Lee Trevino: A Short Goodbye

Lee Trevino: A Short Goodbye

Lee Trevino, 69, in Wethersfield, Conn.
David Eustace

This article first appeared in the March 2006 issue of Golf Magazine.

He was the man who beat The Man, who carried the Senior Tour on his always aching back and who holed the most widely remembered ace in the game's history at the 1987 Skins Game. Surely, Lee Trevino, the showman, will take a curtain call and a sweeping bow with a rapt audience weeping and laughing at his feet. Arnold Palmer got it at Augusta in 2004, and Jack soaked it up at St. Andrews last year. Now it's Lee Trevino's turn to present a cheek for his long kiss goodnight.

But Trevino doesn't want to endure a big sendoff, to wave atop a bridge while his tumultuous career plays out in sepia tones and soft melodies.

"Arnold was the backbone of the Tour and Jack was the greatest ever-they deserved it," Trevino says. "I showed up unannounced, with no credentials, and I'm going to leave unannounced."

That Trevino would be the first from golf's greatest competitive era to call off the long goodbye may appear to be the height of irony, like the fact that he didn't like Mexican food unless it was homemade. But Trevino's friends and family, and the writers who covered him, always knew he had a prominent private side. He used a million little exits to escape from the way people generally perceived him. He practiced manically; drank beer like it paid the bills (it did when he endorsed Coors); surrounded himself with hangers-on (the real Lee's Fleas); and held the unofficial Tour record for room-service orders.

"I've had two different lives," Trevino says of his penchant for switching from master of merriment to missing in action. When he had to, he could even disappear in plain sight.

Trevino won six majors (the U.S. Open in '68 and '72, the British Open in '71 and '72, and the PGA Championship in '74 and '84), and did so noisily. His defense at the '72 British Open ended Nicklaus' Grand Slam bid. His '71 Open triumph capped a 20-day binge during which he also won the U.S. and Canadian opens. Trevino beat the Bear on every field of battle-in the States, in the U.K., and then on the Senior Tour. Nicklaus names him, "with Ben Hogan, one of the two best ball strikers in the history of the game." Nick Price goes a step further, calling Trevino "the best ever." He was so good that if you asked him to hit the 100-yard sign on the range, he'd ask you to specify if you meant the "1" or one of the zeros. So good that he boasted he could hit a sprinkler head one in 10 tries from 110 yards.

Nicklaus, for one, never did figure out the key to consistently beating Trevino, once playfully urging him to "Go back to Mexico!" even though Trevino, who laughed, never lived there. "He didn't do dumb things," Nicklaus says. "He was as tough a player to beat one-on-one as I have ever seen."

Even when Trevino played poorly he could summon enough magic to win. Struggling down the stretch in the '72 British Open as Nicklaus charged, he slashed his way up the fairway of the par-5 17th with indifference, only to chip in for par after pausing just a heartbeat to survey the shot.

"I had to make it up with the short game," Trevino says. "That's how I took care of everybody, how I beat Jack, Arnold, the big hitters. I couldn't reach the par 5s, but I kept wedging it tight and after a while they'd say, 'Jesus Christ, this guy's phenomenal,' and they'd let their guard down. Jack knew if he was chasing me he'd have to make a birdie because I wouldn't miss a fairway."

Nicklaus and Trevino were polar opposites. Nicklaus was a fortress of concentration; Trevino was a walking one-liner. Nicklaus was a family man; Trevino told his wife and daughter to go home when they distracted him during his practice sessions. Nicklaus' swing, not classic but elegant in comparison to Trevino's, was honed by his boyhood teacher, Jack Grout. Trevino's function-over-form action was self-taught. He'd been a hooker when he got out of the Marines in 1960, but that shape didn't play on baked Texas fairways, which ushered his drives to the rough. As luck would have it, he was invited to play Shady Oaks, Ben Hogan's club in Fort Worth, where he spied the insular Hawk hitting balls.

"While I wouldn't dare go near him," Trevino wrote in his autobiography, They Call Me Super Mex, "I could see how he was hitting the ball… I'd never hit a fade before, but I went back to the driving range in Dallas and started working on it." Nicklaus dropped out of Ohio State. Trevino had no formal schooling beyond eighth grade, but he never stopped learning. Peter Alliss, who hosted the BBC's Pro-Celebrity Golf from 1974 to '88, delighted at Trevino's half-dozen appearances.

"He had a very quick mind," Alliss says. "He read our newspapers, watched our TV. He wanted to know things like how Parliament worked. He was curious about the food. He even learned the rules of cricket-98 percent of the pros wouldn't care."

Mostly he knew how to score. As a 26-year-old jack-of-all-trades, club pro to shoe-shine boy, at Horizon Hills Country Club in El Paso, Trevino famously dusted Ray Floyd, already on Tour, in two out of three rounds, shooting a pair of 65s to Floyd's 67-66. He figured the only way to beat Nicklaus was to work all angles, including psychology. Once, upon spotting Nicklaus across the fairway, Trevino mimed a loopy swing and yelled, "Hey, Jack, when did you get this?" Nicklaus stared at him and said nothing for several seconds, then smiled and walked away.

