Lee Trevino: The Hardest to beat
Lee Trevino has some stories to tell but he does not give many interviews these days. He doesn’t design golf courses any more, he doesn’t play much golf and he’s answered just about every question you could ask. But for Arnold Palmer, Trevino is happy to talk. And when Trevino gets on a roll you see his memory remains vivid, he still talks fast, he still laughs often and his quick wit lightens every turn. Robin Barwick tried to keep up
By the summer of 1974, Lee Trevino was a champion of four majors and, aged 34, he was vying with Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Johnny Miller to be the world’s best golfer. Nicklaus would later admit: “Of all my contemporaries Trevino was the hardest to beat.” We’ll return to that statement but as the PGA Championship approached that August, at Tanglewood Park in North Carolina, Trevino was lost in the darkness of a putting slump.
“Listen, let me explain something to you about putters, okay?”
“Kittens are born blind. A lot of people don’t know that,” continues Trevino, who turned 81 on December 1. “When kittens are born they can’t see for a week and their mother takes care of them and feeds them. Putters are the same way. A new putter is blind. You can go in the pro shop and there will be 20 putters. You take two of them out to the putting green, you pick one and with that putter you make every putt in the world. So you buy that putter but after seven days it opens its eyes, it recognises you, sees you putt and from that moment you putt just as bad with that putter as with your old ones. This is what happens.
“So back in 1974 I was looking for a blind putter. If I could find that blind putter then I just hoped I could get the tournament over with before it opened its eyes and recognised me. That is exactly what I did that week and there is a lot of truth to that.”
Trevino was convinced that the best blind putter for him at the time would be a Wilson-made Arnold Palmer blade. When Palmer turned professional in 1954 he did so on the back of a sponsorship deal with Wilson, and while Palmer never much liked the irons they made in his name, the putters felt like precious metal. Palmer won the Masters with them and today they are collectors’ items of considerable value—lots of zeros if you find one Palmer used—but these classic steel blades came out of production back in 1963 and 11 years on, Trevino couldn’t find one.
For the ’74 PGA Championship Trevino rented a house from a lady called Mrs. Mayberry.
“I was sleeping in the top bedroom and down the hall was an attic with a glass door,” recalls Trevino. “As I walked down the hall, through the door I saw a set of clubs lying on the floor, and sticking out was this Wilson blade by Arnold Palmer. I brought it out and it was the original version still with the original grip, which was very difficult to find. This putter fitted me just perfect. The loft, the lie, the grip. I putt with a forward press and this putter had about four degrees of loft which was perfect for me.
“Mrs. Mayberry had lost her husband about six months before and she had a son who was 17 or 18. She came to the house that day to collect her rent check and I said, ‘I didn’t mean to snoop but I saw this putter. It’s not for sale is it?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘That is my past husband’s putter and I am saving the clubs for my son.’
‘Okay,’ I said, ‘No problem’.
‘However,’ she said, ‘If you would like to use it in the tournament you are welcome to.’
“So I took it out there the next day for practice and I holed everything. It was just unbelievable. I holed everything. So I kept it in the bag.”
Trevino shot 73 in the first round but the putter kept its eyes closed in the second round and he shot 66, 4 under par, to get into contention. That evening Mrs Mayberry told Trevino that if he won the PGA, he could keep the putter.
Well, he shot 68-69 over the weekend to beat Nicklaus by 1. Over 72 holes, Trevino only three-putted once. Trevino still has the putter at home in Dallas.
“It’s in a box upstairs,” he says. “I call it Mrs. Mayberry.”
Like Palmer, Trevino grew up working at golf courses. He lived in a small house with his mother and grandfather near Dallas Athletic Club and from the age of eight Trevino caddied there. From five he had been picking cotton in the fields. He taught himself to play golf, playing the occasional shot for members when they were out of view of the clubhouse. He also shared a handful of old, handed-down clubs with the other caddies to play three short golf holes they had fashioned out behind the caddie barn.
Before and after serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, Trevino worked on the construction team of a nine-hole course, mowed the grass and collected the balls at a driving range and learned how to tinker with golf clubs along the way, as Palmer had done in his father’s workshop at Latrobe Country Club.
“Arnold and I were alike in that way,” he says. “Arnold liked to grind on every club. He had that workshop. Arnold and I ruined more golf clubs than I can remember! I have a workshop here in the house. I’ll probably burn the house down one of these days.
“And I probably have 150 putters but I never had as many as Arnie. He had thousands of them. Arnie was a hoarder. He kept everything. I’ve seen it. If Arnie had lived alone he would not have been able to get into the house!”
The long-lasting friendship between Palmer and Trevino began at the 1968 U.S. Open at Oak Hill. Trevino was just beginning to get established on tour. He made his U.S. Open debut in 1966 at the Olympic Club but only tied for 54th. He wasn’t even going to enter in 1967 so his first wife Claudia sent in the form and the $20 entry fee without telling him. Trevino was scraping around for money at the time and once he had eased through U.S. Open Qualifying, he had to borrow $400 to pay for the trip to Baltusrol in New Jersey. He only had one pair of golf shoes and 12 clubs in his bag. It was the first time Trevino had travelled out east beyond the Mississippi but he finished fifth, pocketed a check for $6,000 and the tournament invitations began to drop. Suddenly Trevino was a tour golfer and he finished 1967 as Rookie of the Year.
