In the lobby of the massive old Prince of Wales Hotel in Southport, England last Saturday morning the incomparable Lee Trevino started winning the British Open shortly before eating his poached eggs. He burst upon a table occupied by his wife Claudia and a few friends, a table surrounded by Englishmen, turned his cap around backward like a helmet and started babbling. "Where's Tony Jacklin?" he said. "Man, he's gonna think the German army's after him."
It was the same display of overwhelming confidence that Trevino had shown when he faced Jack Nicklaus in a playoff for the U.S. Open championship at Merion. "I believe the Mex will get big Jack today," he had said in the locker room before their playoff. And the Mex did. Two weeks later—all confidence again—he won the Canadian Open in a playoff.
Now he was in England, down at Royal Birkdale, and after three sparkling rounds of the tournament the British call simply the Open Championship, Trevino had a date with destiny. On this day he could become the fourth player—Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen and Ben Hogan were the others—to win both U.S. and British titles in the same year. All he had to do was hold his one-stroke lead over Jacklin, the English hero, and a graceful little man named Lu Liang-huan from Taiwan. The 35-year-old Lu, who came to be called Mister Lu by just about everyone at the Open, had five times played in World Cup competition but was almost totally unknown at Birkdale. Except to Trevino, of course.
"I used to play with him in 1959, when I was a marine on Okinawa," Lee said. "I remember playing him in Taiwan one day and he beat me something like 8 and 7. He's always straight with his drives."
July 18, 1971
Even so, Trevino kissed off Lu, too. "I'm going to send Lu to the laundry," he joked, "and the German army's gonna get Jacklin."
With that, Trevino went out for his last round and the way he began to play made it look as though something far fiercer than the Wehrmacht, with the Luftwaffe thrown in, was after every other golfer on the course.
The situation was this: Jacklin was playing up ahead, just in front of Trevino and Lu, who constituted the last twosome. Trevino, 11 under par for the first three rounds, was one stroke ahead of both the Englishman and the little, hat-tipping Chinese, who was rivaling Trevino as the most incongruous sight the century-old Open had ever seen.
Trevino's first few holes that last day won the tournament for him, since they saved him when he got into serious trouble later at 17. In those early holes he breezed away from Jacklin and pulled so far ahead of the field that the Open Championship was over—unless some unforeseen horror like, say, a sandhill, crept into the script.
What Trevino did was birdie the first hole with a nifty iron out of the rough and an eight-foot putt—and this right after Jacklin had birdied it to tie momentarily for the lead. He saved his par on 2 with a 15-footer after hearing that Jacklin had double-bogeyed. He jammed an iron into the third and dropped an 8-footer for another birdie. He chipped out from under a bush at the 4th and got his par. He wedged into the 5th and dropped that one from eight feet for a third birdie, and then he absolutely destroyed the 6th, the toughest hole on the course, a cutthroat of a par 4 that had been cursed all week, even by the circumspect Lu, who had said, "Green makes putts three."
The 6th was a bad hole, a converted par 5 that called for an iron layup off the tee to avoid some crossing bunkers, and then a wood shot over a hill to a blind green. Trevino had been using a one-iron regularly and he loved the club. "I got me a one-iron I can hit 260 and right through the doorway," he bragged.
That last day he one-ironed his tee shot on the 6th just right, and he addressed his second as Claudia stood nearby with two of Lee's rooters, Jimmy Dean, the entertainer, who had come down from London, and an old hustling companion from Dallas named Arnold Salinas, a bookkeeper for a chain of Mexican restaurants. Throughout the round Lee, knowing his wife and friends were close by, made his comments on various shots loud enough for them to hear. (He jabbered all week as he played his shots, something that astonished the British crowds, the British press and most of the competition. Once on Friday as he looked over a chip shot, knowing the BBC had a sound man near him, he broke up everyone with, "I wonder what old Henry Longhurst is saying about me right now. He probably thinks I got the wrong club.") Now he took a crack at the wood shot and it flew high and straight, soaring over the hill. Only Lee could know whether it was sailing in the right direction.
"Oh, my God," he shouted. Claudia and Arnold and Jimmy gasped. Then, laughing, he added, "It's perfect!"
It was, too, unless you feel that two feet from the cup is two feet shy of perfection. It was another birdie, his sixth one-putt green in six holes, the terrible par 4 beaten into submission, Jacklin erased and the championship won if he didn't drop dead—or run into Mister Lu and the sand at 17.
And sure enough, there on the 17th tee, while holding a three-stroke lead, Trevino almost got too cute. Lu had driven first, and nicely, and now Lee was in the process of aiming his drive between two giant sandhills down the fairway.