Like a savvy coach, Trevino would talk up his opponent to anyone who would listen: Jack is a giant, the best ever.

Nicklaus says Trevino never rattled him, but admits he was impressed with his adversary's devil-may-care ability to convince himself he had nothing to lose.

Trevino's gab served him in one other way: It relaxed him. Nicklaus loves to tell the story of walking off the first tee and saying, "Lee, I just want to play golf today; I don't want to talk." "That's all right, Jack, you don't have to talk," Trevino replied. "You just have to listen."

In the end, the most glaring difference between the two was that Trevino looked nothing like Nicklaus; he looked nothing like anyone on the Tour, really. While Nicklaus could be mistaken for his doppelganger, Phil Rodgers, Trevino couldn't hide.

"Half the Tour can walk in here and they all look alike, but it didn't make any difference where I went, I was recognizable," he said during a recent interview at a Marriott Hotel in Hartford, Conn., where he keeps a summer home. At 66, Trevino looks more or less like he did on the senior circuit, but thicker in the middle and with a full head of white hair.

His fizzy persona leads fans to believe he's public property. They approach him in restaurants, theaters and even restrooms. Sure enough a half dozen of them interrupt him at the Marriott, prompting Trevino to quip, smiling, "You see what I mean?" At once enriched and repulsed by his fame, Trevino reverted to self-preservation. He grew up in a one-room shack in Dallas with no electricity, plumbing or father. Raised by his mother, who cleaned houses, and his grandfather, a grave digger, Trevino found refuge at age 8 when he began to caddy for 90 cents a loop at a nearby club, and amassed a pile of nickels from sandlot matches with the other loopers. At 17, he enlisted in the Marines, and, during his four years as a machine gunner, the jarheads tried unsuccessfully to pound the clown out of him. Always he survived. He fought or ran, marinated himself in beer or lost himself in practice. It was what he knew.

The night before the 1970 Westchester Classic pro-am, he got drunk on scotch, bombed on The Tonight Show—he nearly fell walking to his seat—and afterward was so depressed he left his hotel room and drove south until he could no longer keep his eyes open. He checked into another hotel and slept until 3 p.m. the next day, leaving officials, family and friends to panic until he decided to call home.

Other exits were less dramatic but equally memorable. After announcing his arrival with a fifth-place finish at the 1967 U.S. Open at Baltusrol, Trevino was invited to play the next week in Cleveland. He accepted, but changed his mind during the second round. A party was going on without him in El Paso, so, determined to miss the cut, he stood on the 16th tee and fired three drives at a house out of bounds right and flew home. His friends from Texas, golf pals turned drinking buddies, provided insulation from the loneliness of Tour life. Their cozy and boozy arrangement reached new heights the night before the 1968 PGA Championship in San Antonio, when Trevino, two strokes off the lead, drank several beers, woke up dehydrated at 3 a.m. and slaked his thirst with a tray of Gatorade he found in the refrigerator-only to learn later that it had been spiked with tequila. Still woozy, he shot a final-round 76.

Those heady days more or less ended when he was struck by lightning during the 1975 Western Open outside Chicago. His reputation as a joker was such that as he rolled around on the ground saying, "I'm hit! I'm hit!" spectators thought he was goofing and laughed. The bolt went up his spikes and out his back, and, moreover, it permanently scarred his constitution. "It changed my attitude," Trevino says. "I've wondered how much more I would have won had I not been hit, but the way I was carrying on, I might have won less."

Two years later, with his game in a post-lightning lull and stung by lousy investments, he moved with his second wife, Claudia, from El Paso back to Dallas. Sobered by near death and financial woes, he continued to ham it up on the course but at night retreated to his hotel room. Nicklaus even uses the term "recluse" to describe his old rival.

However, Trevino's most reliable (and productive) exit was practice. He beat balls anywhere he could, from Tour stops to roadside ranges. He donned scuba goggles to practice hitting 1-irons into the wind. Trevino joked that a good driver was like a good wife, only harder to find, but he paid a high price for his dedication. His first marriage, to a girl named Linda who was pregnant with his first child, Ricky, by the time she graduated high school, lasted just two years. His second marriage lasted 17 and produced three children, Tony, Lesley and a youngest daughter named Troy. The explosive union ended in 1982, shortly after Claudia ominously borrowed and (accidentally) shattered his driver.

"Those kids didn't get a fair shake," Trevino admits. "I was a lousy dad. Half the time I didn't even know what grades they were in. Maybe I was selfish, but I never felt like I belonged (on Tour). It's only now that I realize yes, I was talented, and I probably didn't need to put as much time into it as I did." And so Trevino has begun to reemerge, to avail himself to his kids, hoping to make things right.

"We went through some tumultuous times where we didn't like each other very much," says Tony, 36, the director of golf at Heritage Ranch near McKinney, Texas. "Now we're good. Was it worth it? I think it was."

