The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews and "Champagne"
Tony Lema from the streets of Oakland made for a most improbable
pairing at the British Open in 1964. The very name Champagne
Tony--suggesting, as it rather accurately did, a playboy
mentality--was in itself wholly antithetical to the dour Scottish
nature. And Lema, who until only a short time before had enjoyed
greater success in the boudoir than in the bunkers, had
certainly earned his sybaritic sobriquet, for as he himself once
put it, "I have never denied myself a drink or a good dinner or
a party while I am out on Tour." He had once even questioned his
choice of sport. "I'm not sure I'm really cut out for pro golf,"
he said. "I should be playing something like football or
basketball, where I have a chance to run and shout."
Running and shouting would never do at the Royal & Ancient. Only
a very few Americans, most notably the aristocratic Bobby Jones
and, in more recent years, the charismatic Arnold Palmer, had
broken through the famous Scottish reserve there. A hedonist of
the Champagne Tony stripe didn't seem to have a chance. In fact,
after a brilliant start in 1964--he won the Bing Crosby pro-am in
February, then within the space of four weeks, the Thunderbird
Classic and the Buick and Cleveland Opens--Lema was not at all
certain he wanted to play at St. Andrews. Only after his friend
and idol, Palmer, convinced him that if he skipped the British
he would be "missing one of the greatest thrills of your life"
did Lema acquiesce. Palmer even loaned him one of his black
Tommy Armour putters and the caddie, Tip Anderson, who had seen
Arnie through his 1961 and '62 British Open victories.
After playing 10 practice holes at the Royal & Ancient on Monday
and a full 18 on Tuesday, Lema pronounced himself ready for the
Wednesday start. This somewhat cavalier approach was
misinterpreted by the Scottish press as a forecast of victory,
and when a local newspaper headlined that sentiment the next
day, a horrified Lema complained to his business agent (and PGA
Tour pioneer), Fred Corcoran, "I never said I'd win." Replied
Corcoran, "Well, you have now." And win he did, both the Open
Championship and, as fellow pro Dave Marr recalls, "the hearts
and minds of the Scottish people." Stepping up to the very first
tee, Lema paused to pick up a coin he spotted in the grass.
"Look at this," he addressed the gallery, holding the coin
aloft. "I'm already the leading money winner in the British
Open." Thereafter Champagne Tony became for the Scots "the Jolly
Playing in a stiff wind, Lema shot a one-over-par 73 in the
first round. A masterly second-round 68 gave him a two-stroke
lead over the field and a nine-stroke margin over the Open
favorite, Jack Nicklaus. He served champagne in the press tent
that afternoon, a treat he ordinarily reserved for winning a
tournament. And the gesture did seem premature, for he faltered
early in the next round and was two over par after five holes
when he passed Nicklaus, playing the 13th. There he learned to
his terror that Nicklaus, four under for the round, was closing
in on him in a hurry. Pressured, Lema parred the sixth and then
shot five straight 3s, three of them birdies, on his way to
finishing with a 68 to Nicklaus's 66. He coasted to victory with
a final-round 70 and 279 for the tournament, five strokes ahead
of Nicklaus. After his own cork-popping party he was approached
by another avid golfer, the Duke of Windsor, who, proffering him
a glass, said, "I understand you enjoy a spot of champagne."
The legend of Champagne Tony could just as easily have been the
sad tale of "Beer and Pretzels" Tony had it not been for golf.
He grew up in a largely industrial neighborhood on the border
between east Oakland and the town of San Leandro. His
Bermuda-born Portuguese father--Anthony Harry Lema, a factory
worker--died in 1937 when his youngest child, Anthony David, was
just three. Tony's mother, Clotilda (Cleo), worked variously as
a department store clerk, a shoe salesperson and a drugstore
cashier to support her four children.
Tony, always the charmer, had a wild streak that expressed
itself more in mischief than in genuine delinquency, although as
brother Harry says, "It was not unusual to find the police at
our front door"--once when Tony and a friend heedlessly siphoned
gas from a patrol car and again when they lifted a case of beer
from a truck in plain view of a passing officer.