"Man, you're stronger than laundry," Lee said to Lu, as he waggled his club. "I just want to string this little beauty right down there near that left hill and cut it in there...." Only it did not cut in and it buried in the sand. His first slash at the ball—with a wedge—left him still on the sandhill. He finally blasted out but now he lay three in the rough, a long way from the green, on his way to a double-bogey 7 that could have been totally disastrous. If Lu birdied the hole they would suddenly and stunningly be all even with one hole to play. But Lu didn't. He had made nothing but putts all week, but this one, from about 12 feet, did not fall, and Trevino held on to a one-stroke lead going to the 72nd hole of the tournament.
The last hole at Birkdale was a phony par 5, a drive and a mid-iron for most hitters. Trevino had to get his birdie 4 and hope Lu did not dream up an eagle for a tie.
Trevino hit his best drive of the day and had only a six-iron left. Lu drove well but a bit too far to the left, very close to a bunker. In fact, he was almost standing in the bunker as he swung. He half-topped, half-hooked the shot, but the ball hit a lady spectator on the head and bounded back in the fairway, a stroke of luck for the scrutable Chinese and X rays for the unlucky lady. Trevino did not worry about the luck or the lady. He quickly hit his six-iron to the back of the green and watched as Lu hit a fine approach to within six feet. Even if Lu sank it for a birdie (which he did), Trevino knew that after all that had happened all he had to do was get down in two for the championship. He putted up beautifully and made the last shove-in, one-foot birdie for a 14-under 278, slung his cap and raced across the green to Claudia. In that moment, of course, he was embraced not only by his wife but by history as well.
The British crowd, which the day before had had a misunderstanding with Trevino when he was playing head to head with Jacklin (who was called "Our hero" and "Our Tony" by British telly), applauded the cheerful Mexican's victory. On Friday Lee had been hurt when spectators, apparently misinterpreting some of his comments, laughed at the wrong times. When some of the more passionate pro-Jacklin members of the gallery showed obvious elation when Trevino missed a putt, Lee said he had felt like going into the gallery with his putter. But his essentially upbeat personality prevailed, and after the tournament he had kind words for everyone. He donated ¬£2,000 ($4,800) of his ¬£5,500 ($13,200) winning purse to a British orphanage and that night at a victory celebration in the Kingsway casino in Southport he auctioned off his golf clubs for ¬£600 and gave that to charity, too.
It is something of a shame that Trevino's historic success could not have had a more distinguished setting. There are only seven courses on which the British Open is played—four in Scotland and three in England—and some of the more knowledgeable British writers gave inquisitive Americans the bottom line on Royal Birkdale. "It is the worst of the lot," they whispered. Not in terms of space, cordiality, clubhouse, access, hotel rooms and the things that helped produce the record crowds, but in terms of enchantment, charm, playing quality and tradition.
"Birkdale is what you might call nouveau riche" said one journalist, referring to the fact that the course only got started in 1889. In its earlier days it was a tiny links in Southport, too short for championship play and with a clubhouse no larger than a hen shack over by the 4th green. When the Ryder Cup was played in the area in 1937, the Southport and Ainsdale Golf Club was used, not Birkdale. But then the course was lengthened and a new clubhouse erected, one that is roomier than most in Great Britain. Birkdale was to have its first Open in 1940, but the Germans postponed that and it was not until 1954 that the championship was held there. It got the tournament again in 1961, the year Arnold Palmer won, and in 1965, when Peter Thomson upset a strong international field, and again last week.
For all of the drama Trevino and Mister Lu and Our Tony produced, Birkdale was not a links to get excited about, not in the way one gets stirred by St. Andrews, Muirfield (where next year's championship will be played), Carnoustie, Troon, Hoylake or Royal Lytham and St. Annes, the other courses in the British Open rotation.
First of all, Birkdale is normally a par-74 course, with six—yes, half-a-dozen—par-5 holes, including four of the last six. The Royal and Ancient changed one of the par 5s (the hated 6th) to a par 4 to reduce par to 73, but that is still abnormal by American standards. Or anybody else's.
Still, the Americans thought it was more like one of their own courses than any they play across the ocean, principally because the fairways are fairly fiat, as compared to the moguls and valleys and hidden flagsticks of a classic Scottish links. The lack of any real wind from the sea and the slow and bumpy greens made the tournament seem terribly un-British.
"I know I haven't really been to the British Open yet," said Masters Champion Charles Coody, who came over for the first time and did well, shooting a 283 for a fifth-place tie with defending champion Jack Nicklaus, who did not get going until the last day. Nicklaus didn't much like the course, either. Some pitch shots, he said, were "like aiming at a bag of dirty clothes."
Nicklaus missed birdies in the first round that might have drawn him very close to a repeat win, but you had to know that no one but Trevino was going to take this tournament. Now the champion announced that he had a new goal. "I've got the U.S., the British and the Canadian Opens," he said, "but, darn it, I've got to wait all the way until October to win my own Grand Slam." He smiled. "That's when the Mexican Open is."