Wednesday 29 January 2020

Trevino - the pudgy kid from the locker-room who defied doubters

Lee Trevino. Photo: Getty
Lee Trevino. Photo: Getty

James Corrigan

This weekend 50 years ago marked the emergence of one of the great talents of modern golf. Among other things, a fifth-place finish behind Jack Nicklaus in the US Open at Baltusrol meant there would be no return for Lee Trevino to cleaning clubs, polishing shoes and picking up range balls as a general dogsbody back in El Paso, Texas.

The man who came to be known as Supermex visited these shores for the first time three years later, for the Alcan Golfer of the Year Championship at Portmarnock. He struggled in September winds in an event dominated by Australia's Bruce Devlin, whose winning aggregate of 278 was seven strokes clear of second-placed Bob Rosburg.

Though he missed only three greens while guiding the bigger American ball through fierce winds on the opening day, Trevino complained: "Any time a guy hits that many greens in this kind of wind, he deserves better than a 72. If I was in the British PGA, I'd definitely favour a small ball."

Before joining the US tour, he was assistant professional at Horizon Hills GC. The bulk of his earnings, however, came from money matches throughout the state of Texas - and a particularly notable one was against a promising tour player named Raymond Floyd.

It was arranged by golf enthusiast Martin Lettunich, a wealthy cotton farmer who clearly enjoyed the action. We're told that when Floyd drove up to Horizon Hills in his white Cadillac, Trevino rushed out of the pro shop to greet him, asking politely if he needed his clubs cleaned.

Pleased with all the attention, Floyd proceeded to the locker-room where the helpful local unpacked his clubs and polished his shoes. "Who am I playing?" asked the visitor. "You're looking at him," replied the pudgy, 5ft 7ins figure standing before him. Floyd couldn't resist saying: "You mean they bet on you?"

Then, on being asked by a local whether he would like to check out the course, Floyd responded: "Hell no. I'm playing this locker-room guy. I don't need to look at no course."

The match took the form of 54 holes over three days. On the first day, Floyd shot 66, Trevino 65. On day two, Floyd shot another 66 but Trevino replied with a 64. Eventually, it all rested on the final hole the following day when Floyd had an eagle to win by a stroke.

As he drove away, the future winner of four Major championships leaned out of the Cadillac's window with the parting shot: "I'll see you all later. There's easier games than this on tour." And by way of emphasising the point, he later told tour colleagues: "Boys, there's a little Mexican kid out in El Paso and when he comes out here, you'll have to make room for him."

In his outstanding book, The US Open: Golf's Ultimate Challenge, Bob Sommers recalls how observers at the 1967 US Open were eventually drawn to this remarkable Mexican who was leaving established players in his wake. During the final round, they had gathered at the fifth tee relatively close to the clubhouse when their quarry appeared, wearing a faded green shirt, baggy black trousers, black shoes and a black, baseball-type hat.

Sommers wrote: "He stood up to the ball with an open stance, his left foot drawn back from the line of flight, and took the club back on a flat, awkward plane. But when he moved through the ball, his clubhead followed the line of flight for what seemed an exaggerated distance. He had the longest extension through the ball since [Ben] Hogan.

"His drive on the fifth flew out low and flat, drifted slightly right and dropped gently onto the fairway. An iron to the green followed the same flight pattern, then a solid putt and Trevino had a birdie. It was his second birdie of the day and it dropped him to one-under par. Officials and reporters had seen enough; with a swing like that, Trevino was obviously playing over his head."

They couldn't have been more wrong. A final round of 70 delivered fifth place and a reward of $6,000 which, on returning to Horizon Hills, he invested in the club to become a part-owner. His fellow owners then put up the necessary cash to send him back on tour.

Over the remainder of 1967, the 27-year-old won more than $27,000 and was voted rookie of the year. And the following June at Oak Hill CC, he picked up $30,000 as winner of the US Open, four strokes clear of Nicklaus in second place. The pudgy kid with the coal-black hair, nut-brown skin and white, even teeth, had well and truly arrived. Though I had caught fleeting glimpses of Trevino at Portmarnock in 1970, his appearance in the 1985 Irish Open at Royal Dublin was far more rewarding.

That was when enduring admiration for Christy O'Connor was evident when he enthused: "Christy's swing flows like fine wine." In the event, Trevino overcame an opening 78 to be tied 34th behind his compadre, Seve Ballesteros.

Two years later, Monday, July 20, 1987, was the day after Nick Faldo had stunned the golfing world by winning the Open Championship at Muirfield with 18 straight pars. And Trevino was at Baltray for The Legends Cup in which, for once, the participants were worthy of the title. He and Arnold Palmer lost a fourball match against the Irish pairing of Des Smyth and Himself, not that the outcome mattered. Barry Reddan, the Co Louth captain that year, retains warm memories of an occasion which culminated with dinner at Slane Castle and a warm chat between Trevino and Barry's mother, Clarrie Reddan. Indeed a charming photo of the illustrious pair adorns the Co Louth clubhouse.

"Lee gave a clinic on the fourth tee, which had a large, local crowd enthralled," Reddan recalled. "Knowing that he was famous as a fader of the ball, they insisted that he hit a few draws, which he did to perfection. It was a great occasion."

My last meeting with Trevino was at the actual Legends Tournament in Savannah seven years ago. Noticing that a young woman was eyeing him rather curiously, he couldn't resist the mischievous comment: "Oh, you don't have to worry about me. My wife allowed me only one pill for the week."

Then, recalling Royal Dublin '85, he talked of his poor putting in that opening 78, saying: "I had 36 putts and when I came off the 18th, I saw this reverend gentleman standing there. 'Do you play golf, sir,' I asked. And when he replied 'I do,' I said 'Good, you can have this new Tommy Armour putter'. You could buy a new car with that putter today.

"I believe I finished on the same score as a young amateur. Kid called Ilostmyball." "You mean Olazabal," I suggested. "Yeah, that's him. Ilostmyball."

Happily, time doesn't change some cherished images in golf.

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