Bruce Lietzke makes his way around golf courses as if there were
a gun stuck in the small of his back. His gait seems
uncomfortably upright, his visor uncomfortably low on his
forehead and his gaze uncomfortably fixed just above the eye
level of the gallery. All the while, his arms and hands stay
close to his sides, even on those rare occasions when he can get
a 20-footer to drop. In fact, in his 21st year on the PGA Tour,
Lietzke still finds himself embarrassed by the cheering that
ensues when he makes a long putt.
He appears to be a man utterly without flash who yearns not to
be noticed. Yet mention Lietzke in golf circles and he becomes a
flash point. It's as if anyone who professes to be into the game
must have an opinion about Bruce Lietzke.
The most prevalent view is that Lietzke symbolizes what's wrong
with professional golf. He's seen as a player who tries to make
a bundle early in the season so he can take the rest of the year
off, a squanderer of talent who plays a minimum of events and
never practices during his long sojourns at home with his
family. Purists revile him for his refusal to play in either the
U.S. or the British Open, not to mention his use of the
unsightly long putter. The fact that Lietzke has never tried to
alter his swing, which is for all practical purposes incapable
of producing a right-to-left flight, is offered as proof that he
has no ambition. The easy take on Lietzke is that few have ever
done less with more.
But there are others who consider Lietzke a kind of cult hero.
While he plays to make a living, he has never chased
opportunities for the easy buck that would have diluted his
energy. Well-worn but far from complacent after more than two
decades on the Tour, he sticks with a schedule that allows him
to avoid burnout and to play with enthusiasm.
May 21, 1995
Lietzke is blessed with an all-talent, no-maintenance game that
is the envy of every practice-ball-beating, angst-ridden pro he
has ever played with. And his respect for the game and its
traditions is reflected in his impeccable comportment. In this
view, Lietzke's scope might be that of a minimalist, but nobody
maximizes like him.
He has no agent, no swing guru, no sports psychologist, no
secretary. When it comes to his career, he has only himself.
Which, when you are talking about Lietzke, is really the whole
point. Ben Crenshaw, who has played with and against Lietzke
since both were in junior high, believes Lietzke's self-reliance
is his friend's biggest strength. ''When I look at Bruce, I
think of one of Harvey's favorite sayings,'' says Crenshaw,
citing his late teacher, Harvey Penick. ''He said the players
that play the best are the ones who know themselves the best.
Bruce knows himself.''
Since joining the Tour in 1975, Lietzke has won 13 times. The
only active players under the age of 50 with more victories are
Tom Watson, Lanny Wadkins, Hale Irwin, Hubert Green, Tom Kite,
Crenshaw, Curtis Strange and Nick Price, and only the last three
are younger than Lietzke, who is 43. Lietzke is 15th in alltime
earnings with more than $5.6 million. Since he began playing an
abbreviated schedule in 1983, he has averaged $342,299 a year,
while rarely playing more than 20 events a year. Lietzke has a
way of piling up the cash without being noticed, as he did to
open the 1995 season by losing a playoff to Steve Elkington at
the Mercedes Championships at La Costa. Last week's GTE Byron
Nelson Classic near his home in Dallas was only his eighth
tournament this year and his first since the Masters, yet he
ranks a respectable 44th on the money list.
Lietzke also has one of the healthiest golf swings in history,
in that it has never really been sick. His 6'2", 185-pound frame
produces a fluid but somewhat oddly shaped action-Lietzke calls
it an ''over-the-top loop.'' But like a machine it has continued
to stamp out the kind of purely-struck high fades that none
other than Jack Nicklaus made the foundation of his game. ''As
far as consistency goes, he might be our best ball hitter,''
Lietzke appreciates the compliments and enjoys his mystique, but
what he is proudest of is how healthy his life has been away
from golf. ''When Bruce is home, he is 100 percent here,'' says
his wife, Rose, the mother of the couple's two children,
Stephen, 11, and Christine, 9. She compares his style of
parenting to his favorite television program, The Andy Griffith
Show. ''Bruce talks to the kids the same way Andy would talk to
Opie,'' says Rose. ''He'll explain things, but he has this real
gentle way of making them his equal. Children love Bruce,
because he includes them.'' Last summer he was the dugout coach
for his son's Little League team, and in April he skipped the
Houston Open to go on a camping trip with Christine. On school
days Lietzke usually spends his mornings working on his vintage
1960s and 1970s muscle cars or fishing, but he makes a point of
being in the house when his children return in the afternoon.
It's not a lifestyle that builds champions, and Lietzke has
undoubtedly sacrificed some of what he might have accomplished
in terms of a career record. But as much as he has the respect
of his peers for his game, Lietzke gets even more for his
devotion to his family.
''Fifteen years ago, I would have thought, This guy is selling
himself short,'' says Jerry Pate, the 1976 U.S. Open champion
and Lietzke's brother-in-law. "Now I feel Bruce was the one who
knew the right things, and I had it backward. Winning the U.S.
Open is not more important than the things Bruce has
Lietzke even jokes about his image as the man who never plays.
In a commercial about the irons Lietzke endorses, he says he
particularly likes the clubs because he can put them away for
three months and they won't rust.
The most popular Lietzke story involves the three-month break
between the end of the 1985 season and the first tournament in
1986. Lietzke told his caddie at the time, Al Hansen, that he
wouldn't touch his clubs all winter. Hansen was skeptical and
slipped a banana beneath the head cover of Lietzke's driver.
Three months later, Hansen pulled off the head cover and was
nearly felled by the stench. The legend was born.
