If golf ever needed a certain kind of a man to dull the harsh scorn of its critics, he was found in 1971. Golf found Lee Trevino, a common man with an uncommon touch who has bewitched, bothered and bewildered the custodians of the game's mores. What Lee Trevino has done is take the game out of the country club boardroom and put it in the parking lot where everybody—not just doctors and lawyers but Indian chiefs, too—can get at it. Trevino's special appeal is to the poor, the minorities, the people who before his emergence as a star could never make a reality of golf the way they could of baseball, say, or football or boxing. This distinction is never more apparent than when Trevino stands against the other eminences of the game: Palmer and Nicklaus, Casper and Player.
For the most part, these men had earned and cornered what present-day big-time golf was about before Lee Trevino—big homes with swimming pools, conglomerates, armies of middle-class followers. Then he came along, exploding our myths, massaging our viscera, yapping, yapping, yapping.
Bobby Goldsboro, the singer and a close friend, has described Trevino's impact. "Every time Lee talks about winning, it is of the hard work it took to get ahead," says Goldsboro. "He is talking to those kids who are living the way he used to, telling them what they must do. It's nice to believe that some of them will turn out all right because of Lee."
In El Paso right now, at any ceremonial occasion where the name of Lee Trevino is invoked, that city's "Singing Policeman," Ramon Rendon, bursts into his rendition of Don Isidro A. Dovali's now classic, Qué Viva Lee Trevino:
December 20, 1971
Qué Viva Lee Trevino, El Super-Mexicano.
Qué Viva Lee Trevino...ser un campeón completo.
Beneath the lyrics' surface lie the tales of driving ranges, Band-Aids covering tattoos, wild parties, Marine details, gag lines, Lee's Fleas, the bad swing, the hustle, the popularity—in short, a total cabbages and kings scenario—but they would be nowhere without Trevino's ability to hit a golf ball and to win tournaments.
His victory in the U.S. Open at Rochester in 1968, fashioned while playing against one of the finest artisans on the tour, Bert Yancey, and while being pressured by Jack. Nicklaus thundering up ahead, was considered a fluke—until he won the Hawaiian Open later in the year and finished the season with $132,127 in prize money. In 1969 he won the Tucson Open, the World Cup individual prize and more than $100,000 again. In 1970, though his only two victories came early in the year, Trevino accomplished what he likes to refer to as "the triple crown." He was the leading money-winner with $157,037, led the Exemption Point Standings and won the Vardon Trophy for lowest scoring average.
This summer Trevino's achievement of winning the Open championships of the United States, Canada and Great Britain in less than a month was the stuff of which instant legends are made. But a quick examination of the few weeks prior to his historical feat reveals just how well he was playing. In the six weeks after the tour arrived in Texas in May, he accomplished the following:
Dallas—Tied for second, one stroke back of the leader going into the last round; finished tied for fifth.
Houston—Eleven shots back after 36 holes, tied for the lead with five holes to play; missed the playoff by one shot.
Fort Worth—Tied for the lead with nine holes to play; lost by four shots in 15-to-20 mph winds on the back nine.
Atlanta—Missed playoff by one shot.
Charlotte—Lost in playoff.
And then came the hot streak when Trevino beat Nicklaus in a playoff at Merion for the U.S. title, beat Art Wall in a playoff at Montreal for the Canadian title and beat the Formosan Lu for the British championship. With luck, he might have won an astonishing six tournaments in seven weeks.
Wherever one went there was Lee Trevino. On newsstands, radio, TV. Throwing a hat. Swinging a club. Laughing. Frolicking. Transcending the game of golf. Engraving his spirit onto the pop culture of America. Shortly it became easy to forget where he had come from and how far this squat, swarthy, happy fellow with the magnificent Mexican-American face had gone in four short years.
Lee Buck Trevino was born out of wedlock on Dec. 1, 1939. He was raised by his maternal grandfather, Joe Trevino, an immigrant from Monterrey, and his mother, Juanita, in an old maintenance shack on the outskirts of Dallas. Old Joe was a gravedigger at Hillcrest cemetery and a beer drinker of astounding durability who, Lee says, "was the only man I ever knew could sit in a bar from nine in the morning to nine at night, then get up and drive away." Also, Joe Trevino was one of those rare individuals who stopped working only because it was time to die. That was two years ago, and when his grandson buried him it was where the old man had requested: alongside a goldfish pond at Hillcrest and not, as Old Joe said, "way back in some corner and forgotten."
