Making it the Hard Way Nothing has come easy for Senior tour arriviste Bob Lendzion during his long journey up the golfing ladder

May 07, 2000

For Bob Lendzion, the journey has always been more important
than the destination. Even in 1972, when Lendzion, who's now a
52-year-old rookie on the Senior tour, returned to Los Angeles
after spending the summer as an instructor at the Arnold Palmer
Golf Academy in Stratton Mountain, Vt., he and his college
roommate, Rex Caldwell, made sure the trip home would be
memorable by hitchhiking, golf bags and all, with a couple of
important stops along the way. "Hell, we didn't want to spend
any money," Caldwell says. "That was the whole point." During
the trip they slept at rest areas and lived on peanut butter and
jelly sandwiches and off the kindness of strangers. Their first
stop was in Rochester, N.Y., for a few rounds at Oak Hill, and
then they headed for Latrobe (Pa.) Country Club, home course of
Arnold Palmer and the closest thing golf has to Graceland.

They got as far as the outskirts of Latrobe on a chilly evening
in September and, with no place to sleep, camped out for the
night in an open boxcar on a railroad siding. When a train
rumbled by on an adjacent track at three in the morning, "it
sounded as if it was going to run us over," Lendzion says. Numb,
they rose early and hitched a ride to Palmer Drive, where they
figured the country club must be. As they walked through a
residential neighborhood at the crack of dawn, they passed a
woman picking up the newspaper in her driveway. "Can I help you
guys?" she asked.

"No," Lendzion said. "We're just looking for the golf course."

"It's over there," the woman said, pointing toward the club,
"but can I help you?"

"No, no," Lendzion insisted. "We're on our way to the tee."

"The course doesn't open until eight o'clock," the woman said.
"Are you sure I can't help you?"

Finally, they told her they were instructors from the Palmer
Golf Academy, had met Palmer that summer and had received
permission to play Latrobe.

"Well," the woman said, "let me see if Arnie is up." It was
Winnie Palmer, his wife.

A few moments later Palmer walked out in his bathrobe. He
listened to Lendzion and Caldwell's story and smiled. "Have you
guys had breakfast yet?" Palmer asked.

They said no. "Then come on in," he said.

After picking their jaws off the driveway, Caldwell and Lendzion
went inside, showered, shaved and met Palmer's daughters. "Then
we sat down, and he cooked us breakfast," Lendzion says. "He
asked me how I wanted my eggs. I said over easy. I ate them at
his table. I don't think I even tasted them."

Lendzion's 50-year-old sister, Merrilee, had been hospitalized
at least a half-dozen times because of a hepatitis-related liver
problem, so Bob wasn't overly concerned last November as he
drove her home from another hospital stay to her house in Las
Vegas. Still, Lendzion remembers, she didn't look that great.
Nevertheless, he left the next day for Palm Springs and the
first stage of the Senior tour Q school. He practiced hard for
three days before calling home on the eve of the opening round.
"My mom told me that Merrilee had passed away," Lendzion says.
"It was a total shock."

Lendzion said he would withdraw from the tournament and come
home immediately, but his mother, Estelle, said no. "She said,
'There's nothing you can do. Merrilee would've wanted you to
play,'" Lendzion says. "I wasn't thinking much about qualifying
after that, which probably helped."

Lendzion advanced to the final stage three weeks later in
Tucson, where he holed a 15-foot par putt on the last hole to
finish a gutty 73 on a cold and windy day when the field average
was 76.7. That putt got him his card and set him off on his
latest journey. "I've got to believe Merrilee was watching over
me," he says.

Estelle Lendzion is 71 but still rises every morning at five and
gets her boys off to work. The boys are two of Bob's three
younger brothers, Butch, 47, and Jim, 32. Both suffered brain
damage as infants, Butch as a result of spinal meningitis when
he was six months old and Jim from being deprived of oxygen in
the womb because his umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck.
Bob's other brother, Leonard, 45, works as a dealer at the
Stardust Casino in Las Vegas. Butch and Jim have jobs at
Opportunity Village, a workplace for the handicapped in town,
and those jobs are the primary reason the Lendzions moved to
Nevada in the early 1970s. Butch usually runs a machine that
stamps out metal buttons. Jim normally replaces the ear covers
on the headphones used by the airlines. Like Bob, Butch and Jim
are athletic. "They go to dances and the Special Olympics," says
Bob, "and they play basketball. Jimmy plays baseball. He gets a
hit, runs to first and loves it. It's fun to watch them."

Estelle's husband, Quintin, died in 1983. He handled the
chemicals used by a Hollywood film company and would sometimes
get a copy of a movie before it appeared in the theaters and
bring it home for the boys. "I remember seeing Swamp Thing
before it came out," Bob says. "To see it before anybody else
was pretty amazing. That left a big impression on all of us."

In 1993 Estelle underwent a radical mastectomy and appears to
have beaten breast cancer. In the Senior tour media guide, Bob
lists his mom as his biggest hero. "She is so strong, so
genuine, so dedicated," he says. "What a good person."

Now that he's on tour, Lendzion will see less of his brothers.
"I don't think they really know I'm on the Senior tour," he
says. "They just know I'm a golfer. They're in their own world."

In 1964, when Lendzion was a sophomore and the backup
quarterback at Alemany High, a Catholic school in Granada Hills,
Calif., it seemed like a setback when, after he injured his leg
in practice, he had to spend 10 days in a hospital. Tests
revealed that Lendzion had a mild case of hemophilia. That ended
his football career but marked the beginning of his life as a
golfer. It took Lendzion six months to break 100, and he proudly
remembers the moment. (He had to beg two others to brave a
pouring rain at Knollwood Country Club in Granada Hills so he
could finish his 98 with witnesses.) A year later he broke 70
twice in the same week--without having taken a lesson. "I did it
totally on putting," he says. "I couldn't hit the ball at all."

