comtemporaries called him among the straightest drivers they ever saw.

Burkemo was the youngest of 13 children growing up in Detroit. He got into golf when he started caddying at Lochmoor Country Club at age 8. By age 11, he was playing the game himself.

His first taste of national attention came when he was medalist in the stroke-play qualifying rounds at the 1938 Amateur Public Links Championship. A United Press International story on the event called Burkemo "a 20-year-old unemployed Detroit youth who crams his golf in-between odd jobs."

That same year Burkemo won a pro tournament, the Southern Florida Open.

World War II Service

In 1941, after Pearl Harbor, Burkemo was drafted into the United States Army and served during World War II as a sergeant in the infantry. He was seriously wounded twice, earning two Purple Hearts.

In France a couple weeks after D-Day, a grenade Burkemo was carrying on his back went off after he got hit. After recovering from those injuries — he was left with a very large scar on his back — Burkemo was back in action in the Battle of the Bulge.

He almost didn't survive. Writing in a newspaper article in the late 1940s, Burkemo said of an attack against German positions, "We were counter-attacking in a woods just below Malmedy when an 88 (88-millimeter gun) lit fairly close. Some shrapnel hit me in the head, and the concussion was pretty terrific. The war was over for me."

Returning to Pro Golf

Walter Burkemo golf balls by Spalding
Following the war, and after recovering from his injuries, Burkemo returned to pro golf, trying to play the PGA Tour full-time in the late 1940s. He won his first Michigan Open (not a tour event) in 1951, the same year he made his first final at the PGA Championship. (Burkemo lost to Sam Snead, 7 and 6, in that final.)

In 1953 came his PGA Championship win, and he reached the finals again the next year before falling to Chick Harbert, 4 and 3. After his 1953 PGA victory, Spalding made a Walter Burkemo-branded golf set of two woods and five irons that sold for $72, as well as Walter Burkemo signature golf balls. He also played on Team USA in the 1953 Ryder Cup.

In 1954 he won the Michigan Open. In 1955, Burkemo again won the Michigan Open, and he reached the semifinals at the 1957 PGA Championship. That was the final year of match play at the PGA Championship, and Burkemo ended his match-play career in that major with a 27-6 match record. According to Golf Digest, Burkemo is tied with Byron Nelson for the best winning percentage among all golfers who played at least 15 PGA Championship matches.

At the 1957 U.S. Open, Burkemo shot 65 in the final round. At the time time, that was the tournament record for lowest final-round score.

Part-Time Tour Player and His Famous Friends

The successes Burkemo had, including winning the 1957 Mayfair Inn Open, his only other PGA Tour title, came despite the fact he was only a part-time tour player.

After 1954, Burkemo decided he'd rather be home with his wife and four children. So he dedicated most of his time to his job as a club professional, mainly at Franklin Hills Country Club near Detroit. (He also worked at Edgewood Country Club and Oakland Hills Country Club, both Detroit-area clubs, at different times.)

Burkemo played PGA Tour golf only when he got time off from his club duties, which meant typically playing fewer than 10 tournaments a year. In the 1950s and '60s, Burkemo played around 160 PGA Tour tournaments and finished in the Top 10 in one-quarter of them. So while he didn't win much, he was a consistent performer when he played.

"The thing I liked about him was his course management. He wasn't extremely long, but he kept the ball in play and was a good putter. He was a consistent, solid player and wonderful guy to be around." — Bob Toski on Walter Burkemo
In the winters, Burkemo worked out of El Dorado Country Club in Arkansas, where he gave lessons to President Dwight Eisenhower; and, later, in Palm Springs, California.

Eisenhower was among the many famous friends Burkemo gained over the years. He often played golf with Ike, and with entertainers such as Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and George Gobel. Some of the famous automakers of the 1950s and 60s got to know Burkemo in Detroit, and John DeLorean was another frequent golf partner.

Burkemo's last win of note was back home at the 1970 Michigan Open, when he was 52 years old. In his later years, Burkemo and one of his brothers owned and operated a popular driving range in St. Clair Shores, Michigan.

Burkemo is a member of the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame and the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame.

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