In the old days the Trevino shack, devoid of electricity or plumbing, sat in a hayfield off the Glen Lakes golf course where the skinny little Mexican boy used to scavenge for balls. For an early golf indoctrination he hit horse apples with an abandoned five-iron and played putting games with his grandfather in the yard. "It was a lonely life," Trevino says. "I was never around anybody. I was all by myself, no one to talk to. I'd just go hunt rabbits and fish."
Lee finally had to quit school in the eighth grade to help finance the simple luxury of food for his family, which included two sisters. "Starches are cheap and Mexicans are usually overweight because they eat starches," he says. "I never knew what steak was. The closest we ever came to real meat was Texas hash and baloney. We'd drink Kool-Aid."
Trevino worked at Glen Lakes for a time before taking a job at Hardy Greenwood's driving range and pitch 'n putt course in North Dallas. He played enough golf in the next two years to get his handicap down to five, but his interest in the range dwindled. When offered an ultimatum by Greenwood, Trevino quit his job to join the Marines.
"I was messed up and lost," he says. "I wasn't settled down. I didn't know what I wanted to do. Never had any dates. I'd fall in love with a fence post." As a machine gunner in the Far East, Trevino found a camaraderie that he never knew at home. He had friends, people to talk to, duties, responsibility. "It was like camping out," he says. "I volunteered for everything. These were guys my own age and we were having a ball."
He enjoyed the experience so fully that he re-upped for two. He was assigned to Special Services, where he spent the rest of his tour playing golf and teaching rifle range classes on Okinawa. "Maybe it was the best time of my life," says Trevino. "I think I learned my sense of humor in the Marines, laughing and raising hell. And, of course, there was golf. If I hadn't joined, I know I'd be in prison today." In the fall of 1960 he got out of the corps and went back to Dallas with one purpose: to play golf.
Hardy Greenwood is a tall, spare man of 56 with a voice the texture of hardpan. He demands frugality as well as loyalty (on occasion he will accost a customer who has scuffed a ball a few feet and is preparing to hit it again, with "Hold it; at Hardy's we hit 'em just once"). He was overjoyed to have Lee back. He had taken young Trevino under his wing at 14 and introduced the youngster to amenable habits—regular meals, haircuts, cleanliness. He was the first person to encourage Lee to make a living at golf. He was the closest thing to a father Trevino ever had.
"We always like to say we raised Lee," says Greenwood. "We take the credit, the wife and me. He had the great natural swing even back then. He was good at everything. He picked up balls faster than anybody I ever had here. He mowed the greens, washed balls, cleaned the range, ran the shop. I could go out of town and Lee would take better care of the place than I did. But he was a hardhead, too. He sure has learned. I told him the last time he was here, 'You sure did grow up to be the smartest Mex I ever saw.' "
While Trevino worked hard from two p.m. to midnight at Hardy's, he played hard, too. He began swinging into early morning golf games at Tenison Park municipal course with Arnold Salinas, one of seven children in the kind of close-knit Mexican-American family that Trevino had always longed for; to this day Salinas remains his closest friend. The two enjoyed the same pursuits—card games, bowling, drinking beer, chasing waitresses, especially golf. When they first met at Tenison it was in competition to see who was the best Mexican player in town. Trevino was. After a lengthy night of celebrating victory, Trevino picked up Salinas at six in the morning for another round.
"What?" said Salinas. "I don't throw up till noon."
For the next couple of years Trevino's days were remarkably similar. Eighteen holes at Tenison. Work all day at Hardy's. Play all night with Salinas. Trevino was not becoming so wild, though, as to lose his ambition. He hit 1,000 balls nearly every day.
Trevino has since cultivated an image as a transcendent hustler, far beyond what his friends back in Dallas remember as the truth. "A hustler he is not and a hustler he has never been," says Salinas, who is now taking a fling at pro golf himself. "To hustle is to deceive. Lee was just there with his game and everybody knew it. They came over and said, 'I want four a side.' Lee said, 'You got it.' That's no hustle. He made the games hard and forced himself to play his best."
