Golf's touring professionals, thriving in their golden age, have become a comparatively sane and urbane lot. They tend to dress and behave like the president of anybody's First National Bank—while frequently stacking up more money. Although they like to talk about the bad old days when Walter Hagen caroused all night with Al Jolson and then won the National Open hours later despite a staggering hangover, they know good businessmen don't live that way. The pro of the '60s wants to be, above all, a good businessman. There is, however, a youthful exception to the trend, one who does things with indisputable distinction. He is, surely, the only pro golfer ever to open a 12th-floor St. Paul hotel window at a late evening party and drive golf balls down Market Street. Nor have many people bubbled so much at winning their first PGA tournament that they ordered champagne for the entire press corps. Limited, too, are those who have won a sudden-death playoff after three quick highballs at the clubhouse bar. Finally, how many other pros have found a way to spend $28,000 a year doing something that most of their fellow tourists can do for $12,000?
But that's Tony Lema: tall, handsome, 29, a bachelor—for the next few months at least—and a long way from the Oakland canneries, shipyards, juvenile gangs and nimble golf hustles that marked his hardly serene youth. When not playing golf today, Anthony David Lema can be found at La Seala in Beverly Hills or Brennan's in New Orleans or the Little Club in New York. His haunts were the same a year ago, though until last September he had one annoying problem—he was spending money twice as fast as he was making it. But in only six months Tony has solved that difficulty and, if he still enjoys a first-class living, he can now afford it. Suddenly, his golf is first-class, too.
Prior to last fall, Tony Lema seemed more likely to become the National Twist Champion than to ruffle the calm of the world's best golfers. In five years as a touring professional he had shown occasional flashes of brilliance, but he had never won an important tournament. When the 1962 fall season opened, Lema stood 33rd in the ranks of the year's prize-money winners with a total of only $15,294. His debt to the financial backer who had sent him out on the tour amounted to three quarters of that sum, and his prospects were as gloomy as a Sunday morning downpour. But by Christmas, Lema was in a position to dispense frankincense and myrrh from Upstairs at the Downstairs to the Top of the Mark. He had won three tournaments in the U.S. and the Mexican Open as well, had earned his first invitation to compete in the Masters, had brought his overall 1962 winnings to $48,000 and had practically clinched a spot on the 10-man Ryder Cup team that will face Great Britain next October. Then, as if to prove that his spectacular play was something more lasting than bright autumn foliage, he finished in the top 10 at six of the first eight tournaments this year and currently ranks fifth on the prize money list with a total of $11,831.
Part of his success was, perhaps, due to the fact that the playboy in Lema is maturing. But a close look at the past-performance chart also reveals the explosively effective nature of his golf game. Even before he came out on the tour as a regular in 1958, Lema had won one worthwhile event, the 1957 Imperial Valley Open. It was there that he had assumed he was out of contention and cheered himself up at the bar—three times—only to be summoned out for a sudden-death playoff against long-hitting Paul Harney. The surprised Lema, feeling the pressure but apparently no pain, won on the second hole.
March 25, 1963
In his early days on the tour, Lema's long, accurate driving brought him some great rounds of golf. Several times he led tournaments during early stages, on y to lose control of his nerves or his temper and fade out of contention.
"He was a wonderful guy and a great player when he first came out," claims Johnny Pott, one of the best of the young pros and a longtime Lema companion. "We all wondered why he didn't start winning sooner. But he liked to do things first-class all the way, even then. You know, wine with his meals, late hours—the whole deal. He didn't want to make the sacrifices that have to be made if you want to win. Now he does."
"I don't think that's entirely it," says Lema. "I think that everything just fell into place at once. I have always known my game was very good, and I have always known how to get the most out of myself physically. I know I have to get away after a tournament, visit friends, lie on the beach. I fly, instead of driving like a lot of the other guys, because I figure it saves me 60 days a year. No, my difficulty has been that I couldn't control my temper. That, plus the fact that winning my first tournament became a big obsession with me. If I got a bad break or missed a short putt, I blew my top and began to expect bad breaks. It was a form of self-persecution that made it very hard to play consistently. Now I've learned that missing a short putt doesn't mean I have to hit my next drive out of bounds."
