Caddie friends Joe LaCava, Fluff and more, weigh in on John ‘Cub’ Burke’s retirement
Last Sunday, John “Cub” Burke wrapped up a 35-year career as a PGA Tour caddie.
Following a T48 finish with Bill Haas at the RBC Heritage, the 70-year-old Burke flew back home to Sun Valley, Idaho, to begin his retirement from the fairways of the PGA Tour.
Call it a semi-retirement. Though he won’t be looping, the quick-witted, self-deprecating Burke will be back behind the bench as head coach of the Sun Valley Suns semi-pro hockey team in the Black Diamond Hockey League, an organization he’s been involved with for all 45 years of its existence as a player, president, GM, board member and – for the last 23 years or so – as a coach.
“I felt like it was time,” Burke, who began caddying in 1986, told The Caddie Network. “I went out for two weeks [when the Tour restarted its season at Colonial and then on to Hilton Head] and thought, ‘you’re 70 years old, what are you doing running the gauntlet now?’ It was a combination of things. I have a minor respiratory problem. I’d be lying if I said COVID wasn’t a part of it, but it wasn’t the tipping point – I wouldn’t have gone out if I was worried about that.
“I still get around pretty good out there,” Burke continued. “Mentally I’m not quite as sharp, but how do you have a barometer for that when you weren’t sharp in the first place? But I’d been thinking about it. I turned 70 earlier this mont. That’s a benchmark. My gal, Nancy, just retired. She retired early at 60. We had a plan in place about a year and a half from now and it went into effect early. I was planning to go until the end of the year, or maybe Minnesota because that’s where I’m from. But like quitting chewing – which I did during the quarantine – you either quit or you don’t.”
Burke said that after caddying for Haas at Colonial – part of a bag share he has with fellow looper Tommy Lamb – he decided Hilton Head would be his final week.
“It was time,” he said. “I didn’t expect that much attention. But I appreciate that. You don’t pick your endings; it is what it is. It got a little out of hand. Before I knew it, everybody knew. Brandel said something on Golf Channel, Nantz said something, I was on Fax’s radio show. Hey — caddies don’t retire, they just die! Maybe I started a new trend! Caddies can retire! That’s the way it was. I’m very humbled by it all. All the support. I felt good walking away. I feel like Billy (Haas) turned the corner and great things are in front of him with me gone.”
Burke’s career as a PGA Tour caddie began in 1986. A good chunk of it was spent with Brad Faxon and Davis Love III, with Burke caddying in four Ryder Cups.
Burke has been part of 15 wins on the PGA Tour and an additional 15 in the silly season. As impressive as that is, Burke was quick to throw out a few more stats.
“My guys were 2-13 in playoffs and I was 0-4 in Ryder Cups,” he laughed. “But my crowning achievement is being 3-1-1 in the Presidents Cup. How many guys on the U.S. side can say they were part of the losing squad and the squad that tied? Maybe there’s a couple of us, but not many.”
In a recent ‘Under the Strap’ podcast on The Caddie Network, Burke and longtime friend and fellow caddie Tony Navarro were guests. Navarro, noting Burke’s wit and knack for busting chops with the boys, said, “the world is his dartboard.”
Burke’s PGA Tour caddie friends can attest to that.
“I don’t use the word legend lightly, but Cubbie is a legend,” said Scott Sajtinac, caddie for Jason Dufner and president of the Association of Professional Tour Caddies (APTC). “An infectious personality with a big laugh, always a joke and quip on hand, it was hard to be around him and not be in a good mood. I remember back in the 90s the PGA Tour could be a kind of hostile environment for rookie caddies, especially one from abroad. We weren’t received well at all, to the point where grizzly vets would go out of their way to make you feel uncomfortable. And then there was Cub. He would never walk by you without a smile and a hello, and always a jab if he knew you sent your man over the green the day before. He is salt of the earth, a true gentleman and character in the world of pro golf that will be greatly missed.”
Paul Tesori, longtime caddie to Webb Simpson, remembers a first run-in with Burke very early in his caddie career.
“My first year caddying, in 2000, I’m working for Vijay and we are paired with John Huston,” Tesori recalled. “I ask Cubbie, ‘what John’s caddies name?’ He said quickly — and confidently — ‘Eddie.’
“So, proceed to call him ‘Eddie’ the first two holes until he couldn’t take it and told me it was a joke. The caddie’s name was Brian Smith. Brian currently works for Zach Johnson.”
Mike “Fluff” Cowan, one of the most recognizable – and successful – caddies in PGA Tour history will miss Burke… but not for pranks like this one…
“Cubbie was a prankster,” Cowan said, but, “maybe not a merry prankster. The best one I remember is the time he hid my dentures. He thought it was quite funny.”
Joe LaCava, who currently caddies for Tiger Woods after spending two decades alongside Fred Couples, is one of Burke’s oldest friends on Tour.
“I’ve got two quick stories,” LaCava said. “First one was the Ryder Cup in Spain. Me, Cub, Bones [Phil Mickelson’s longtime former caddie Jim ‘Bones’ Mackay], a couple other caddies and a few writers are having dinner on Friday night and Bones is talking about the match they had that day and how well Phil had played, I believe with Davis, but they still lost and how disappointed and bummed he was.
