Golf Channel brings homeless pro’s tale to TV

Mark Burk, the central figure in Golf Channel's new show, 'Pipe Dream'

Mark Burk used to sleep in a mansion with a couple of Mercedes-Benzes and a golf studio in the garage. Now he sleeps in a concrete pipe near railroad tracks in Indio, Calif.

That’s where we meet Burk, the subject of “Pipe Dream,” which debuts on Golf Channel at 9:30 p.m. on Jan. 11.

“Pipe Dream” tells the story of a homeless golf pro who dreams of playing on the Champions Tour while simultaneously trying to clear his name of domestic-abuse charges filed by former girlfriend and supermodel Beverly Johnson.

There’s something almost childlike about Burk. He seems utterly incapable of finding his way in the world without someone – his mother, friends or, most intriguing, Johnson – to foot the bill for him. While watching the first two episodes, I was reminded of comedian Dennis Miller’s frequent refrain that society needs to “help the helpless, not the clueless.” Viewers can decide which adjective applies to Burk.

In the second episode, he is shown wandering from one business to the next, asking people for work.

“What do you do?” one lady asks him.

“I play golf,” Burk replies.

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Mark Burk

Burk’s goal is to go to Champions Tour Q-School, even though his golf clubs have been in hock for much of the past year and he’s reduced to using desert detritus – sticks and rocks – to work on his game. He recruits a homeless friend named Eddie “New York” – who knows more about reading tarot cards than greens – to be his caddie, provided Burk can reclaim his clubs and his game, not to mention find the money to enter Q-School.

“All I know is how to make money playing golf,” Burk says. “My instincts tell me to try to play. And I’ll try to play my way into a career.”

This can’t end well.

“Pipe Dream” also doesn’t start as well as I would have hoped. Given the storyline, the narration is oddly stilted and emotionless.

“At 53, Mark is looking for work for the first time in his life,” the narrator tells us. “But with no real-world experience outside of golf and no college education, Mark’s work options are extremely limited.”

There are other problems with the storytelling.

“Mark’s story defies explanation,” the narrator tells us in the first episode. But it’s the storyteller’s job to find the truth. Every story can be explained; the producers of “Pipe Dream” will need to do a better job of that as the season progresses.

In the first episode, we’re quickly told a murky story about how Burk came from an affluent family of retailers and picked up golf while attending private school. Things went south, Burk tells us, when a cousin “ended up stealing quite a bit of money from the federal government.” Burk says his mother, who apparently coddled her son, had to pay off the debt. By age 40, Burk says, the family money had dried up.

This cursory summary, which raises more questions than answers, isn’t good enough. Viewers need to understand more details about Burk’s story if they’re expected to care about his plight. He does not – nor should he – get the benefit of the doubt.

Similarly, we need more specifics on Burk’s playing credentials. His thumbnail summary: Turned pro in 1980, got back his amateur status in 1984, turned pro again in 1988, then played on various mini-tours and in South Africa. Burk says he “won” the 1984 California State Open. Greg Twiggs actually won that event; it’s possible Burk meant that he was the low amateur that year, but the Southern California PGA couldn’t confirm that. Burk did play in the 1984 U.S. Amateur, but failed to reach match play.

In the second episode, he’s shown shooting 3 over in his first round in two years. “His game is solid,” says friend Rich Greenwood, who played on UCLA’s 1988 national championship team.

Burk’s bigger problem, obviously, is clearing his name in court. Burk and his attorney insist he is innocent, and make casual assumptions about Johnson’s mental state. Johnson so far has not responded to requests for comment, according to a Golf Channel spokesman.

“Pipe Dream” represents one of the most ambitious programming choices in Golf Channel’s 16-year history – the sort of show many of us have hoped to see rather than another interminable, unwatchable season of “Big Break.” While storytelling flaws emerged in the first two episodes, Burk’s story is, nevertheless, compelling enough to keep me watching.

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