Golf Range Newsmakers
When it comes to golf’s ultimate newsmakers, there may have been more successful ones or those who became one faster and with a more celebrated start, but probably nobody ever overcame more humble beginnings or larger odds to achieve more worldwide success than one Lee Buck Trevino.
Rising from the Dallas caddy yards and public driving ranges he achieved remarkable success on the PGA and Champions Tour. Along the way Trevino performed a variety of roles from golf range operator to golf hustler and finally a multiple major championship winner.
His life story would be an unforgettable movie if only you could get people to accept his unbelievable tale of rising from rags to riches to become one of golf’s all-time champions – a story made more incredible considering his humble background.
He was born December 1, 1939 in Dallas to circumstances which could be considered anything but a laboratory for a future golf superstar. There was no golf background in his family, no country club membership, not even any golf clubs or means to get them.
His swing, which would one day lead his peers to call him one of the best ball strikers of all time, was entirely self-taught and honed at Hardy’s Golf Range and on the municipal courses of Dallas.
At Tenison Park, a city-owned facility, Trevino was legendary for taking on all comers with a taped up 32-ounce glass Dr. Pepper bottle or driving a ball from the clubhouse porch underneath a nearby railroad trestle for the right amount of money.
He found part-time employment as a kid for Hardy Greenwood at Hardy’s Driving Range long-since-closed, but not far from his home, where he pounded thousands of balls with his new swing.
Later, he worked for Greenwood on the range, picking up balls, building the adjacent par 3 course and working the range offering and receiving pointers to whoever would ask or listen.
After a four-year stint in the Marine Corps, Trevino got his first official pro job as an assistant at Horizon Hills in El Paso where he participated in some historic big money golf matches with future pro Raymond Floyd and legendary gambler Alvin (Titanic) Thompson.
Trevino turned pro in 1967 and was named Rookie of the Year, finishing fifth in the U.S. Open that year. He stamped his mark on the golf world by winning the 1968 Open at Oak Hill in Rochester, NY, shooting four rounds in the 60s and capped his post-round comments by saying he wanted to win enough money to buy the Alamo in San Antonio and give it back to the Mexicans.
It was the first of six major titles, 29 PGA Tour titles overall, two dozen Senior Tour victories, and a string of great quotes, “two things that never last, dogs that chase cars and pros who putt for pars,” he once said. “Real pressure is playing for $10 with only $5 in your pocket,” was another.
At age 64, Trevino’s brilliant career is much closer to the end than the beginning, but the full-time Dallas resident says he won’t plan any fancy retirement parties or victory galas anytime soon.
While recovering from minor shoulder surgery and getting ready for the 2007 Champions Tour season, Trevino took time for an exclusive chat with Golf Range News about his long golf career, its ups and downs, his plans for the future, and ways he would like to be remembered as a golfer.
Golf Range News: You’re always entertaining the fans on the golf course, cracking jokes, making sure people have a good time. Do you think that’s part of a professional’s job, especially on the Champions Tour?
Lee Trevino: Different pros have different personalities. Not everybody is like me, but we have to do more than just show up. I really like Davis Love III, I think he’s one of the greatest golfers out here, but he just doesn’t show any emotion at all out here. I was actually in the gallery when David Duval shot a 59 at the Bob Hope a few years ago and he did actually pump his fist – once. I mean, how is that possible?
GRN: You’ve always been known as the “Merry Mex” with a smile and a quip and joke, throwing (rubber) snakes on Jack (Nicklaus), is that just part of your personality?
LT: The reason I got away with it is that I could play as well. I had a game. If I couldn’t play then I would have just been that crazy man out here.
GRN: How did you get started with your seemingly nonstop friendly banter on the golf course?
LT: When I was growing up, me and my buddies could only scrape together one set of golf clubs, so when we were walking down the fairways together, we would always have to shout out, ‘hey Billy, throw me the 5-iron; hey Whitey, I need the putter,’ and that’s how I got started.
GRN: You certainly spent plenty of time on the public driving range, maybe more than anybody playing professional golf now. What did that teach you?
LT: You always have to keep working on the range if you want to get better. You should always work with a plan in mind. I see players just pounding balls aimlessly on the range, but I was working on something out there.
GRN: What did you learn about working and helping run a range?
LT: It was a lot of hard work, building the par-3 course, but I wanted to be out there because I wanted to get better. It was a good job.