“He was going on and on. Meanwhile, Cub is hammering him about, ‘you know, you just need to know how to close,’” LaCava recalled. “You know, close like his man [Brad Faxon] did that day playing with Fred. Cub talked about how Fax made a tough 8-footer for par on 18 to secure the match. He was just winding Bones up. After about 15 minutes of this, Cub gets up to go to the bathroom and once he’s out of earshot I tell Bones, ‘Fax didn’t make a birdie all day.’ While he did make par on the last, Fred carried him all day and this — of course really got — under Bones’ skin. I knew Cub was winding Bones up and once he got back, he came clean on things and we laughed the rest of the night.”
Oh, and that second story from LaCava…
“We’re at the ‘93 PGA in Toledo,” he said. “Cub is staying with Fax and tells me and Bones that Fax wants to take us for a steak dinner. We’re in. They pick us up at 7 o’clock and on the way to dinner, Fax tells us about this J-turn he learned while at some stunt-driving school. I had never heard of it but Fax is telling us about how you throw it in reverse and go as fast as you can up to about 50 yards and just turn the wheel a certain way and boom… you do a 180 and your heading in the same direction but going forward.
“Well, of course now we have to see this. So, we find a neighborhood where houses are being built and Fax is going to show us. All four of us are in the car and Fax goes for it. Throws it in reverse goes about 60 yards and does his thing with the wheel. We end up over the curb onto the lawn about 20-30 yards up into a pile of 2x4s with dirt and dust everywhere after doing about a 90-degree turn instead of the 180. Never laughed so hard in my life. You kind of had to be there, but typical Cub and Fax and very funny.”
John Wood, caddie for Matt Kuchar, also shared some of his favorite Cub stories.
“One time I remember when he was working for Calc [Mark Calcavecchia],” Wood said. “Calc called him in for a read on a 15-footer. Cubbie had a very distinctive green-reading stance. He’d bend down, hands on his knees, remove his glasses and put them on his hat. So, he does all this, takes a look from behind the ball… stalks around to the side of the line, takes another look. Walks behind the hole, one more look. Stalks back around and behind the ball where Calc is waiting and says: ‘I have no fucking idea.’ And walks away. Calc was laughing so hard he could barely hit the putt.”
Hey Cub – how'd you get your caddie nickname? pic.twitter.com/2LTQPMPz4Z
— Caddie Network (@CaddieNetwork) April 18, 2019
Then there was the 2004 Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills. Burke was working for Love at the time and Wood was there with Chris Riley.
“Davis Love and Fred Funk are scheduled to play an alternate-shot match, back when the one-ball rule was in effect,” Wood recalled. “Davis used a Titleist Pro v1x and Fred used a Callaway red. In discussing which ball to use, they decide to use a Callaway blue, which was in theory right between those two balls. Cubbie says, ‘Wait a minute, guys. You mean we are going to play a ball that NOBODY knows?’”
Wood’s next story certainly isn’t indicative of Burke’s caddying skills, but it puts that wit on full display.
“At TPC New Orleans one year with Davis, he asked Cubbie how far that tiny pit bunker is off the tee,” Wood said. “Cubbie says, ‘325, you can go right at it.’ Davis drills one, which rolls and rolls and rolls and reaches the bunker. Cubbie says: ‘Tomorrow go a little right of it.’”
And, finally, Wood shared this gem from the 2002 Open Championship at Muirfield.
“Davis (with Cub on the bag) is paired with Scott Hoch in the last round at the Open Championship at Muirfield,” Wood said. “Hoch famously didn’t enjoy links golf and The Open Championship at all. Hoch tells Davis and Cub at the beginning of the final round he’s never coming back to play a British Open. That this was his last one. Anyway, he starts tearing up the back 9, and Cubbie says, ‘hey you better be careful or you’re gonna have to come back and defend next year.’”
There’s no doubt that Burke will be missed. But what will he miss most?
“It’s hard. I’m not going to miss bogeys,” Burke said. “I’m not going to miss players with PMS — Piss and Moan Syndrome. I won’t miss that kinda stuff. I’m pretty good about moving on when I make a decision. We’ll see. I loved my job. It wasn’t an easy decision, but I’m 70 years old. I don’t think people realize that. What I’m really going to miss is the camaraderie. The competition, too. There’s nothing like turning on Sunday with a chance to win — that feeling. When you experience it enough, you slow down instead of speed up and you enjoy it. It’s a great feeling. That and the camaraderie. I’ve always been fortunate to have that. I’ll miss it.
“Everybody has a good time,” Burke added. “At least I did – sometimes at others’ expenses, but I got it too. I was fortunate to have that job and the caliber and class of players I worked with was tremendous. What does it take to be a good caddie? Show up on the first tee with a good player. That’s the secret. I’ll miss everybody. I think the Tour has done a great job appreciating caddies more over the years and I’m happy to see the changes. I enjoyed being out there when caddies didn’t mean as much, but they did to us. A lot of characters. It’s a lot of fun. That caddie room is the closest thing I’ve ever been to a hockey locker room. You can’t be too sensitive.”