Leonard Shapiro, Sports Columnist

Tour Should Honor Burger's Legacy

By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, February 7, 2007; 4:57 PM

On Tuesday, a number of tour officials, including Commissioner Tim Finchem, attended the funeral followed by a celebration-of-life memorial service for George Burger, the effervescent driving force who played a huge role in turning the Presidents Cup into one of the more compelling competitions on the golf calendar.

Burger, who spent most of the last 25 years living and working in the Washington area, died on Jan. 31 at the age of 50, a mere 18 days after being stricken on the final day of the Sony Open in Hawaii and eventually diagnosed with bacterial meningitis, an insidious illness that took him away from his legion of friends and his family far, far too soon.

At the time of his death, Burger was in his second year as a tour vice president, hired by Finchem in October 2005, and recently named this past November to oversee the tour's new FedEx Cup format. Burger's background had always been in politics as a widely respected consultant, strategist, campaign manager and public relations specialist. He had worked in the Washington office of the Edelman Public Relations firm in the three years before he dramatically changed careers and lifestyles by moving south to take a major position at Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

Clearly, he always had a passion for politics, but it paled in comparison to his 21-year love affair with his wife, Patti, and, of course, a lifetime of pure joy with the game of golf. A burly lefthander with a gigantic swing to match his generous heart, Burger played to a single-digit handicap and was one of the original members at RTJ, the gorgeous golf course along the shores of Lake Manassas that has been the only American site of the Presidents Cup since its inception in 1994.

A dozen years ago, Burger became actively involved in helping the club put on the inaugural tournament, and eventually became RTJ's club president.

That term at the top was followed by serving as general chairman and tournament director for the last Presidents Cup in the U.S., the rollicking 2005 affair won by an American team over a strong contingent of international players.

I first met my friend George back in the mid-1990s, and like anyone else who ever crossed his path, from the first time we shook hands, it was friendship at first sight. There was never any hard selling going on. He rarely called to pitch a story or a point of view and he never, repeat never, failed to return a phone call within minutes of checking his answering machine. He was always candid, on or off the record, and the most astute sounding board I've ever encountered in close to 20 years covering the sport.

Burger had no enemies as far as I know, only dear friends. One of them was Ty Votaw, the former LPGA commissioner who joined the tour three months after Burger had arrived, and took over the same office Burger initially occupied until Votaw walked in the door.

"They had just given me his office but he was still the first guy to greet me when I came to work the first day," Votaw recalled. "It's difficult to put into words the impact he had on my life in what is a comparatively short period of time. His personality and his outlook on life, just his positive nature, drew you closer to him and made you think you'd known him your entire life. More than that, you always wanted to be around him."

Votaw is married to LPGA player Sophie Gustafson, and when he flew out of town on business, he said Burger always made it a point to send his wife's up-to-the-minute scores to Votaw's Blackberry. "He was a fan of Sophie's and he and Patti bonded with both of us," Votaw said. "When I look back on it, there were so many little things he would say to me. In hindsight, I should have listened more closely."

Finchem talked about seeing Burger walk down a hall at tour headquarters and knowing he was about to have an engaging, informative and often entertaining conversation with the man he literally hired on a hunch.

Finchem, who also spent time in Washington as an official in the Jimmy Carter administration, said he had seen Burger in perpetual motion for all those years at the Presidents Cup, and told him when he first offered him a job he still wasn't quite sure what he'd be doing at the tour, but they'd find something. He recalled that Burger looked at him and said "is this how you hire all your people?"

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