Erwin Hardwicke, then and now the resident pro at Tenison, remembers "the little Meskin bugger coming through the door with his white T shirt and his Bermuda shorts and the worst clubs going. When we found out he was Hardy's boy, we let him play for free," says Hardwicke. "He 'bout lived over here after that. 'Boys,' he'd say. 'We're burnin' daylight. I got to get back to work. Let's play.' Man, could he play. It was uncanny how that little Meskin could play."
In 1963 Greenwood applied for playing privileges for his young friend, but possibly because Trevino had no official record, he was turned down. Two years later, just after winning the Texas State Open, Trevino wanted to apply for a PGA card. Greenwood refused to verify his employment.
Neither man will go into detail about their split, but friction had been building for some time. Trevino had been married for a couple of years, had fathered a son, Ricky, and then was divorced when his wife could not cope with his devotion to golf and his long absences from home. In the spring of 1964 Trevino went on a savage, uninhibited tear—drinking to excess, eating, in his own words, "trash" foods, sleeping irregularly and seldom in the same place. He lost 50 pounds. "My granddad said the only way you forget about a woman is to find another one and he was right," says Trevino. He found Claudia Fenley, a 17-year-old ticket-taker at the Capri Theatre downtown. They dated at the Cotton Palace bowling lanes and soon after were married.
Whether Greenwood disapproved of Trevino's erratic life-style or felt betrayal of his trust he will not say. "Lee just wasn't thinking right to go out on the tour," he explains. "Physically, he was always ready. But messin' around with that drinking.... I told my wife, 'We were right to hold Lee back.' Everything seems to have worked out. That Claudia done wonders for him."
Furious at the time, Trevino "got hot, got drunk and then made me some calls." The Dallas area chapter of the PGA declined to help and Trevino is still angry. "I didn't get a fair shake, that's all," he says. "Now there're some of them even take credit for what I've done. I don't hold grudges but I won't even look at those people anymore."
Inevitably, Trevino's hard work on the practice range and reputation as a player of substance saved him. A wealthy cotton farmer named Martin Lettunich, who spent his off hours betting on and attempting to play golf, brought him to El Paso, introduced him as "my Mexican tractor driver" and watched with glee as Trevino ate up everyone around for respectable sums of money. The Trevinos lived for a while in a trailer on a farm before moving into a motel hard by Horizon Hills Country Club, where Lee had been hired as an assistant pro.
Although Trevino was intent on earning his card and joining the tour, he had not yet honed the rough edges of his personality, making the efforts in his behalf by Bill Eschenbrenner and Herb Wimberly, two local pros, that much more difficult. The head professional at El Paso Country Club, Eschenbrenner had worked as a boy at Rivercrest in Fort Worth watching Ben Hogan and he recognized Trevino's ability. "I had faith in him," Eschenbrenner says. "He had Hogan's action in the swing. It's that secret, or whatever it is, to take the club to the top and lock it. Just dead lock it, and keep it that way all the way through."
Eschenbrenner and Wimberly were pushing for Trevino through their own New Mexico chapter of the PGA when Lee borrowed some money to play in the U.S. Open at San Francisco in 1966. He finished 54th. The following year the PGA came through with his card, but Trevino was so discouraged by his previous showing that Claudia herself had to send in his $20 qualifying fee for the 1967 Open. Suddenly everything came together. At Odessa, Texas, Trevino shot the lowest qualifying rounds and then finished fifth in the Open proper at Baltusrol. Super Mex was on his way.
"The key to Trevino as a man is that he remembers," says Eschenbrenner. "He is devoted to the PGA. When he joined he said he'd be the best member the New Mexico chapter ever had, and he has been. Most of the big names pay lip service. This guy has played in our New Mexico pro-am in a blizzard. Every year he tells me to put him down for one of our sectional tournaments, and he's there."
Since the start of 1968 Lee Trevino has finished in the top 10 in 50 PGA tournaments, more than anyone in the game. He has won more money in that time than anyone except Jack Nicklaus. He has represented the United States on two Ryder Cup and three World Cup teams. And he has done it all with a swing that suggests a lumberjack going after the nearest redwood.
In purely technical terms Trevino's swing is all wrong. He takes the club back on an extremely flat plane from an open stance that is aiming left. To avoid the danger of duck hooking, he blocks out solidly with his left leg firm as he comes into the shot. At that moment he corrects whatever else is negative by the use of his hands. With this instinctive hand action—which along with food and white-billed caps is one of the few things Ben Hogan has ever praised—he opens the club face at impact and fades the ball left to right, dipping his right shoulder along the plane.
