Burke, John (‘Sean’) (1899–1974), champion amateur golfer, was born 26 April 1899 in Moybeg, Ennistimon, Co. Clare, second among eight sons and a daughter of Patrick Burke, farmer, originally from Liscannor, Co. Clare, and Mary Burke (née Hayes) of Moybeg. He was educated at Moy national school, and subsequently obtained a scholarship to train as a teacher, but did not take it up. As a youngster, Burke and a friend, Mick O'Loughlin – who himself went on to win the South of Ireland championship – worked as caddies at the local Lahinch golf club and played illegally on the course. However, Burke's subsequent golfing achievements are remarkable, given that he did not begin playing golf seriously until he was 29. Lahinch Golf Club had originally been founded by wealthy Limerick business people in the late nineteenth century and Burke was one of the first local people who was not a business person to be invited to join the club, largely thanks to the efforts of Mick O'Loughlin, whose family owned a business in the town. By the time Burke began to play competitively he was already a scratch golfer, and he was the most consistent amateur golfer in Ireland during the 1930s and ’40s.
Fittingly, the competition that he is most associated with is the South of Ireland championship, which is always held at Lahinch. Burke won it eleven times in nineteen years (1928–31, 1939, 1941–6) and would undoubtedly have won more titles except that he did not compete in the tournament in the years 1932–8 at the request of local hoteliers and businesses, as they felt that his dominance of the competition had resulted in fewer golfers coming to compete. He also won the Irish Close championship on eight occasions (1930–33, 1936, 1940, 1946–7), and the West of Ireland championship six times (1933–4, 1936, 1938, 1940–41), and was runner-up in 1935. He was less successful in the East of Ireland championship, finishing runner-up on four occasions after its establishment in 1940. Perhaps his most memorable victory came in the South of Ireland in 1946, when he defeated Joe Carr (qv) (1922–2004), who was over twenty years his junior and holder of the ‘West’ and ‘East’ titles, on the third play-off hole after a thirty-six-hole final. After eighteen Burke was two up, but he had to win the last two holes to force a playoff. He eventually won on the thirty-ninth, a hole he had designed himself. The match was watched by one of the biggest crowds ever seen at a game of golf in Ireland up to that time. He also won the Irish Open Amateur championship in 1947, again defeating Carr in the final, and he won five Munster Senior cups with Lahinch between 1934 and 1951.
At international level he competed for Ireland in seventy-two matches in the home international championship (1929–38 and 1947–9), the competition being suspended during the second world war. In 1932 he became the first player from the new Free State to play for the then Great Britain side in the Walker Cup, when he was selected to play against the USA at Brookline, Massachusetts. Burke lost his opening foursomes match, but halved an epic singles match with Jack Westland when he came back from five down and won the last three holes to tie. The onset of spinal difficulties associated with a severe form of rheumatism brought an end to his golfing career at the age of 50, and he spent the last twenty years of his life in a wheelchair.
An improviser both on the course and off it, Burke worked hard at his game, and his repertoire consisted of many trick shots, a product of his determination as a young man to master the game with a limited number of clubs. He was also prone to what nowadays might be termed gamesmanship, developing a technique of fading the ball and thereby misleading opponents about which club to use. He was a gifted raconteur and an inventive teacher, and his short game was such that in 1937 he gave the famous American professional, Walter Hagen, a putting lesson at Limerick Golf Club. He was never tempted to turn professional, playing as he did at a time when amateur golf was more important than the professional game.
The fact that he only played on one Walker Cup team (1932), despite his twenty-year dominance of the Irish amateur scene, can be ascribed to the fact that he rarely competed outside of Ireland, and the possibility that the British golfing establishment frowned on his history as a former IRA man. Burke had been a member of the 4th Battalion of the Mid-Clare Brigade, and had been involved in one of the most notorious incidents of the war of independence, the Rineen ambush in September 1920, when six RIC men were killed. According to Burke's own story, as told to Ivan Morris, his IRA involvement came to light just as the team were leaving for America, ironically when a British army officer he had subsequently befriended asked one of the team officials to pass on his congratulations to him. Burke was told in no uncertain terms that there was no room for ‘terrorists’ on the team, and was left in no doubt that he would never be picked again. As persona non grata, he played up to his image as a hard-line nationalist, refusing to recognise the British national anthem, and insisting on his Irish nationality being recognised at every opportunity (Only golf spoken here, 185–6). Despite, or perhaps because of this, he was consistently the best performer in the practice rounds before the competition proper.
Whether Burke's version of his Walker Cup experience is entirely true or not – and there are discrepancies – he is conspicuous by his absence in Walker Cup history, and it seems extraordinary that a golfer of his ability would not have been picked more than once. In 1948 Burke was elected captain of Lahinch, and his legendary status at the club was confirmed by one of his nicknames: the ‘King of Lahinch’. As he became more incapacitated in later years, he was the only person permitted to bring his car onto the golf course, allowing him to follow the play. In 1962 he became the first golfer to be elevated into the Texaco Sports Hall of Fame. In the 1920s he worked initially as a rates collector, and subsequently in insurance, before becoming area manager for a petrol distribution company, a job he held for the rest of his working life. Burke lived in Limerick city, and died there 27 March 1974. He is buried in Mount St Lawrence's cemetery, Limerick.
He married (1922) Nora Sexton from Bartra, Lahinch; they had one son and two daughters.