To tell the truth of it, blunt and straight, you do not become a part of golfing history by winning the Thunderbird Classic, the Buick Open and the Cleveland Open, even when the first-prize money adds up to $48,000 and you do it all in a period of four weeks in one of the most successful and rewarding streaks of golf a player has ever produced. Two weeks ago Tony Lema had just accomplished these things and was trying to decide whether or not he should go to the British Open. He had announced publicly that he was going, but privately he was vacillating. "First he is going and then he isn't," his wife Betty complained. "I don't know and, believe me, neither does he. Tell me, are other golfers like normal people?"
At the last minute abnormal Tony made up his mind. He finished in the Whitemarsh Open late Sunday afternoon, announced, "I just want to see how they operate things over there," and began a mad dash for that most famous golf course in the world, the site of this year's British Open, St. Andrews. Five days later he had found out that the way they operate things over there suits him fine. He had also won the Open with a brilliant display of nerve and intelligence, won over the dour Scottish galleries and won himself something he never had before, a historic championship.
His victory was more of a rout than a win, and the way he achieved it tells a great deal about Tony Lema. It had been said in the previous week in the U.S. that it would be very difficult for a golfer to play at Whitemarsh and still have a real chance to win the British Open. Arnold Palmer—at a point when he was still going for the Grand Slam—felt it would be all but impossible to win at St. Andrews, because the long flight and Wednesday starting time would give U.S. golfers only two practice rounds in which to get acclimated to the much different conditions of British golf. Lema was in an even worse position, for he had never played a round of golf in the British Isles, much less at St. Andrews. "Believe me," he said before he left, "I'll take a close look at the course on Monday and Tuesday. I may even take notes." As a rule, Lema is not a note taker—"If I had to carry a notebook I would quit the game," he has said—and he scorns repeated practice rounds on a course, even before major tournaments. "One reason," he says, "is that I have very good depth perception. I can usually tell how far I am from a target even if I have never played the course before." He is, in short, a fast study where learning a golf course is concerned.
So, far from being worried, Lema arrived in Scotland in his normally buoyant and confident frame of mind. He also arrived to be greeted by one Tip Anderson, the caddie Arnold Palmer had used while winning two British Opens and finishing second another time. Palmer had suggested that Lema hire him, and Lema had. (Lema also had the now-famous putter Palmer gave him two months ago. It provokes Lema to be asked about the putter. He smashed his own—as golfers sometimes do—after some misadventures in the Oklahoma City Open, and ended up liking an old one of Palmer's. Lema has putted superbly since getting it, but will thank you to remember that the man waving the putter has something to do with the ball going into the hole.)
Lema soon learned that he was not going to have to take any notes about the course, for Tip Anderson was all the notes any man would need. The bookies, who had installed Jack Nicklaus as the 7-to-2 favorite and Lema second at 7 to 1, had not reckoned with Tip. Meanwhile, Nicklaus, who was also a newcomer to the course, had been following his usual practice of pacing off distances and writing down landmarks, eventually observing that he could not carry enough scorecards to mark down all the bunkers.
The Old Course at St. Andrews is not actually difficult. Cranky is a good word for it and, as with anything temperamental, it can wreak havoc on occasion—and the occasion is often. It presents an enigma which the players who are attracted to it from all over the world never quite fathom. The course is shaped like the upper body and head of a serpent. It stretches out from the first tee beside the forbidding Royal and Ancient clubhouse and the bleak, gray city of St. Andrews, first away from the sea—but never far—and then toward it again. The fairways are pockmarked with the most obscure and vicious bunkers and are flanked with tough whin and rough grass. There are seven enormous double greens that roll with swells like an ocean as a storm subsides. There are other hazards, too, including a railway line running alongside a large part of the course. Diesel and steam engines clatter and toot all day, and jet aircraft from the nearby Royal Air Force station at Leuchars thunder through the sky above. But the biggest challenge to skill and forbearance at St. Andrews is something else—the wind. When it comes shrieking ashore from the North Sea golfers who expect to shoot 68s are glad to get 78s. "The great difference between St. Andrews and a U.S. course," said Jack Nicklaus on Tuesday night, "is that a large portion of the game here depends on luck. If you play a good shot in the States you are rewarded. Here it doesn't necessarily happen that way. But who is to say? This is where the game started. Maybe we changed it."
Three significant things happened during the first round on Wednesday. First, Lema drew an early tee-off time and found himself playing in a stiff wind, but no worse than that. Second, at the urging of his caddie, he played without his wedge, deciding to hit low pitch-and-run shots into the greens. Most American pros would as soon tee off at the Masters in bathing trunks as play a tournament without using a wedge, since they like the club for everything from 120-yard pitch shots to stirring their iced tea. No one knows what psychological torment it cost Lema to take Tip's suggestion, but he did, and he managed to shoot a good one-over-par 73. About the time he was finishing, Nicklaus was teeing off, and the third thing happened. The wind changed from a gale to a near hurricane. Nicklaus had talked about luck at St. Andrews, and now this was the worst kind. As the wind reached its furious crescendo, with gusts up to 65 mph, Liang Huan Lu, a Hong Kong pro who weighs only 124 pounds, was blown on his back as he yelled, "Typhoon!" The Royal and Ancient's club secretary, Brigadier Eric Brickman, D.S.O., rushed to keep the press tent from becoming airborne, while out on the wild 9th hole players were being showered with salt spray from the sea. Nicklaus, who got a tee shot up into the wind and drove the 381-yard 18th hole, came in with a 76. "I putted awful," he said. "My eyes kept watering. The sand kept getting in my eyes, and the wind kept blowing me over."
