The big news out of Palm Springs last week was that Bruce Lietzke did not win a golf tournament. Rik Massengale did, taking the Bob Hope Desert Classic with a glittering 23-under-par 337 for the 90 holes. But Lietzke finished second, earning $22,800, which although slightly less than he is accustomed to these days, is not all that bad when stacked atop the $100,550 he had already won in 1977. In five tournaments this year Lietzke now has two victories, a second, a fourth and a 12th, and—perhaps most impressive—he has played 21 consecutive rounds of golf at par or better, 26 dating back to the fourth round of last year's Sahara Invitational.
Lietzke has not yet pushed Palmer, Nicklaus and Miller out of the TV commercials and the big color ads in the national magazines, or attracted a rabid following that could be called Lietzke's Legion, but then he was virtually a nonentity when he stepped up to the 1st tee at the Phoenix Country Club in January to start this year's tour. Well, maybe those who followed the 1975 Westchester Classic, which took place six weeks after he turned pro, might recall seeing the name because he moved into contention there in the third round and eventually finished fourth. And in Arizona last year he pulled a mini-Miller, tying for fourth at Tucson and third at Phoenix.
But even at that, Lietzke was no more a celebrity than Lyn Lott, Wally Armstrong or Howard Twitty, all of whom failed to win a tournament but made the Top 60 money list and thereby were exempt from qualifying in 1977. With $69,229, Lietzke was 39th. Outside of Arizona, his best finish was a third in the San Antonio-Texas Open, an event that does not attract many big names.
At Phoenix last month Lietzke had rounds of 71-70-69, and when he reached the 71st hole Sunday afternoon he was in a three-way tie for the lead with Jerry Pate and Dave Stockton. Alas, two straight bogeys cost him a chance to win, but his fourth place was worth $8,800.
February 21, 1977
A week later in Tucson he reached the final hole needing only a par to win. Again he faltered and found himself in a sudden-death playoff with Gene Littler. After a three-hole stalemate, Lietzke rolled in a 65-foot putt for a birdie, his first victory and $40,000.
After tying for 12th at the Crosby, Lietzke took a week off, intending to get away from it all at his parents' home in Beaumont, Texas. But Jan. 25 was officially declared Bruce Lietzke Day, and the festivities went on all week. Then it was off to Hawaii, where scores of 67-70-67 gave him a tie for the 54-hole lead with Don January. Late in the final round, with January holding a one-stroke lead, Lietzke was treated to the sight of his opponent, playing in the threesome directly ahead, spending more time in the sand than Lawrence of Arabia and ultimately taking a double bogey. Minutes later, Lietzke had his second tour victory and another $48,000.
Naturally, all this has had some impact on the 25-year-old Lietzke's life. He now plans to play in Japan, perhaps Australia and New Zealand, and his victories have qualified him for the Masters, PGA, World Series of Golf and the Tournament of Champions. Being in the limelight is very pleasant, but Bruce Lietzke is not really a limelight sort of person. When he wants to get away from it and chase bass instead of birdies, he and his family will go to a 50-acre spread they have bought on Oklahoma's Grand Lake, also called Lake of the Cherokees. His parents are going to move into an existing house, and he and his brother Duane will build houses nearby. Lietzke plans to buy a fishing boat and have a dock installed no more than 30 steps from his front door. His house will have no telephone.
Because Lietzke has won when he has—winter tournaments that have been televised nationally—he has gotten more exposure than, say, John Lister, Bob Wynn, Mac McLendon and Butch Baird, all of whom won tournaments last summer or fall. After his victory in Hawaii, ABC had an awkward 20 minutes to fill and for much of it the network conducted a virtual "Bruce Lietzke, This Is Your Life."
Which goes, briefly: "My oldest brother, Duane, is the one who started me. He was a club pro in Wichita, Kans., at Rolling Hills Country Club. He started as assistant pro when he was about 14. He worked his way up and became head pro in the late 1960s, stayed there three years and now he's sales manager for PGA-Victor golf equipment, the company that I represent on tour.
"Duane's my pro. He's the only person I go to for lessons."
Lietzke is 6'2", 195 pounds and unmarried, a status he mentioned on television as if he were making a plea for help. Apparently some proposals have arrived, for he hastened to correct any misunderstandings at the Hope.
"I'm pretty dedicated to the game," he said. "I do no running around at all to speak of. I'm not a bar hopper. I don't think I'd put a woman through what some of those wives have to go through out here and, secondly, it doesn't fit my life-style. I like pretty much being my own boss and doing the things I want."
One of those things is driving fast. He was an amateur drag racer while at the University of Houston and now drives a '76 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am with a four-speed transmission. While he played Hawaii he left the car with a shop in Los Angeles that added "60 to 70 horsepower. It's probably rated at 320 to 330 horsepower now."
The Lietzkes left Wichita when Bruce was eight, moving to Beaumont, where he grew up. He played so much golf in high school and at college that at one point in 1973, feeling overgolfed, he packed away his clubs for six months.
But out they came in 1974, when he made his first try to qualify for his player's card. He let himself get too cautious on the last round of the arduous eight-round tournament and failed by one stroke. He succeeded the following year and was off on the tour.
"The pressures of the tour schools were the most severe I've ever felt," he says. "I've won two tournaments now and have led tournaments and have been coming down the stretch one behind or one stroke ahead, and I've never felt the pressure as I did in the two tour schools."
How he wrapped up the Hawaiian Open is, if not typical, indicative of the way he has been winning. The 18th at Waialae is a par-5. Lietzke hit a huge drive, knocked a four-iron 12 feet from the pin and, putting cross-handed as is his style, sank the putt for an eagle. At Hawaii Lietzke played the par-5s in 15 under, his score for the entire tournament. The eagle at 18 wasn't needed—a mere par would have won—but it added to the excitement. That's what Bruce Lietzke has been doing to golf this year.