Jack Burns, 19th Century Open Champion

Golfer Jack Burns posed and wearing his Open Championship medal
Jack Burns was a Scottish golfer who won a 19th-century British Open title. He was also a rare golfer who, after winning the Open title, later became a caddie.

Full name: John Burns

Date of birth: January 7, 1859

Place of birth: St. Andrews, Scotland

Date and place of death: December 18, 1927 in St. Andrews, Scotland

Nickname: Jack

His Major Championship Victory

The 1888 British Open was played at St. Andrews in very high winds, 36 holes in one day. But it appeared to everyone that the tournament needed a playoff on the following day — until a scoring error was corrected and made Jack Burns the winner.

At the time of the 1888 Open, Burns was "keeper of the greens" at Warwickshire Golf Club in Warwick, England. But he was playing in The Home of Golf, St. Andrews, which also happened to be his home.

Burns' total for first 18 was posted as 87, the score his marker tabulated. After an 85 in Round 2, Burns' total was posted at 172. At the end of play, there was three-way tie at 172 — Ben Sayers and Davie Anderson also finished on that total.

It was only when a 3-man playoff appeared imminent that the incorrect totaling of Burns' morning score — a discovery made "by accident," in the words of the 1888-89 Golfing Annual, and by an R&A member — was found out. Burns' marker had added wrong. His morning score had actually been 86, not 87, meaning Burns' real total was 171, not 172.

According to the Golfing Annual, "The mistake, however unfortunate it was for his two rivals, could not be disputed, and it was ultimately decided that Jack Burns was the champion golfer for the year."

In the end, the difference — aside from the R&A member's lucky catch of the bad math on Burns' card — was the final nine holes of the second round. Burns carded a 42 for that final nine, compred to 45 for Anderson and 46 for Sayers.

The Golfing Annual cited Burns' all-around game for his championship effort, saying that he had won by "driving long and sure, handling his iron well, and putting deadly."

More About Jack Burns

Jack Burns was born and raised in St. Andrews, Scotland. He had his first golf lesson at age 10 with Tommy Morris (Young Tom Morris), who was himself only 18. While still a teenager, Burns developed a reputation for being among the best golfers in the city.

He had a muscular frame and developed a reputation for length. The R&A calls him "a strapping young lad."

Burns enjoyed golfing when he could, but he was a laborer. His job was plasterer: He worked in a plastering business in St. Andrews owned by a man named Andrew Scott. Remarkably, two other British Open winners, Willie Fernie and Sandy Herd, also worked (at different times) as plasterers in Scott's business.

Burns first played in the Open in 1882 at St. Andrews, and finished 23rd. In the 1885 British Open at St. Andrews, his second appearance, Burns finished only four strokes behind the winner, Bob Martin.

In 1887 Burns moved to England where he was hired by the Warwickshire Golf Club. The following year was Burns' Open Championship year when, once again, the tournament was played at St. Andrews. If the Open took place in his hometown, Burns played it. But, to this point, if it took place somewhere else, he skipped it.

That changed when Burns decided to make a title defense at Musselburgh in the 1889 British Open. He finished 14th.

Burns was by this time fully a professional golfer, and had been since his move to England. In 1891 he supervised construction of the original golf course at Kenilworth Golf Club, also in Warwickshire. But that same year, he left his position at Warwickshire Golf Club. Burns was the professional at several other English clubs in the 1890s: South Staffordshire, North Warwickshire and Edgbaston.

In 1898, he moved back home to St. Andrews. For much of his life after moving back to Scotland, Burns worked for the railroad. He mostly gave up competitive golf over the remainder of his life: He entered the Open only three more times after that 1889 title defense, last in 1905, finishing no higher than 45th.

In his 1923 book, My Golfing Life, Sandy Herd, winner of the 1902 British Open, quoted Burns talking about why he mostly gave up golf:

"I've done what I set out to do and I am satisfied. Now all I want is a steady job, and I've got that on the railway."
Burns did stay involved in golf in another way, however: In addition to his railway job, Burns also worked as a caddie at The Old Course. Imagine showing up to The Old Coures and having an Open champion on your bag.

He was 68 years old when he died in 1927.

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