Ordinarily Lema is the most gregarious and generous of people. But if he had—or still has—sudden spasms of depression, there are probably ample reasons why. In its early years the Lema family, now comfortably off, had very little cause for merriment, even if it could have afforded it. Lema's father, a laborer of Portuguese descent, died of pneumonia when Tony was 3. His death left Lema's mother penniless as well as widowed, with the task of raising four children hard by the railroad in an industrial section of Oakland. It was not easy, of course. His two older brothers and sister seem to have been well behaved enough, but Tony's boyhood was more of a walk on the wild side. He began cutting classes at school, getting into fights and looking for small change and high excitement with a gang of young rowdies that avoided the clutches of the law largely because it moved fast.
"We would booze it up quite a bit, and that is the worst thing kids can do," recalls Lema. "It gave us a lot of false courage, and we always wound up in a batch of trouble. I was fortunate never to get caught. It was part of my life I'd like to do all over again."
But if he was difficult, he was also willing to work and help out at home. He started caddying at the nearby Lake Chabot municipal golf course when he was 12 and took a variety of other jobs as he got older. "It was tough on my mother with four kids to raise," says Tony, "but we hung together. I've worked in shipyards, drugstores, car factories, canneries, gas stations and grocery stores; any possible way I could make a buck. I took the swing shift at the shipyard just so I could play golf during the day."
"Those people on the golf course are old," Mrs. Lema used to complain. "Why don't you play with the other kids?"
During those years Lema was a high-scoring basketball player for his boys' club, CYO and high school teams, but basketball was his pastime, golf his passion. With no money to pay for lessons, he had to pick up the fundamentals of the game from a wide range of teachers. However, as the song in the soap commercial says, he liked people and people liked him. They were happy to lend him a hand. Lucius Bateman, a Negro who worked at a driving range in Alameda, helped develop Lema's smooth, natural swing. Ralph Hall, an Oakland policeman, taught him course strategy. Dick Fry and Bill Burch, the pros at Lake Chabot, taught him the square stance that makes his game so consistent today. Lema also began to learn how to make golf pay.
"Tony hustled more than a few bucks on the golf course," reports a former crony, "but he was always poor. When he lost a $5 bet the money was slow coming. When he won, he wanted it quick."
By 1953 Tony was 19 and had enlisted in the Marines ("It was a spur of the moment thing. I was just batting around doing nothing"). He was as skinny as a flag stick, but he could hit a golf ball a long way and he had won the Oakland City championship.
When he was mustered out of the Marines two years later, after serving in the Survey Section of the artillery in Korea, Lema had gained 20 pounds, most of it muscle. Chiefly because he had no idea what else to do, he took a job as shop assistant at the ultra-exclusive San Francisco Golf Club and then as teaching pro at a nine-hole municipal course in Elko, Nev. During these years he began to play golf with a professional flair. "I hustled the assistant pros around San Francisco pretty well," he says. "I'm afraid I fleeced them. I always seemed to offer them one stroke less handicap than they needed."
In 1956 Lema competed in his first major event, the National Open in Rochester. "I saw Mike Souchak in a barber shop," he says. "I sat at a big, long table in the clubhouse and ate lunch alongside Tommy Bolt, Ted Kroll, Cary Middlecoff, Jack Fleck and Ben Hogan. I didn't dare open my mouth, but I thought it was a big thing." He also shot a 308 and won $200. It wasn't long after this that Lema found a wealthy Portland (Ore.) sportsman who agreed to sponsor him on the PGA tour. The deal called for Lema to receive $200 a week expense money. He would repay all these advances and split his winnings above that: two-thirds for Lema, one-third for the backer. There was one unhappy hitch: all debts at the end of the year were to be carried forward—an unusual practice on the pro tour. Lema's debt to his backer amounted to over $11,000 late in 1962, but his fast finish almost wiped it out. The contract terminates this year.
"When I first went out on the tour," Lema recalls of the 1958 season, "I didn't know where to stay or eat, how to check in at a course or even how to get a practice game. You couldn't just walk up to a Snead or a Middlecoff and say, 'How about a game?' So I often played my practice rounds alone. I felt like a little guy in an awful big ocean."
That's what he was until he formed close friendships with three other young pros, Pott, Tommy Jacobs and Jim Ferree. The four traveled, ate, practiced, roomed and went out together. Lema finished among the top 15 in 11 tournaments during 1958, won $10,282 in official prize money and was rated one of the year's most impressive rookies (SI, Jan. 12, 1959).
