IT'S NIFTY BEING 50

Lee Trevino, joining the rich Senior tour, says the best is yet to come
December 18, 1989

Lee Trevino has long cast a wolfish eye in the direction of the Senior PGA Tour. He describes it, leering with comic greed, as a golfing heaven where players are carried from shot to shot in whirring chariots, where no one is cut after the second round, where players amiably divide millions of dollars in purses, all the while displaying the character and fullness of their seasons.

"I'm tired of playing against the flat bellies," Trevino says, cackling. "I'm going to go play against the round bellies."

In preparation, he played a heavy schedule of regular Tour events in 1989, struck hundreds of practice balls a day and dropped his commentator's job with NBC to make time for the 30 Senior tournaments he plans to play in 1990.

His competitive nerves were certified last April when he led the Masters for two rounds and finished tied for 18th. "I expect to win five Seniors tournaments or more the first year and shoot some very low scores," he said.

On Dec. 1, Trevino finally turned 50, making him eligible for last week's GTE Kaanapali Classic on the Hawaiian island of Maui. But when the time arrived, Trevino didn't want to go. His mother-in-law, who lives in Connecticut, had undergone abdominal surgery, and his wife, Claudia, who had planned to accompany him to Hawaii, instead flew to join her mother. But first Claudia talked Lee into playing as promised. This took some doing, because Trevino had not once been separated from Claudia—in the six years of their marriage—or from their 10-month-old daughter, Olivia.

"I miss them so much that mentally I'm not on the golf course," he said in Maui.

Last Thursday, Trevino seemed like any other new kid on the block: homesick and distracted. His first two holes as a senior were bogeys. Then he righted himself and shot a respectable 69 to tie for sixth. He was three under par through nine holes on Friday, but two three-putts and some missed opportunities on the back nine left him with another 69, six strokes off the lead. "My putter got me," he said. "My irons were O.K., my wedge was O.K., the driving was O.K. It was the putter."

After play each day, he escaped up the West Maui coast to his suite in the celestially serene Kapalua Bay Hotel. "When I get into the room, I turn into a pumpkin," he said.

Wherever his room may be, Trevino stretches his back with the aid of a battered, five-foot-long wooden pole. He has needed such therapy since 1976, when he had surgery for a herniated disc. He also does sit-ups and leg raises. He dines in his hotel room, reads history, watches nature documentaries on TV and is asleep by eight.

He cannot be coaxed to the beach. "There are large things in that ocean," he says. "There's a shark out there that likes Mexican food." This seems to be the obligatory Mexican joke. If you don't seem wild about it, it is the last.

Trevino cherishes his privacy. He has been absent not just from the Augusta National clubhouse—which he avoids out of an instinctive dislike—but from all clubhouses for 20 years. His tone is edged with terror when he cries in explanation, "There are golfers there. [To fully appreciate the tone here, substitute rattlesnakes for golfers.] And they'll come over with a thousand questions. And you have to be nice!"

So he stays in. And because he does, Arnold Palmer, George Archer, Phil Rodgers, Chi Chi Rodriguez and a hundred or so others knew just where to send his birthday card. A yard square, it came to him in his room, showing Snoopy fainting at the mention of his age, and bearing the signatures and japes of a generation. "Aw, hey, that's nice," Trevino said, touched, scrutinizing the names intently. "There's Arnold, and Doug Ford, and Jim Feree, and the old steel man, Walt Zembriski...."

There was even a bribe. "We took up a collection, $150,000 not to play," wrote Butch Baird. "Will you accept?"

He would be a fool. The Senior tour has grown so rich that Bob Charles has won $613,387 this year, and Orville Moody, $579,985.

From the vantage of his couch, Trevino observes things that have changed, and some that haven't, in his first half century. The Senior tour, for instance. In words that are more gospel song than sermon—fast, loud, rhythmic and delivered with conviction—Trevino explains why money gushes into the senior game and why the pro-am remains the greatest fund-raising device since the room tax: "Golf is the only sport where a 67-year-old can compete with an athlete in his prime. It's the only human sport that can be fairly handicapped. Name another. You can't do it. So golf is the only place where that corporate head can compete with the top players."

Golf is extraordinary too for how well its champions weather. "No ordinary golfer of any age can beat the best 50-year-olds," says Trevino. So the great names have virtually untarnishable appeal. "The Senior tour will get even bigger," Trevino continues. "It will approach the size and money of the regular Tour. Commissioner Deane Beman may not like it, but it will happen."

No matter how gilded, the Senior tour will never offer the rare and terrifying pressure of a Masters or a U.S. Open. "No," says Trevino. "On the regular Tour you had to scratch and claw to establish your record. These guys have done that. They're all established. Now there will be less pressure than the regular Tour. I thought I'd be nervous here, teeing off, but I wasn't at all."

In 1968, after winning his first U.S. Open, Trevino shouted, "I'm gonna play golf until I'm a hundred years old!" Since then he has often spoken of his love of the game, and almost as often he has immediately added that he could not make nearly as much money doing anything else. One guesses he doesn't want to talk too much of love, so he switches to something crass.