Lendzion developed his deadly stroke on the Knollwood practice
green by playing in a daily gambling game with his high school
teammates, players from other schools or anybody with spare
change. "We'd each put up 50 cents for nine holes," Lendzion
says. "Sometimes six or eight guys were putting, and it took
four or five under to win. We would never consider spending $1
to buy a bucket of range balls. We needed that money to gamble."

Lendzion was a walk-on on the San Fernando Valley State (now Cal
State-Northridge) team and finished second to a future Tour
player, Jerry Heard, in his first collegiate tournament. "I
couldn't believe it," Lendzion says. "I had a terrible swing,
but I could get up and down from the ball washer."

In 1969, when he was a junior, Valley State won the NCAA
Division II title. "Bob was the rock," says Caldwell, who joined
the team the following fall and went on to play the Tour. "He
would shoot 72 every day but wouldn't get much under par. The
rest of us might shoot 67 one day, 80 the next. He would stand
close to the ball when he putted. If I heard a double click--the
heel of his Bulls Eye putter hitting his toe--the putt always
went in. He was the best putter I ever saw."

Usually about 100 kids attended the Palmer Academy at Stratton
Mountain, where Lendzion got his first job after graduating with
a degree in mathematics in 1972. He considered teaching math but
got hooked up with the academy through his college coach, Bill
Cullum, and went east instead. The highlight of every session
was a visit from Palmer, who would arrive via a chartreuse
helicopter that landed on the practice range. "It was like God
coming out of the sky," Lendzion says. "Arnie would go down the
line on the range and give each kid a tip." Lendzion spent 12
years at the academy, eventually becoming director of golf. He
married Pam Bowen in 1975, and they had a son, Jonathan, later
that year. In 1978 Lendzion was divorced and hasn't remarried.

Lendzion tried to qualify for the PGA Tour six times but never
made it through Q school. He would play the mini-tours in
Florida and Arizona during the winter until he ran out of money,
and then he would get a job in a packing plant or a warehouse
and earn enough to get back to Vermont for the summer. In 1983
he became the head pro at Quechee (Vt.) Club, where he spent
another dozen years, keeping his competitive fires alive during
the off-season by playing in South Africa, Jamaica and South
America, where he won the '93 Chile Open. He also won the '86
Club Pro Championship at PGA West, in La Quinta, Calif. Nine
years later, at 47, he quit Quechee and began his journey to the
Senior tour.

His first stop on that trip came in 1997 in France, at the
European senior tour Q school. The top 10 finishers qualified,
and Lendzion was on the bubble until he hit a drive deep into
the woods at the next-to-last hole and made a double bogey.
Angry but fired up, he reached the par-5 18th in two and holed a
30-foot eagle putt to tie for ninth. "That was a miracle," he
says. Lendzion played 29 tournaments during his two years in
Europe, winning one in Turkey and preparing himself for his new
life this year in the U.S.

Lendzion finished 17th in his first start on the Senior tour,
the Royal Caribbean Classic, in February, and came in 22nd at
last week's Bruno's Memorial Classic, but has struggled in
between and is so far down the money list (71st, with $56,315)
that he'll need another miracle to make the top 31, which would
allow him to be exempt again next season. He shot an 85 in the
second round of the Tradition when his game got away from him in
the cold and the wind. He had an 88, again in bad weather, at
the PGA Seniors. "The Q school was a big hurdle," Lendzion says.
"To finally get through one was a big accomplishment. I
qualified for the race. Now I've got to run it. I don't know if
I'm really ready for that."

The journey, however, continues. Lendzion recently bought a
32-foot motor home and is traveling the tour with Jonathan, who
doubles as his caddie, and Jonathan's girlfriend, Alison Bulman.
They broke in the RV at the Tradition, outside Phoenix, where
they stayed at a campground for $15 a night. "Things happened
for me the way they were supposed to happen," Lendzion says. "I
wasn't ready to play the PGA Tour when I was younger. I probably
would've bombed."

In his fifth start as a full-fledged member of the Senior tour,
Lendzion drew a second-round pairing with Palmer at the Toshiba
Senior Classic in Newport Beach, Calif. They reminisced about
Vermont and Palmer's academy. Lendzion shot a 71, Palmer a 74.
"He was very nice, but when you walk down a fairway with him,
you can't help but feel as if you're walking with a legend,"
Lendzion says.

A few hundred spectators were on the 1st green when Palmer sank
a 25-foot putt for birdie. "Everybody went crazy," says
Lendzion. Several thousand more fans were around the 18th green
when Palmer drained a long putt for birdie there, too. "That was
the loudest roar I've ever heard," Lendzion says. "All day I was
thinking, Arnold is 70. You don't know how many more tournament
rounds he's going to have, and I've got one of them. It was
special."

Lendzion had bumped into Palmer a few years ago and asked him if
he recalled the time he had fixed eggs for two disheveled pros
who showed up on his doorstep in Latrobe. "He said he
remembered," Lendzion says. "I don't know if he really did. I
told him, 'Thanks for breakfast.'"

Lendzion has reached his destination. He hopes the journey isn't
over yet.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GREG FOSTER COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GREG FOSTER NOVEL CONCEPT Lendzion, a traveling man, takes his home on the road these days. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GREG FOSTER SON'S SET Jonathan worked for his dad on the European senior tour and is on his bag again this year.

"I qualified for the race," says Lendzion. "Now I've got to run
it. I don't know if I'm really ready for that."

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)