Always a hooker off the tee, Trevino watched Hogan one day in 1961 as he hit marvelous fade after marvelous fade. His outlook on the game changed immediately. "Before, I had always been upright—a picture," says Trevino. "Then I had got me this awful-looking sweepy swing so I could hook it. When I saw Hogan it dawned on me, left to right, left to right. I have to throw my club way out right to fade it now. I get into that low shoulder turn because of my height. I can't get power upright."
Dave Hill acknowledges the importance of Trevino's shoulder turn. "If he ever gets up high with it, he's got to go back to eating tacos," says Hill. "His right side stays so low he never has to worry about getting over the ball too much. Lee doesn't know it, but he plays with his right arm and right shoulder almost exclusively. He's the best I've ever seen at coming through with the right hand and wrist."
Frank Beard marvels at Trevino's nerves as much as the hand action. "He's a very quick player," Beard says. "He's never in a vise like some of the slower guys. He also practices more than any human being I know. The man works."
Jack Nicklaus says: "Only the player himself knows what his weak shots are and which ones he is scared of hitting. If there is a weak part in Lee's game, it's probably the flat swing—not being able to hook the ball when he has to. The swing isn't wrong; it just limits the things he can do. When Trevino isn't hitting it straight, he's in trouble because his flat swing can't get the ball high enough out of the rough. The thing is I've never seen him when he wasn't hitting it straight. He probably hits more solid shots than anyone out here."
The difference between the good players in golf and the best lies not in the swing but in an infinitesimal part of the brain. "There are a lot of fine strikers of the ball," says Nicklaus. "Trevino is a fine striker and a fine thinker. He knows what he's doing all the time. Where to hit? What to hit? Why?"
Trevino agrees that he is a planner. "I think about what I should make on a hole in every tournament," he says. "For instance, if I've got a par-3, 220-yard hole I'll hope to play the thing in one over par for four rounds. I won't go for the pin, just the green, and I almost never gamble.
"Weaknesses? There are a lot of them. I'm a terrible fairway bunker player. I used to be the world's worst putter, but playing on good greens has made the difference there. I also used to be a very bad long iron player. Up to two years ago I couldn't hit a two- or three-iron for nothin'. But I practiced."
Trevino is at his strongest in one-on-one, when he can use psychology against an opponent. His ability to manipulate emotions on the course is a regular staple of the legend. "On the greens I'll tell my caddie, 'That thing broke a ton, Neil,' when I actually pulled the putt. The other guy, he might hit his putt wrong now. Course, I only did this sort of thing before I got to the tour," Trevino adds and winks, conveniently neglecting to mention that Neil did not become his caddie until after he had joined the tour.
Undoubtedly most of Trevino's shots will be forgotten long before people stop talking about The Snake. Trevino first unveiled his rubber toy at the Colonial Invitational in Fort Worth when he did a springy number with it for the caddies there. A month later on the first tee of the Open playoff at refined, patriarchal old Merion, he whisked the snake over to Nicklaus, whereupon the golfing universe did one of two things: applauded this little Mexican proponent of antiestablishmentarianism, or looked down their noses at such an ungrateful wetback.
Most of the players were dumfounded; some unforgiving. They did not know that on the tee Nicklaus had noticed the snake in Trevino's bag and waved for him to throw it over. "I thought it would relieve the tension," Jack says. "It relaxed me."
Trevino says: "No more snakes. Too many people were angry."
The incident at Merion has been one of the few times Trevino was considered to have overstepped the boundaries in his showmanship on the tour. Unlike Chi Chi Rodriguez, who infuriates many of his playing companions with his dancing, swordplay and matador tricks, Trevino's chatterboxing gagman performance seems to have made no enemies.
"There's a difference," says one player. "Some acts are a facade, a fake. Lee is sincere as he can be. He fools around and then hits the ball. For the 20 seconds it takes to select a club and make the shot, he's as much a Hogan—a concentrator—as anybody ever was."
Off the course Trevino has become a thorough entertainer with few flaws. In short public speeches, working without notes, he is a gem—no grammatical errors, embarrassing pauses, confused "uuuuhhhhhhs" or overblown language. Unless the situation calls for a humorous departure from it, his English is perfect. In informal conversation, however, there are a whole lot of "don't make no difference" and "them people used to could play" constructions.