GRN: How true are the old stories about Lee Trevino hustling people at Tenison Park in Dallas?
LT: Hustling? I never hustled anybody in my life. You have to understand what hustling it. It’s lying about your handicap to con somebody else out of money. I always told people I was a scratch handicap and I would give them six shots and still beat them. Maybe I didn’t tell them I was a plus-six, but I never hustled them. Like a lot of stories, it’s probably 50-50 on the accuracy.
GRN: What about your games with Titanic Thompson and Raymond Floyd in El Paso?
LT: I never played with Titanic. He brought Raymond to El Paso to play golf, just because he wanted to get in a poker game there, but he didn’t want to play golf, only poker. I think everybody knows about the big money match I had with Raymond. We both did pretty well on the Tour.
GRN: How did Titanic get his nickname?
LT: By sinking another opponent. That man sank more marks than anybody in golf. You know, he once played Byron Nelson in Dallas and lost by a shot, after getting two before they started. You just never knew about him. He asked me to go on the road with him once, said we would make thousands, but I didn’t want to travel that much. He was really something.
GRN: What does it say for a player like you, with no golf background, no formal lessons, working at a public range with no teaching pro to become a worldwide golf superstar?
LT: With my swing I needed a lot of work and I never broke stride on the practice tee. I was there at 7 a.m., every morning, regardless of what happened the night before. I wasn’t always feeling good out there, but I was always there working on my game.
GRN: Could there ever be another Lee Trevino who could rise up from humble surroundings on the range to become a major championship winner?
LT: Sure, why not? This is America; you can do anything you want to. If you work hard enough and practice hard enough. That’s what I did. While I was in El Paso, Orville Moody was running the bowling alley on the military base there. I encouraged him to come out and he did after a year. Putting was the only thing that held him back.
GRN: What did winning the U.S. Open at Oak Hill in 1968 mean to you and to golf as a whole for someone to burst out on the scene like that?
LT: I think when I won the Open; it opened it (golf) up to the blue-collar workers. I was the kid from the other side of the tracks. The one from the poor neighborhood, who had made it to the top and that showed anything was possible. We had a bunch of fans out here, somebody called them, ‘Lee’s Fleas’. They may have not known a lot about golf, but we had a good time.
GRN: Regardless of any big announcements, your pro golfing career will be coming to an end sometime in the future. What would you like fans and golf writers to say about your career.
LT: You can say that this is a rich man’s game and I made it as a poor man in a rich man’s game. I broke the mold when I won because nobody with my background had ever won this much in any sport, maybe other than Pancho Gonzales in Tennis, and I made it in a rich man’s game. That’s what I’d like for them to say.
GRN: You’re playing less and less these days. Do you ever think when might be your last professional tournament?
LT: I don’t ever know when the end will be. I’m just like a duck, never sure what river I’m cruising on. I took all summer off, 12 weeks, to be with my kids, so I’m going to have to have some patience with my game after taking so much time off.
GRN: What about 2007? Have you thought that might be your final year?
LT: My kids are getting older and so I might play more. My game is really not that bad for taking so much time off. I’ve still got a little spark left to put on the wood and I think I can still do that. I never had a swing that you could lay off and then just come right back with no practice, like a Bruce Lietzke. My swing was homemade all the way and when I was playing well, I always played with a lot of confidence. That confidence came from hard work on the driving range and I haven’t done that lately.
GRN: So we shouldn’t expect any big Trevino retirement announcements anytime soon?
LT: I’m going to go away, just the way I came, without any fanfare. I’m not going to go around and wave at everybody, not going to have three farewell tours like Michael Jordan. I’m not telling anybody when I’m going to leave. People said “Where the heck did he come from?” when I arrived, and one day they will say, “Where the heck did he go?”
GRN: Do you think you’ve achieved the respect you’re due as a player outside your personality and on-course antics?
LT: I think I have. I read an article recently where Nick Price said I was one of the best ball strikers of all time and Ben Hogan used to say I was the only one who could hit his clubs. Of course, Mr. Hogan never called me by my name, he just said “that Mexican boy in Dallas”.
GRN: Considering your background and upbringing, does all you’ve achieved in your career sometimes amaze you?
LT: I don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on the past, but I can tell you I accomplished a whole lot more that I ever thought that I would. I missed a lot with my first family, that’s why I spend so much time with my kids now to make up for lost time with my first kids. I’m on pretty good terms with everyone, but I paid a big price.