One guesses wrong. Trevino does not separate the sport from its spoils. "Twenty-five years ago I couldn't have said I love the game," he says. "There was no money in it then. It's easy to say I love this game when it's made me rich and famous. It's like saying I love a beautiful woman who happens to have 40 million dollars. Subconsciously I know the reward's at the end of the play.

"Why did I put in the practice, why do I look forward to the Senior tour? Because I'm going to make a hell of a lot of money." Pause. "What I'm going to do with it, I don't know...."

Money, however inextricable, has its limits. "It seems to be everybody's way of keeping score," says Trevino. "People don't care about anything else but who the leading money winner is, and I'm sorry about that. We should judge golfers by tournaments won and scoring average adjusted for the difficulty of the courses. We should keep score by keeping score."

It follows, then, that Trevino honors consistency and the self-possession that creates it. "There are two ways to play this game," he says. "One is being able to do something about not playing well. Two is not being able to. It's easy to play when you're on. But you have to play when you're not. Seve Ballesteros can do that. He makes things happen."

Trevino is no slouch at it either. Ben Hogan once said that Trevino manipulated the club better than anyone. "My gift, my fascination," says Trevino, "has always been feel. Having good hands and feel are the most important things in golf because when you're on the practice tee and things aren't working, it's feel that lets you fall back to plan B, or C, so you can adjust how you're working the ball."

It is important to Trevino that money not be all that important. "It's funny," he says, "how everything in this country is judged and surrounded by money, by how big your house is, how expensive your clothes are. I've never had respect for money. Don't. Won't. Never will." So he has kept the reward from rearing up and becoming a distraction.

"The biggest problem with money," he says, "is figuring out how to keep it. That is, after managers and friends and investors get through with it."

This is in rueful reference to his having taken deep losses when businesses and developments urged upon him by friends foundered.

"All I ever asked of the people who handled my money was that my plastic not bounce," he says. "It was a mistake not to oversee things more closely. After losing two fortunes, I've learned. Now, when someone comes to me with a deal that's going to make me a million dollars, I say, 'Tell it to your mother.' Why would a stranger want to make me a million?"

Trevino's own worth has always been immediately apparent to him, without need for symbols. Therefore, age has not deflated his buoyant, startling, innate and well-founded confidence.

"I know I can play," he practically bellows. "I'm not worried about the next shot or any shot. I know I can execute it. I can execute them all. So my concentration is 15 seconds a shot. After that, we can talk about football.

"My personality flows from this. I know guys who are hysterically funny in the clubhouse, and when they step to the first tee, they turn stone silent. Then after they're done and back in, they're funny again. But if I had to concentrate every minute, I'd be a spastic out there." Trevino has pledged to stop and smell the roses more often on the Senior tour. "I never have seen much but airports, golf courses and hotels," he says. "I plan to have more fun."

That we'll have to see. Because what Trevino engages in on a golf course may be considerably more satisfying than, say, snorkeling.

Watch him chop out shot after shot with that abrupt, flat swing, pondering not at all, then pass through a range of moods, by turns puckish, distant and occasionally crude. At Kaanapali he lacerated an addled autograph seeker by inquiring, aloud, whether senior golf meant senile galleries.

Trevino says that he has always fit with the game of golf, has always slipped easily into its rhythm of focus, execute, breathe and refocus. He found it there, waiting for him, the perfect Trevino expression. So he spends himself on its many levels, mental and biomechanical, and afterward he is amiably immobile on the couch in the room overlooking the Pacific. Immobile to the extent that he uses his stretching pole to answer the phone.

In the Kaanapali tournament, the skills of the Seniors were in ample evidence. Sixty-three-year-old Joe Jimenez shot 64 for the first-round lead. The second day, laconic Don Bies, the defending champion, fired his own 64 and credited it to the excitement stirred in him by playing with Trevino. Bies's 132 led Dale Douglass by a stroke. (Douglass's and Bies's bellies are notably flat.) Trevino's 138 gave him a chance going into the last day of the three-day tournament, but it was a slim one.

Then the night before the final round, an unadvertised rainstorm swept in, flooding the course and sending billows of russet Hawaiian mud into the heretofore blue Pacific. The tournament was called off with two rounds played, and Bies backed into the $45,000 winner's share of the $300,000 purse. Trevino made $9,258 for tying for seventh.

Rather than broadcast the deluge, on Saturday ESPN ran tape of the beautiful first day. Let's do that too and return to Trevino as he approached the 18th green on that first Thursday of his new life. A water hazard bordered the fairway to the right. Trevino was drawn to it. Head cocked, gently absorbed, he ambled along, reaching down with a club and drawing up lost golf balls.

"I love to look for golf balls," he said. "If I had a retriever, I could have got more." While waiting to putt, he slipped a few to people who seemed to be keeping a polite distance, or perhaps people he sensed were of good heart. What was once a living was now a joy, a walk in the springy pasture of heaven.

PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINBalloons, a clown and a singing telegram got Trevino off to a flying start in the Seniors. PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINIn Hawaii, Trevino was alone for the first time in six years. PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINA faltering putter spoiled Trevino's Senior tour debut. PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINTrevino stretches his troublesome back with the help of this multipurpose exercise bar.

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)