"He just doesn't concentrate unless he has to," says Claudia. "Yeah," says Trevino. "There wasn't much tellin' where I could've went if I had got education."
He talks about the future. "I could be a comedian," he says. "I mean a real comedian. I know when to raise my voice and when not to. A guy gets too loud on me on the course, I say, 'I do the jokes here, sir. It's not too often Mexes get inside the ropes.' You think I'm good in tournaments? Oh boy. Come to a clinic. I get nine thousand dollars for one of them babies, twelve thou on weekends. But I'm worth it. You get 18 holes of golf plus a comedy act."
In his nonpublic communication with the touring professionals, Trevino jabbers on in this way, but he does not tarry long in locker rooms.
"He's a hard man to get close to," says one veteran. "He has a few friends out here—Orville Moody and Cesar Sanudo maybe—but even they don't know him too well. I've never had a serious sit-down conversation with him. Every time we'd start, he'd go into that meaningless machine-gun yak. And then he'd have to leave and go somewhere. It's like he's afraid to shut up so we can find out what he's really like."
Trevino says he avoids clubhouses because "too many drunks want to grab your hand and hold onto it. I have a quote for them: 'I'm not in love with you, sir. Let go.' That usually stops them. I'm not a country-club player. I'm a municipal guy."
There was a period last year when Trevino had not won a golf tournament. Business problems were multiplying. He was drinking heavily on tour and keeping late hours. His mother was sick with cancer—she died this fall—and his marriage was falling apart. Still, his was a cheery countenance wherever he traveled the tour, and in time Claudia started showing up at several way stations along the golf trail. He toned down the night life and the alcohol and, of course, he started winning again. A fortnight ago Trevino was asked when does he ever feel depression.
"When I remember my mother being so ill," he replied. "But I stop that quick. I've visited a lot of hospitals with crippled kids and burned-up people in them. Men with car payments and kids to put through college and all those other financial burdens should go visit a hospital whenever they start feeling sorry for themselves."
Trevino's charitable donations are well known: $10,000 to the family of his former roommate, Ted Makalena, after he won the Hawaiian Open; $2,000 for a caddie scholarship fund in Singapore after the World Cup; $5,000 to the St. Jude hospital in Memphis after he won the Memphis Open; $4,800 to the Clunder Lodge orphanage near Southport following the British Open. He spends time and money on the Christmas Seal and Easter Seal campaigns nationally and sponsors projects for the Boys Club and Shriners lodge in El Paso. But he disassociates himself from political movements, especially those with a Mexican-American complexion. Trevino will not comment on Cesar Chavez because "I don't believe in helping just one race or nationality," he says. "People ask me if I'm doing this winning and making this money for my people. It doesn't matter. I'm doing it for my wife—and she's white. A lot of Mexicans don't like that. A lot of whites don't like it, either, I suppose. I'm only concerned with the poor—black, white, yellow, red—and the youth. Promoters turn me off right away when they shill for Mexicans as a group. A Mexican-American hospital, for instance. No blacks allowed in? No Jews? I don't want to segregate. That's exactly backwards."
At home in El Paso where, one presumes, he can be genuinely himself, Trevino is a happy-go-lucky, wisecracking, loud and noisy hombre—which surely must be a tipoff to all those who seek hidden meanings and the "truth" behind the man. Claudia, a pert blonde with a Sandy Duncan cuteness about her and a good head for business, has adapted well. Alone, she picked out an attractive five-bedroom ranchstyle home in the manicured neighborhood of Eastridge while the family awaits the construction of a house near Trevino's new golf course and resort complex on the New Mexico border. Trevino's first son, now 9, lives with his mother in Columbia, Mo. Lesley, 6, and Tony "Baloney," 2, live with Lee and Claudia in El Paso.
Recently, on a warm October night in the middle of a short vacation at home, Lee Trevino took his family along with a convivial retinue of friends and relatives to the circus. He ate popcorn, pulled cotton candy and held fast to his Mickey Mouse helium balloons as the tumblers, jugglers, clowns, elephants, tigers and assorted trapeze and balancing people wowed the audience. Eyes glistening, head shaking, amazed, Trevino responded with little gasps of surprise. "I'm lovin' this tonight." he said at one point. "Really I am. Someday I hope my kids will understand how lucky they are to be here." It was, of course, Lee Trevino's first circus.