Trevino says his relationship with Ricky, a teaching pro in Florida, is also good. Still, some damage was permanent. Lesley died of a heart attack at age 36, in 2002. "She had a blood disorder," Trevino says. Troy attempted to speak with her father at her sister's funeral, but a teary Trevino begged off. He figured their relationship wasn't in dire straits, with him having paid for and attended her wedding only a year earlier. "We'd had a good time (at the wedding)," he says. "I was pretty emotional at the funeral and said it wasn't the time to talk, but she hasn't spoken to me since. Troy's disowned me. I think she thinks I didn't do enough (to save Lesley). There have been no cards, nothing. I don't even know where she lives. I'm just waiting. I've gained my boys back, but I never got my girls back."

Trevino married his third wife, also named Claudia, in 1983, and they had two more children, Olivia, 17, and Daniel, 13. At his wife's urging, he vowed not to be a drive-by dad. He no longer thought of Nicklaus as a rival, but rather as a role model. "Jack would show up at the last minute for a major because his daughter Nan had a volleyball game or his son Steve had a football game," Trevino says.

Trevino quit drinking, loosed the death grip his career had on him and took up parenting. Soon he was toting Olivia around on the Senior Tour, driving her to school, watching plays and tossing baseballs.

That he is physically able to do so is something just south of a miracle. His latest back operation-he's had three and wears a metal plate in his neck-in Cologne, Germany, last May, left metal rollers between his fourth and fifth vertebrae. After knocking around the house for much of last year, Trevino was working out in his garage in December and planning to rejoin the Champions Tour in 2006.

"I miss the guys," he says. He is still the most private of showmen, always with his finger on the on/off switch. He took an eight-day cruise through the Virgin Islands over Christmas, but didn't bring his clubs. Why be conspicuous? So, no, there will be no farewell tour, no weepy adieu.

"I'm going to fade into the sunset," Trevino says. "Like the one they watch on Pineapple Hill in Hawaii, where they pay $14 for a 50-cent drink and think about old times. I'll be cremated, and my ashes will be spread on some golf course; I don't care which one. I've told my wife to make sure you reach in there, and if you don't find two steel rollers and a metal plate, those aren't my ashes."

Closing comments:

Can you still win?

Trevino: No. I'm not stupid. If I thought for one second that I could go out and win… If I were to win again on the Senior Tour, I'd putt lights out for two rounds, take a one-shot lead and then wait for the rain.

Where do you rank among the all-time greats?
Trevino: Golfers are like oranges on a tree. There's always one orange that's closer to the sun than all the others, and then there's a circle that are almost as close, and one of those is almost as high as the top one, and so on. I'm somewhere on the upper half of that tree.

The Chi of Lee
From his sharp zingers to his introspective musings, Lee Trevino has been golf's wise man (and wise guy!)

On the game:

"If you are caught on a golf course during a storm and are afraid of lightning, hold up a 1-iron. Not even God can hit a 1-iron."

"You can talk to a fade, but a hook won't listen."

"Nobody but you and your caddie cares what you do out there, and if your caddie is betting against you, he doesn't care either."


On love:

"My wife doesn't care what I do when I'm away, as long as I don't have a good time."

"You can make a lot of money in this game. Just ask my ex-wives."

"I've been hit by lightning and been in the Marine Corps for four years. I've traveled the world and been about everywhere you can imagine. There's not anything I'm scared of except my wife."


On aging:

"The older I get the better I used to be!"

"I'm in the woods so much I can tell you which plants are edible."

"I'm not saying my golf game went bad, but if I grew tomatoes they would have come up sliced."


On money:

"I'm going to win so much money this year, my caddie will make the top 20 money list."

"Putts get real difficult the day they hand out the money."

"Pressure is playing for $10 when you don't have a dime in your pocket."

"My family was so poor … when somebody threw our dog a bone, he had to call for a fair catch."


Trevino on the Big Five (and a half)

Lee Trevino faced off with some of the game's toughest ever, so he knows greatness when he sees it:

Tiger Woods: "Phenomenal. That money doesn't mean a thing to him. The talent, work ethic, killer instinct-he wants to beat you by 15 strokes. I give (caddie) Steve Williams some of the credit for the way Tiger out-thinks guys."

Ernie Els: "Great talent, big man, great swing. If Ernie's going to beat Tiger he's got to stay here (the PGA Tour) and play with him. He can't go to the Philippines one week and then Dubai the next. The time changes kill you."

Phil Mickelson: "As talented as Tiger-Phil's just got to start thinking like him. I told him that and he didn't like it. Arnold was like that. He would have won twice as many tournaments if he wasn't charging all the time. I tried to tell Phil, 'When Arnold made a bogey only four guys went by him. When you make a bogey, 35 guys go by you.' Back then, if we made a bogey and a guy went up on the board whose name we didn't recognize, we knew we'd be back past him in three or four holes. These guys today don't back off."

Vijay Singh: "The smartest thing he ever did was travel with a personal trainer. He stays so supple. He's in the gym at 6 a.m., on the bike for an hour. Vijay never gets hurt. He prevents it before it happens."

Retief Goosen: "He's like I am off the golf course. He doesn't say much. He's a tough cookie to read. He's a very good putter."

Michelle Wie: "She won't make a profit on the PGA Tour, but she's learning a lot. She's only 16! She's got power and she knows how to play."

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