By the time Trevino arrived at Oak Hill in New York for the ’68 U.S. Open he was yet to win on tour and while he arrived with a pair of runner-up finishes, Trevino remained an outsider. But he was fearless and in form and when he started the final round just two shots behind Bert Yancey—who was by now a four-time winner on tour—Trevino revelled in his underdog role. While Yancey fell away with a final-round 76, Trevino held strong to shoot 69 and win by four clear shots from Nicklaus. In his book ‘They call me Super Mex’, Trevino wrote:
“There were thousands around the green and five policemen escorted me through the crowd to the clubhouse. I hadn’t had so much attention from the cops since I backfired my 1949 Ford on North Central Expressway when I was 15.”
And this time the check was for $30,000. Trevino would not have to worry about travel costs again.
“When I was signing my scorecard in the scorer’s tent, Mr. Palmer walked in to hand in his card,” Trevino tells us. “He stood over me, shook my hand and said, ‘Nice golf young man, you played well’. God damn, I was happier to meet Arnold Palmer than I was to win the trophy!”
Trevino started a tradition that day that many have since attributed to another major champ; to wear a red shirt with black pants for the final round. Trevino also wore a black cap and even red socks. He looked great and continued to wear red and black on final-round Sundays. He calls them his “payday colors”, and like fans of Tiger Woods today, Trevino’s fans started pressing up against the fairway ropes decked in red and black. Years later, when Trevino won a tournament sponsored by Chrysler and was given a car, he ordered it in his payday colors and gave it to his mother-in-law.
Anyway, that meeting in the scorer’s tent at Oak Hill in ’68 was the beginning of a friendship between Trevino and Palmer that would endure.
“Arnold turned out to be one of the greatest friends I ever had,” says Trevino. “You hear about the guy and you think, ‘Nah, he can’t be as nice as everyone says, nobody can be that nice or that thoughtful, nobody can be that gracious. It must be put on’. But I’ll tell you something, once you had been around Arnold Palmer for a while privately, in the locker room, on the golf course, at his birthday party, he was genuine. I have never met anyone like Arnold Palmer and it will be a long time, a long time, before there will be anyone like him again.
“When he passed away I said, ‘They will be talking about Arnold Palmer 100 years from now. Believe me when I tell you this.’”
Trevino’s win at Oak Hill in ’68 is one of the great U.S. Open stories but of Trevino’s six major victories, the one he might cherish just above the others is his second success in the U.S. Open, at Merion in 1971.
“I was very proud to have won that ’68 U.S. Open but at the time I didn’t have a clue about what it really meant,” confides Trevino, who did not start playing golf competitively until he represented the U.S. Marines while based in Okinawa, Japan, in 1958, at the age of 19. “I wasn’t familiar with all this stuff. You could talk about the Masters or the PGA Championship but a tournament was a tournament to me. I still saw myself as a journeyman. I was just playing golf like everybody else, no big deal. I didn’t know who the favorites were each week, I had no clue. I just turned up and teed up on the Thursday.
“A lot of golfers have won one major and then never won anything else, so winning my second U.S. Open was my greatest moment, and because I beat Jack Nicklaus in a playoff. That’s when I became accepted on tour and by all the players. That was the moment when I felt for the first time that I really belonged on tour. That’s when I started to relax and have more fun.”
The ’71 U.S. Open was also the second time Trevino had left Nicklaus as runner-up in the national championship. It happened again at the 1974 PGA Championship, with Mrs. Mayberry, leaving Nicklaus in the shade by one, and in the 1972 [British] Open at Muirfield, with Nicklaus also finishing a single shot behind Trevino as he claimed back-to-back Claret Jugs. Little wonder Nicklaus rated Trevino as the hardest to beat.
“That comment is the feather in my hat,” says Trevino. “I was so proud when I heard he said that. It was Jack’s coach Jim Flick who told me. I said, ‘What? Your joking!’ I get goosebumps telling you this now. I am proud of a lot of things that I have done but I have never received a greater compliment. Not when that comes from the greatest golfer of all time.”
Today, at home in Dallas, Trevino could not be happier to be taking a back seat from professional golf and its affiliated industries. “When I can see my glass is full, I’m not going to try to drink out of yours,” he says. Even the paraphernalia of Trevino’s remarkable career is shut away in an upstairs bedroom.
“You wouldn’t realise a golfer lived in this house,” he says. “When people come over I don’t want to have to answer questions about golf! I don’t need reminding, I have a good memory. I remember the majors; the shots, the golf courses, who I played with.”
Trevino rarely even plays 18 holes although he holds memberships at three local clubs; Dallas National, Maridoe and Preston Trail, and he practices most days at the pristine, tour-level Dallas National. Since recent eye surgery, Trevino can even see where he’s hitting the golf ball. He wasn’t blind like a new-born kitten but things were blurred.
“I was having a lot of trouble with my eyes,” he admits. “That’s what happens when you get older. The doctor said he could put lenses in surgically. Gary Player tried to get me to do this a long time ago, so I went in and God Almighty, I could see like a hawk.
“I called my doctor and said, ‘I’m suing you. I’m talking to a lawyer.’ He asked, ‘What’s the problem?’. I said, ‘Well, I thought I was hitting the ball really well until you gave me these new eyes, and now I can see where my ball is going and you’ve ruined my life. I’m hitting the ball terrible!’”
So Trevino can see things as clearly now as he ever did. He could still roll in some testy 20-footers too, if he could only get his hands on a blind putter again.