"Merry Mex" was golf's showman
"I teed it up for $5, but that's all I had. If you lost, you were broke. And that's as much pressure as betting $100 or $500 or $1,000," said Lee Trevino about his days as a hustler.
His life has had more twists and turns than the long-tormenting golf course at Augusta. Lee Trevino became one of his sport's legends as he followed a path peppered by curious contrasts and contradictions.
Trevino was struck by lightning in 1975, which led to back surgery. Rich from golf, he lost millions in the 1970s because of ill-advised investments. His passion for his sport cost him one marriage and left him out of touch with his children.
Two more surgeries came later while on the PGA Senior Tour.
"When it comes to the game of life," the father of six said, "I figure I've played the whole course."
One-liners aside, Trevino played like few others. Self-taught, this Mexican-American took his short, flat swing to the PGA Tour in 1967 and promptly finished fifth in the U.S. Open. He was voted the tour's Rookie of the Year, then won the Open the next year, the first of his six major titles. By 1970 "Merry Mex" was the PGA's leading money winner, a humorous showman who delighted galleries.
His ball-striking skills amazed even his peers, some of whom compared them to Ben Hogan's. "Trevino put the clubface on the ball as consistently as anyone I've ever seen," said Gene Littler.
The back surgery slowed -- but didn't destroy -- his game, Trevino winning once in each of the next four years (1976-79) and three times in 1980. The veteran of six Ryder Cup and five World Cup teams won his last major, the 1984 PGA, at 44.
And after a 22-year PGA Tour career, he joined the Senior Tour in 1989 at 50. The wins kept coming on this new shore as he took 29 titles.
Not bad for a kid born into poverty, who grew up sleeping five to a room. "My family was so poor," Trevino joked, "when somebody threw our dog a bone, he had to call for a fair catch."
Born Dec. 1, 1939 in Dallas, Trevino was raised by his mother and grandfather. The family, including his two sisters, lived in a house in North Dallas without electricity or indoor plumbing that was located near a country club.
He began caddying at the club when he was eight, then took up the game with other caddies. An eighth-grade dropout, he later worked at a driving range, whose owner, Hardy Greenwood, had noticed Trevino's golf skills. Greenwood became a golf tutor and father figure.
Trevino joined the Marine Corps at 17 and played on its golf team. After his discharge in 1960, he returned to Dallas and tried to make a living at golf, mostly by hustling.
In 1966, Trevino took a job as a clubhouse attendant at an El Paso country club, where he continued hustling. He beat Raymond Floyd, a future PGA Tour star, two rounds out of three, leaving Floyd to mutter, "Here I am playing a cart man, a bag-storage man, and I can't beat him."
Trevino got his Tour playing card in 1967 and qualified for the U.S. Open at Baltusrol in New Jersey. He shot a 283, eight shots behind champion Jack Nicklaus, and earned $6,000 for finishing fifth. He won $26,472 as a rookie, 45th on the PGA money list.
The next year, he won his first of his two U.S. Opens, at Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y., overtaking Bert Yancey with a final-day 69. His 275 tied Nicklaus' Open record as he became the first player to shoot in the 60s in all four rounds of the Open.
That was strange for Trevino, famed for his loquacious manner while playing. Fellow pro Chi Chi Rodriguez recalls a tournament in which Tony Jacklin, paired with Trevino, said, "Lee, I don't want to talk today."
Trevino's retort: "I don't want you to talk. I just want you to listen."
Pro Frank Beard thought Trevino's vibrant on-course personality was by design, a style that hid his fear of not playing well and calmed his nerves.
Trevino carried a different persona off the course, usually holing up in his hotel room. "Once I'm off the stage," he said, "I'm totally a hermit."
Who would have guessed that after watching him throw a rubber snake at Nicklaus at the Merion Golf Club outside Philadelphia, moments before the two began a playoff for the 1971 U.S. Open?
Nicklaus had seen the snake in Trevino's bag and knew it was coming, but many golf people thought Trevino had crossed the line of propriety. Trevino, who had caught Nicklaus in the final round, took the lead on the third hole and won by three strokes. Two weeks later, Trevino won the Canadian Open and the following week the British Open, making him the only player to win three national titles in the same year.
Trevino had bypassed the Masters in 1971, as he had done the previous year after vowing never to play at Augusta National again. He felt uncomfortable in the stodgy Masters atmosphere and hated the course, saying his left-to-right game had no chance there. He contended for three rounds in his first Masters in 1968, only to crumble the last day at "Amen Corner," going eight over par on holes 11, 12 and 13. "A stupid course," he said.
His two-year absence drew criticism, and he returned to the tournament in 1972. In later years, he said he had erred in boycotting Augusta, but he rarely played well there, his highest finish being 10th in 1975.
Trevino succeeded phenomenally elsewhere, winning a second straight British Open in 1972, the first to do so since Arnold Palmer (1961-62).
He won the first of two PGA Championships in 1974, but misfortune struck him the next year when he was hit by lightning at the Western Open in Chicago. Trevino continued playing, but months later suffered back pain and underwent surgery in 1976. His victory pace slowed, though he had one of his best years in 1980, when he earned a record fifth Vardon Trophy for lowest scoring average (69.73).
Trevino's last PGA Tour victory came in the 1984 PGA Championship at Shoal Creek in Birmingham, Ala. His 15-under-par 273 broke Hal Sutton's 10-under record for the event set the previous year.
Switching to the Senior Tour in late 1989, Trevino shot to the top of the charts, winning the season-opener in 1990 and six other titles that year. The victories included the U.S. Senior Open, where he held off Nicklaus.
"It's always a feather in your cap to beat Jack," he said, "because he's the best. I was on a mission."
After the season, he had surgery for a bulging disc in his neck. Since then he has won five Senior titles.
Trevino considered retirement late in 1999, saying the old desire was gone. But he was back on tour in 2000, and he ended a 27-month victory drought by winning the NFL Cadillac Classic in June 2000.
No matter how long he plays, his words illustrate a firmly rooted legacy: "I showed that a guy from across the tracks, a minority kid with no education from a very poor background, can make it."