It's An Old Man's Game After All

Lee Trevino, 44, won the PGA with a record-shattering performance
August 26, 1984

You can't poison a Mexican.
—DAVE MARR

It was last weekend that a chuckling Marr, the ABC-TV commentator, told that to Lee Trevino, and judging by Trevino, the statement is true. It has been 17 years since Trevino, squat and swarthy, came off the driving range and began to win tournaments with his unorthodox flat swing. What a journey it has been. Trevino has won titles and hearts, been hit by lightning, insulted the best, had two back operations, teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, been married three times, traveled around the world and has hardly ever taken a favor from anyone. He goes his own way, powered by a heart that probably could run a small city, and now, at 44, he's done it again.

Trevino's four-stroke victory in the 66th PGA Championship at Shoal Creek outside of Birmingham last week emphasized once more that he's one guy no one ever will count 10 over. Here he was, with a back so bum he can't practice, forced to seek refuge in the old golfers' home—the TV booth—and yet he could summon up the skill and courage to turn back golf's toughest field on a Jack Nicklaus-designed course that, although just seven years old, ranks with the finest ever to host a major championship.

And, would you believe, for most of the week Trevino didn't even know that first place was worth $125,000? He went blithely about Shoal Creek, constructing his first victory in three years, his sixth major, his first since winning the PGA a decade ago. Trevino played sensational golf. He had only three bogeys and a double bogey in 72 holes, and nary a three-putt. He played the game the way it was meant to be played: down the middle—the only way to survive at Shoal Creek, which has some of the most penalizing rough this side of the Amazon—on the green and in the hole. "It's nice that an old guy can still beat these young guys," he said afterward, perhaps forgetting that one of the men he'd beaten was older than himself, 48-year-old Gary Player.

Trevino's performance was also record-breaking. His 15-under 69-68-67-69—273 was the lowest subpar effort in PGA Championship history, shattering Hal Sutton's 10-under at Riviera in Los Angeles last year, and it was the first time any player had played all four rounds under 70.

Trevino threw cold water on another legend, Player, the little-big, old-young man who had a memorable 63 in the second round, and swaggering Lanny Wadkins, 34, who kept firing until the end. They settled for $62,500 apiece.

"It doesn't even matter what I shoot," Trevino said early in the week. "They don't expect anything from me, anyway." On Sunday, rain and lightning forced a one-hour delay with Trevino and Wadkins, tied for the lead at 13 under, out on the 6th hole with Player. Trevino waited it out in a garage, munching on a brownie. When play resumed, Wadkins took a one-stroke lead through nine holes. Trevino bided his time. "I wasn't nervous, I knew I could win," he said. "I wasn't spittin' cotton."

Trevino has made a habit out of picking up odd clubs and working wonders with them. He won the '74 PGA at Clemmons, N.C. with a putter he'd found in a widow's attic. In his bag at Shoal Creek, Trevino had a new putter he'd bought for $50 at the Dutch Open several weeks ago. Since then he'd been 56 under par for the 10 rounds before Sunday's, sinking "putts from here to Omaha." And when it came time Sunday to do what he does best—make the clutch shot—he put that putter behind the ball, stuck out his chin and made a pair of brash strokes to save par. "The two greatest pressure putts I've ever seen," said Player.

The first was a 20-footer on the 11th hole, which Wadkins had bogeyed. The second was an 18-footer at the par-3 16th. Leading by a stroke, Trevino had put his tee shot in a bunker, while Wadkins hit his tee shot to within 12 feet of the cup. A leader switch seemed likely. But Trevino hit a marvelous explosion and, as Wadkins looked on, dropped his putt for par, after which he spat, as if to say, "Take that, golf. You can't beat me." Wadkins missed his birdie, and followed with a duck-hook tee shot on the 17th. End of tournament.