Lema began caddying as a 12-year-old at the Lake Chabot
municipal course in the Oakland hills. By 13 he was playing
regularly there under the tutelage of the head pro, Dick Fry. At
18 he won the Oakland City amateur championship. A caddying and
golfing buddy in those formative years was another Oakland
youngster, John Brodie, a future quarterback for the San
Francisco 49ers and briefly, in 1959, Lema's roommate on the pro
golf tour. "Tony was a tough kid," says Brodie, who now plays on
the Senior tour. "You had to be, growing up in Oakland. We
didn't exactly lead a country club life. In fact, we were
hustlers. But Tony was always a romantic. He loved good people
and couldn't stand jerks."
Lema was kicked out of one East Bay Catholic high school for
smoking and narrowly graduated from another, then joined the
Marine Corps in 1952. He was sent to Korea as an artilleryman
just as the war there ended and spent much of his 11 months
overseas playing golf in Japan. On his release in the fall of
1955 he was speeding home to his mother's house in San Leandro
when he was stopped by an Alameda County sheriff's deputy who,
fortunately, was a golfing pal named Jerry Kroeckel. Kroeckel
told him of a job opening for an assistant pro at the posh San
Francisco Golf Club. As it happened, Lema had also played junior
golf with head pro John Geersten's son, John Jr., so he got the
job. It was the break of a lifetime. By observing at close hand
what former USGA president Sandy Tatum has called "the unforced
gentility" of the membership, the future Champagne Tony
developed much of the savoir faire that would make him such an
enchanting rogue in the years to come.
The Bay Area was alive with talented young golfers in the late
1950s. Harvie Ward won back-to-back National Amateur
championships in 1955 and '56, Ken Venturi nearly won the 1956
Masters as an amateur, and Bob Rosburg would win the PGA
Championship in 1959. Between rounds at the San Francisco Golf
Club with the likes of Bing Crosby, Lema watched and learned
from these emerging stars.
He won his first professional tournament, the Imperial Valley
Open at the Barbara Worth Country Club in El Centro, Calif., in
January 1957 in a most unusual fashion. Convinced that he was
out of the running, and with the leader, Paul Harney, still on
the course, Lema repaired to the clubhouse bar for a few
postmortem scotches. He had downed his third when he was told
that he and Harney had tied and that a sudden-death playoff was
about to begin. In a semi-inebriated state, he nevertheless
disposed of Harney on the second extra hole.
Lema joined the professional Tour in December '57. He earned
some $16,000 in prize money and endorsements--good money at the
time--in an encouraging rookie year. Then, foolishly, he began
tinkering with his swing in order to gain more loft on his
drives. It was, he said, "like trying to cut down and even up
the legs of a wobbly table." With his game gone haywire, his
total earnings for the next two years didn't equal his first
year's income. He was broke and heavily in debt to his sponsor.
Then, painstakingly, Lema emerged from the abyss, rediscovering
his driver, regaining his putting stroke. And on Oct. 28, 1962,
in the Orange County Open at the Mesa Verde Country Club in
Costa Mesa, Calif., he transformed himself from a hapless
also-ran into the colorful and endearing character forever after
known as Champagne Tony.
After a third-round 64 had jumped him into a two-stroke lead
over Rosburg, Lema was sharing some celebratory beers with
sportswriters when suddenly he blurted out, "If I win this
thing, guys, it'll be champagne all around, not beers,
tomorrow." But Rosburg tied him in the final round with a
closing 67, forcing a playoff. On the first extra hole Rosburg
hit a magnificent drive down the middle of the fairway. Lema
hooked his seemingly out-of-bounds. Both players were surprised
to find the ball still on the fairway. "Twenty-eight years after
that tournament I was approached by a guy who asked me if I
remembered the first playoff hole," Rosburg ruefully recalls. "I
said I sure did. And then he told me that Tony's drive had
actually landed in the rough about where he was standing as a
spectator. The guy was a Marine, and he knew Tony had been a
Marine. So, he told me, out of loyalty to the corps he just
kicked the ball back on the fairway. I could've killed him
right there and then."
