The autobiography by PGA Tour legend ,Lee Trevino, was published in 1981. At the time, Trevino was in his early 40’s and had just been inducted into the Golf Hall of Fame. This is an immensely entertaining and touching book, told in Trevino’s highly intelligent and highly comic voice.
A brief recap of his career highlights: Trevino won six majors, 29 PGA Tour events between 1968 and 1984. He also won five Vardon trophies, three straight during his most productive years, 1971, 1972 and 1973. He also won the U.S. Open, the Canadian Open and the British Open all with a space of 20 days in 1971.
Trevino’s chief legacies are two-fold. First, he was perhaps the biggest personality to ever play the game, rivaled by only Walter Hagen and Jimmy Demaret. Second, he was the biggest rags to riches story in PGA history. And that’s saying something, considering that many golfing legends came from desperately poor backgrounds, including Vardon, Hagen, and Hogan.
Trevino grew up fatherless in the Dallas, Texas area in the late forties and early fifties. He lived with his mother and grandfather in a shack with no running water or electricity. The shack abutted the Dallas Athletic Club where Trevino worked as a caddie at 8 years old. Interestingly, although his ancestors immigrated to Texas from Mexico, his mother didn’t speak Spanish and neither can Lee.
His life as a poor golf bum reads like the script from Tin Cup. He grew up around a lot of drinking, carousing and golf wagering, although he bet very little himself on account of being so poor. Sadly, he remained an alcoholic for most of his career. A number of local golf people recognized his talent, took him under their wing and eventually sponsored him onto the PGA Tour.
Like Walter Hagen and Jack Nicklaus, Trevino’s first tour win was the U.S. Open in 1968 at the age of 27. Nicklaus and Hagen won theirs at age 21. It’s conceivable that if Trevino had grown up in better circumstances, he could have taken advantage of his youth to pile up much better career statistics.
Also, he was struck by lightning at the Western Open in 1975, This led to serious back problems that plagued him for the rest of his career. A healthy Lee Trevino who started his pro career earlier could have challenged the record books.
Trevino is well known for his unorthodox swing. He never took a golf lesson and never had a golf coach. “I’ve never met an instructor who could beat me” was his explanation. When he was an unknown, he watched local Dallas resident Ben Hogan hit balls one day and noticed how he faded his shots. He went right to the driving range, worked on a fade, and faded the ball for the rest of his career.
He was a short hitter and was a typical Texas wind player who hit the ball very low. He won back to back British Opens in 1971 and 1972. No surprise there. He never won a Masters and, bizarrely, refused to play in the Masters during his two best years, again in 1971 and 1972. It’s hard to understand his refusal, but it was simply based a series of odd misunderstandings and his own stubbornness. In the book, he describes his behavior in this regard the biggest regret of his career.
When he did play at Augusta, he never played well. His best career finish there was tenth. He felt that the course set up poorly for him for two reasons. One, it favored long hitters because there was no rough and two, it favored a draw.
Finally, there is a debate among many golf analysts about strength of competition between golf eras. One of my motivations in reading this book was to see if Trevino voiced any opinions about the subject. His views might be meaningful, considering that he is at the center of the controversy i.e. is Jack Nicklaus better than Tiger Woods because Nicklaus faced more determined and talented competitors than Woods?
Trevino spills much ink in praise of Jack Nicklaus, although at one point he calls him a flat out “poor” wedge and sand player. He says he would have never beat Nicklaus in their playoff at the U.S. Open in 1971, if Nicklaus hadn’t duffed two wedges and left two sand shots in the bunker.
There was only one comment I read that directly addressed the depth of field issue. He was discussing Tom Watson. Writing in 1981, Trevino felt that Watson still had the potential to be as great as Nicklaus, but “there’s more topflight competition for Tom. Today you may be playing great and some player who’s never won a tournament can come out of the pack and beat you” (page 181 Random House edition).
So, Trevino felt that in little over a decade between the mid 60's and the early 80's, depth of field had increased substantially, enough to impact Watson’s relative career totals.