Most people were surprised when the PGA awarded this championship to Shoal Creek (no Golf Club or Country Club, just Shoal Creek, thank you), having never heard of the place. What they found was a pastoral course bearing the unmistakable Nicklaus imprimatur. Stature in corporate America these days often boils down to how well you know Nicklaus. Hall Thompson, who made a fortune selling tractors, hired Nicklaus to design Shoal Creek. The Golden Bear came to Bear Bryant country and carved a par-72, 7, 145-yard layout in the woods, wonderful in its treachery and beauty. The place is so remote and bucolic that a can of bug spray was put in every player's locker, a 3½-foot rattlesnake was discovered in a parking lot one day, and yellow jacket stings headed the caseload at the first-aid tent.

The golfers were impressed with several things about Shoal Creek. "No white paint anywhere," Sutton noted, referring to the spray officials use to outline ground under repair. And there was the rough. It was only four inches high, but it was Bermuda grass, hardy stuff that thrives in the South. Hitting a ball from long Bermuda rough is tougher than picking a flea off a sheep dog. "It's like having water hazards on both sides of the fairway," said Trevino. In fact, he had nightmares about the stuff. On Saturday he was up at 7 a.m., swinging his metal driver in the bedroom of his rented house. "What are you doing?" asked his wife Claudia, 26. "I think I'm shufflin' my stance too much," said Trevino.

Trevino has a dual personality; he's gregarious but also very private. On stage, he's all laughs; off it, he's almost a recluse. Before Sunday's round, he crumpled and threw away a bunch of unread messages taped to his locker. "This is what I do with those," he said. "Nobody gave me nothing coming up. I don't need anything now." But he's been the people's and hackers' choice for almost two decades.

As remarkable as Trevino was, Player matched him almost to the end. The persevering South African was not only gunning to become the first to win a major championship in four different decades, but also to defend his way of life, with its Spartan regimen that emphasizes positive thinking, health food, exercise and most anything else that Jack LaLanne stands for. His Friday round was a masterpiece, the brush that created it being a new putting stroke that was really an old putting stroke. Player grew up using an abrupt jab, in the manner of South Africa's Bobby Locke, who's often cited as the best putter ever. But in recent years Player had gotten away from the short follow-through. Five minutes before teeing off Friday, he went back to it. The result was a 10-birdie 30-33—63, the best round in the tournament's history.

Trevino began Saturday tied with Player and Wadkins at seven under, but got four birdies and an eagle to go 13 under after seven holes. His front-nine score of 30 had Player shaking his head. Walking to the 10th tee, Player told him, "I said yesterday it would be a long time before anyone shoots 30 here again. It took one day."

"Yeah, and I missed that little putt," said Trevino, meaning the 4½-footer he'd failed to make on the 8th hole.

Trevino came to the 18th leading Wadkins by three shots and Player by four. Then he hit his only bad drive of the round, into a fairway bunker. Instead of pitching out, he went for the green, found a lake and made a double bogey.

"I'm not conceding anything," Wadkins said cockily. Trevino told his friends, "Wadkins is who I have to beat."

On Sunday, Trevino holed a 60-foot birdie putt on the 1st hole, birdied the 3rd, and then made his only bogey at the 189-yard 5th, out of a bunker. Meanwhile, Wadkins made three birdies and took the lead. But sometimes playing without fear can get you in trouble, especially at Shoal Creek. Wadkins freewheeled a drive on the 11th into the rough and bogeyed, then three-putted 12. Now Trevino was ahead by a stroke, and dictating the play. And like everyone who grew up hustling bets with his clubs, Trevino is a virtuoso in front. "He's making every putt," Player said ruefully as he walked down the 14th fairway. Finally Wadkins, trying for the spectacular, bogeyed the last two holes. "When you're young, you always say, 'It's inevitable. You're going to win,' " Trevino would say later. "But when you're old, the inevitable is over with."

Not really.

PHOTOMICHAEL O'BRYONTrevino's 60-foot 1st-hole birdie on Sunday was definitely something to shout about. PHOTOMICHAEL O'BRYONWadkins shot into the lead Sunday, but Trevino and Shoal Creek brought him to his knees. PHOTOMICHAEL O'BRYONTrevino gave his new $50 putter a victory smooch. PHOTOMICHAEL O'BRYONPlayer's new putting stroke was really an oldie.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)