In addition to the wind, the course was also hard and fast. Fortunately, the tournament committee was careful to sec that the greens were not cut too short. "If we had had them cut down," said Committee Chairman Gerald Micklem, "it would have been impossible." Equally impossible in these conditions would have been the American ball, and the American players turned gratefully to the smaller British one. At one time Lema said he would like to be playing with marbles. "If we had played with the big ball," exclaimed Jack Nicklaus, "I doubt if we would have finished."
The second day it continued to blow hard, and Nicklaus went around in 74 strokes, which was not bad, considering that 40 of his shots were putts. It was the most putts for a round that Nicklaus had taken since turning pro. Chagrined, he spent two hours practicing his putting in the late afternoon, by which time Lema had come in with an excellent 68 and taken the tournament lead.
Tony was unmistakably inspired. He had openly admitted that he felt at St. Andrews like a new boy at school, one who was not at all sure he belonged. But the spectators were warming to him, and these were spectators who don't warm easily. Lema had shown in several tournaments that he had the nerve to play for big money, much more than he could win at St. Andrews, where first place is worth only $4,200. He had won five times that with a single putt. But now he was playing for something less tangible, and he sensed it in front of his big Scottish gallery.
For the Scots, golf is a national pastime. They are silent watchers, often signifying their approval with only the barest ripple of handclapping. Every stance, every movement of a competitor like Lema is filed away for future reference and long discussion in the years to come. They have taken to only two Americans in the last 15 years—Ben Hogan, whose coolness they understood, and Arnold Palmer, whose boldness they reveled in. "You don't have to get in really close to the hole to win their approval with a shot," noticed Lema. "They know a difficult shot and appreciate it. And they know golfers." The first indication of the undercurrent of emotion that Lema was evoking in the crowd came at the 12th hole during his second round, when he drove the green and knocked in a 30-foot putt for an eagle 2. "They seemed to loosen up then," said Tony, "and it made me feel good." By the time he was in with his 68, he had captured the gallery.
That night Lema was relaxing, stretched out on a sofa, with a whisky in front of him and a host of the world's best golfers well behind him. He was two strokes in front of England's Harry Weetman, three ahead of Australia's Bruce Devlin, seven ahead of Argentina's Roberto de Vicenzo, eight ahead of South Africa's Gary Player and nine ahead of New Zealand's Bob Charles and that initial favorite of the odds-makers, Jack Nicklaus.
"Look," said Lema, "do you want to know what I really feel about St. Andrews? I feel like I am back visiting an old grandmother. She's crotchety and eccentric but also elegant, and anyone who doesn't fall in love with her has no imagination. The 68 I shot today was one of the finest rounds of golf I've ever shot, but I still don't feel confident. This is the most challenging golf course I've ever been on. You don't dare go to sleep one moment. And to finish second won't mean a thing. In the year 2064, when people pick up that record book, this is the kind of championship they will look up. You'll be remembered only if you win." Then he sat down to a supper of corn on the cob, salmon with mayonnaise, curried chicken and pears with chocolate sauce.
The last 36 holes of the tournament were played on a lovely fresh day, with the worst of the wind gone and the sun shining. Tony had said the night before that it is easier to get some steam up if you're behind, and he started steamless, going four over par on the first five holes. As he was walking up to the 6th hole he passed Nicklaus, who had teed off earlier and was coming down the 13th. What he saw was enough to steam up—or panic—anybody. Nicklaus was an awesome four under par. He had picked up eight strokes on Lema, and was within one stroke of the lead. The two players stopped momentarily to stare at each other across the joint fairway and take stock of the situation. Nicklaus looked fiercely confident. Lema admitted later, "I didn't feel so good."
If the Scots had any remaining question as to Lema's quality as a golfer it hung on that incident in the morning and was settled for them at once. Tony got a 4, and then shot five straight 3s, three of them birdies. When Nicklaus, who had come in with a 66 that equaled the course record, heard that Lema was himself now heading home with a score under 70, he could hardly credit it. When Tony holed a 20-foot putt at the 18th for a birdie 3 and a third-round score of 68, a Scot was heard saying to a friend, "That slams the door, eh." His companion replied, "It locks it, mon."
More than locked, the door was barred. The seven-stroke lead that Lema now held was too much even for Nicklaus, who went around in another remarkable 68, though he knew the battle had been finished when his morning attack was successfully met. Lema coasted around the course in the late afternoon in 70 to win with a 279, five strokes ahead of Nicklaus and six in front of De Vicenzo. Lema and the French champion, Jean Garaialde, were the last pair in, and as they stood on the 18th tee, the crowd of 13,000 massed behind them. Lema's drive put him about 50 yards from the pin and facing the deep "Valley of Sin" that lies in front of the last green of the Old Course. He took a seven-iron—the wedge was still unused—to run the ball up within inches of the hole. He had barely swung at the shot before he was engulfed by the gallery. "I got hit four times before I had finished my follow-through," he said.
For a long time he did not appear. Finally he extricated himself from the gallery, arriving on stage like an actor late for a cue. He was wiping sweat from his brow with one hand and clasping his putter in the other. He ran in the birdie putt and then, with a swift movement, picked the ball out of the cup and threw it high over the crowd.
"I've won tournaments and I've won money," Champagne Tony had said the day he flew off to the British Open. "Now I want to win a major championship. It is on my schedule of things to do, and I am going to do it." He didn't even wait a week.