But he sank in the ocean again, and fast. He dropped to 55th on the money-earned list in 1959 ($5,900) and to 77th in 1960 ($3,060), hardly earning enough to cover his caddy fees, let alone pay for his newly cultivated tastes. The tab with his sponsor grew like crabgrass.
"I didn't know what was happening," Lema now recalls. "But I guess I started worrying when I didn't win a tournament. I became confused and depressed. I felt I had no friends. I even started to try some major experiments with my game." To a pro golfer, experimenting with one's game is no better than dope addiction.
There were some consolations. Women, for instance.
"I didn't have much trouble getting dates," Lema says, an understatement of monumental proportions.
"Tony really gave a wild one after the 1961 St. Paul Open." says touring pro Don Whitt. "You know him. Well, he'd rented a suite at the St. Paul Hotel, and he invited a crowd up after the last round. We all got pretty high and wound up driving golf balls through the window."
Girls and parties were making life bearable for the circuit's ban vivant, but what he needed was help with his competitive attitude. It eventually came, and from a most unusual source, a 10-handicap golfer named Danny Arnold who first met Lema when they played as partners in the 1960 Palm Springs classic.
"He was a very likable guy with a great talent as a golfer," says Arnold, a successful television and movie producer-writer who has worked on The Real McCoys and the Tennessee Ernie Ford shows. "My wife and I invited him to stay at our house in Palm Springs. We found out he was emotional about his game but not very serious about it. He wasn't much different than any young kid. But we got to know his problems. He needed someone to talk to and someone to talk to him."
"Danny would talk to me by the hour." says Lema. "He built up my confidence in myself and my game. He was like a psychiatrist. He convinced me that bad putts and bad shots weren't necessarily caused by an unjust fate or a weakness in me. that if I stayed calm and kept the ball in play, the breaks would come my way too. It began to work. Every golfer has rounds when he's not playing well, but I found I could now shoot 71 or 72 on those days instead of 76 or 78."
Lema still had bad holes and bad rounds, but they no longer destroyed his composure. As the 1962 tour began, he tied for fifth in Los Angeles. Later he shot a first-round 75 in the Eastern Open but came back to finish third. He tied for fourth in Oklahoma City despite a horrendous opening-round 77. In September he started his year-end surge with a last-round 63 to take second in the Seattle Open behind Jack Nicklaus. Two weeks after Seattle he won the Sahara Invitational and, despite the fact that for PGA statistical purposes the event was considered unofficial, it proved to Lema that he could win.
Then, a month later at the Orange County Open in California, Lema stood on the first tee with 1959 PGA Champion Bob Rosburg, about to embark on a sudden-death playoff that could give him his first official victory.
"I was in a pretty agitated state," says Lema. "For the first two holes Rosburg played super golf while I scrambled all over the place, but I managed to halve. Then on the 3rd hole, a par-3, I thought he had me for sure. The pin was on the left side of the green, and Rosburg hit a beautiful five-iron that hooked gently in toward the hole and stopped 10 feet away. I was having trouble hooking that day, so I decided to fade my five-iron shot. It was a good one, too, 10 feet six inches away. I liked the looks of that putt of mine. I thought I could make it, and I did. As I stood at the edge of the green waiting for Rosburg to putt I was so nervous I could hardly keep still. His putt hit the back of the hole, jumped into the air and stayed out. I had won! I don't remember it, but people say I jumped three feet into the air and threw my ball all the way back to the tee. Later I bought champagne for the press, but all the sportswriters there couldn't have drunk as much as I did that night."
Three weeks later Lema won the Mobile Open by seven shots—"I was playing so well I dreamed about it at night"—then the Mexican Open.
"Tony is so improved that he ranks just about with the top golfers on the tour," said Bill Casper after the recent Greater New Orleans Open, where Lema tied for second. "His big asset now is his control over himself under all situations. He looks like he knows what he's doing."
Champagne Tony may indeed have found his way to success. Even his playboy days seem to be ending. Last month he became engaged to Betty Cline, a red-haired American Airlines stewardess from Oklahoma City—he discovered her in the first class section, of course—and already Lema is outlining a budget plan for his new life.
"I figure that married to Betty I can cut my expenses down to $15,000 a year." he said recently, looking up with a broad smile from a piece of paper that was covered with an ambitious scrawl of numbers. "Not only will marriage be the greatest thing that ever happened to me, I think I can make a profit at it, too."
That is Tony Lema's other distinction. He has to be the only golfer on the pro tour who can figure that one can live more expensively than two.