Thus reprieved, Lema eliminated Rosburg on the third playoff
hole. It was his first big win on the Tour. And though he had to
be reminded of his promise by a friendly photographer, he did
indeed serve champagne in the press tent. It became his trademark.
Always popular with reporters--he once said he endeavored to make
every interview "lively, witty, sincere, hilarious, sentimental,
dramatic, colorful and spontaneous"--he was now a media darling.
And his career took flight. In 1963 he finished a stroke behind
Nicklaus in the Masters and played on the winning Ryder Cup
team. In '64 he added the championship of the $75,000 World
Series of Golf to his wins in the Crosby, the Cleveland, the
Buick and the British. And in 1965, with $101,817, he was second
only to Nicklaus in official earnings. And, he quickly added,
"first in spendings."
Actually by then he was no longer the skirt-chasing big spender
of legend. On April 28, 1963, he had married the former Betty
Cline, a pretty airline stewardess he had met two years earlier
on a trip from Dallas to San Francisco--"love at first flight,"
he called it. And he became as ardent a husband as he had been a
womanizer. "I've got a wife to make happy," he said, "and a slew
of kids to come."
What was known only to Betty and his immediate family was that
Lema already had a "kid," David Anthony Lema, born in 1961 after
Tony's brief first marriage. Lema never publicly acknowledged
this liaison and never spoke, even to his closest friends, of
being a father. In a profile of Lema at the time, LIFE magazine
told of his love of children despite the fact "he had none of
his own." This at a time when he was regularly paying child
By July 1966 Betty was herself pregnant; she confided in Gail
Ward, the wife of Lema's friend and sponsor, Bob Ward, at dinner
shortly before the PGA Championship in Akron. Lema played badly
in the PGA, finishing far back in the field. On the final day,
Sunday, July 24, 1966, he attended morning Mass with his good
friend and fellow pro Johnny Pott. He shot a closing 74 that
afternoon and then, with Betty, quickly packed for a charter
flight to Chicago, where he was scheduled to play the next day
in the Lincolnshire Country Club Open. But when he arrived at
the Akron Municipal Airport, he was told his plane was not there
but some 20 miles away at the Akron-Canton Airport.
"I think Tony had a premonition after that," says Pott. At the
second airport he learned that his pilot would be a woman, Doris
Mullen, a 44-year-old part-owner of Mainline Aviation Inc., the
charter service. "Tony often said there were lots of things he
enjoyed doing with women," says Pott, "but flying was not one of
them." At first he refused to go. Then, persuaded that Mullen
was more than qualified, he reluctantly climbed aboard the
twin-engine Beechcraft Bonanza. "Wish us luck," he called out to
Near the Indiana-Illinois border, the Beechcraft--with Tony,
Betty, Mullen and her copilot, Dr. George Bard, aboard--suddenly
lost altitude, presumably from a shortage of fuel in one engine.
Mullen tried for a crash landing on the golf course of Lansing
(Ill.) Sportsman's Club, but her plane went into a dive, crashed
on the 7th fairway, skidded into a water hazard and burst into
flames, incinerating all on board. Champagne Tony Lema, age 32
and at the peak of his game, was killed just short of the green
on the 165-yard par-3 7th hole of a golf course.
The Lema legend is somewhat faded today. His "swinging"
lifestyle seems especially anachronistic in these more
puritanical times when drinking, smoking and chasing women are
considered nutritionally and politically incorrect. But for
those who knew him best--his family and friends, and his fellow
golfers--he remains, 29 years after his death, an unforgettable
"He may have been a playboy," says Harvie Ward, "but he had a
heart of gold. And remember, this life ain't no dress rehearsal.
You only get one shot at it."
For the little time he had, Champagne Tony definitely gave it
his best shot.