What's funny is that this balanced guy, who seems to be able to
take golf or leave it, is actually the product of an obsession
with the sport. At age five he would follow his brother Duane,
older by 10 years, out to Rolling Hills Country Club in Wichita,
Kans., where Duane was the caddiemaster. When Bruce was eight,
his father, Norman, a manager with Mobil Oil, moved the family
to Beaumont, Texas, where Bruce began spending his days at a
local public course. That year, the little boy astounded his
mother, Elizabeth, by marching into the house and announcing his
future. ''I told her that my goal in life was to play the PGA
Tour against Sam Snead and Gary Player,'' he says.
Lietzke had plenty of nurturing. Norman Lietzke was deeply
supportive of his five children, coaching their Little League
and church basketball teams. He was Bruce's biggest fan until he
died at age 65 in 1977 of emphysema, living just long enough to
see his youngest son win his first two Tour events, in Tucson
and Hawaii. Elizabeth Lietzke, now 82, continues to attend
several tournaments a year to watch her son play, walking every
With an eye on the Tour, he accepted a scholarship to the
University of Houston. But in the middle of his junior year, a
funny thing happened to Lietzke. The game he had loved since age
five suddenly became a chore. For the rest of his career at
Houston, his performance was erratic. When his college
eligibility ran out in 1973 and it was time to turn pro, Lietzke
could not pull the trigger. ''I hit a wall,'' says Lietzke. ''I
was playing so poorly at the time, and it was such a big
decision, I kind of froze. It's probably the biggest choke I've
ever had. I hung up the clubs.''
Lietzke went back to Beaumont, where Norman Lietzke lined up his
son's first job, as a security guard at the oil plant. Lietzke
laughs whenever he thinks about himself as a gatekeeper. He was
issued a gun and bullets, but each was locked in a separate
drawer, and he was not given the keys. ''Just like Barney,''
says Lietzke, citing the Don Knotts character on his favorite
show. Reality bit. After five months Lietzke was ready to play
He missed qualifying for the Tour on his first attempt by a
stroke, but it was for the best. Lietzke took his classic,
upright swing to the mini-tours in Florida, where to be
competitive in constant heavy wind, he had to learn to lower his
ball flight from a towering draw.
Lietzke is the first to admit he knows next to nothing about the
mechanics of the golf swing, and it showed in his diagnosis
then. Rather than simply moving the ball back in his stance, he
left it off his left heel and tried to lower the trajectory of
his shots by ''covering'' the ball with his right shoulder. That
move created a slight outside-in action that produced a
That fade became the source of Lietzke's enduring
nickname-''Leaky''-in reference to the way his ball always leaks
to the right. While the new aesthetics of his game didn't
particularly please him, Lietzke couldn't deny that he could
repeat the new swing with remarkable ease.
With his new game, Lietzke regained his enthusiasm and let his
obsession kick back in. From his rookie year in 1975 through
1981, Lietzke was one of the Tour's iron men, playing nearly 30
events a year. He won eight times in that period, despite being
an inconsistent putter who decided to go cross-handed when using
that grip was considered an admission of having the yips.
Lietzke didn't care what people thought, only that he was making
''My first seven years on Tour is when I fed my ego,'' says
Lietzke. ''I wanted to find out how good I was. I played all the
majors, went overseas. I found out I was not a great player, but
a good player. And that was enough for me.''
The last time Lietzke really pushed for something in golf was
the 1981 Ryder Cup team. He hadn't been a pro long enough to be
eligible in 1977, and he was an alternate in 1979, so he was
determined not to miss again. He had his best year ever, winning
three times and finishing fourth on the money list. But the old
bugaboo, burnout, was the price.
''I blew a fuse by pushing myself too hard,'' says Lietzke. "I
played good golf the next year, but, man, I hated it. I actually
considered retirement in 1982. I don't like to even think about
The clincher in pushing Lietzke to a lighter schedule came when
he married Rose in 1981. Two years later Stephen was born. ''I
had always wanted kids, and I wanted to be as good a father as I
was a golfer," says Lietzke. "Being a good father was the next
step in my life.''
In 1983, Lietzke left the Tour in August and for five months did
not touch a club. When he came out for the Bob Hope Classic in
January 1984, he withdrew after tearing cartilage in his rib
cage in the third round and needed three weeks to heal. In only
his second tournament back, the Honda Classic in March, he won.
''That was probably the ultimate test,'' says Lietzke. ''I
remember thinking, I can take five- and six-week breaks and not
worry about losing my game. Gosh, I've got this thing figured
Lietzke understands those who contend he could have had a much
better record if he would have played more. But he does not
happen to agree.
''If I had continued to play 28 or 30 tournaments, the
opportunities to win might have gone up, but the quality would
have gone down. I'm sure I would not be playing, because I would
have burned out."
These days Lietzke is heading to the course even when he's not
on Tour. Since turning 11, his son Stephen has decided he has
had enough baseball and soccer and wants to make golf his game,
and that means playing with his dad. As a result, members of the
Bent Tree Country Club in Dallas can see Bruce Lietzke carrying
his own bag, tending the pin for his son.
''It's amazing,'' says Duane Lietzke. ''The President could come
to town, and Bruce wouldn't play golf with him. But he'll do it
Lietzke knows he is only doing what he was brought up to do.
''Stephen's got a slice, and he's always asking me how to get
rid of it,'' he says. ''He wants to know how to hook the ball. I
tell him he's got the wrong guy.''
So do Lietzke's critics. In fact, those who criticize him should
get a life--and hope it's half as good as his.