The U.S Open in Golf is one of the most cherished golf tournaments to win. Normally before the tournament the predictors can be pretty accurate as to a selected few who will compete for the title. One Summer day in 1967 Lee Trevino, a Mexican from Texas shocked the golfing world. Lee, a former Marine had played golf often in his Texas hometown but always for fun and money. The money he made was from bets and he did really well! It was suggested to Lee that he should try to qualify for the U.S. Open. Lee blindly tried to get into professional golf. He had a growing family and needed the money. He was poor in finances but he was rich in personality and optimism. He had to scrape up the $20.00 qualifying fee. It wasn’t easy but Lee succeeded. You see new people in golf have to qualify for the U.S. Open. If you were established like a Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer you had automatic berths. Those golfers had qualified long ago. The qualification is a tournament in itself. There are tons of pro golfing dreamers who test their skills. Most have no problem getting the fee like Lee did.
Lee did end up qualifying along with a golfer named Johnny Miller. Lee was a very good golfer but he had an unusual style. Instead of the traditional high shots like a Jack Nicklaus played, Lee hit a low ball that faded to the right. In the course in Texas where the wind was stiff he developed this low shot to get through that stiff wind. Many times the wind was blowing right in his face and a high shot would not have worked. He learned to control that shot very well! He was not the longest off of the tee. In fact Lee’s drives traveled only about 240-245 yards but you could count on him consistently hitting the fairway. The course the Open was played at that year, Baltrusal Country Club in Springfield, New Jersey, favored players that kept the ball in the fairway. That kind of course was made for Lee’s game! Amazingly Lee Trevino, an unknown poor Mexican from Texas finished in fifth place among the finest golfers in the world!
Lee developed his golf swing so that he could hit low line drives. He had to experiment to see what swing would achieve that purpose. He didn’t have the money to take expensive lessons. One thing that Lee Trevino did have was determination. He developed a very flat swing. No instructor would have taught such a swing but it worked for Lee. He spent countless hours hitting golf balls. His early success in professional golf and the paycheck that followed was motivation. Now he not only wanted to finish in the running the next year, but he wanted to win it! He had the confidence in himself to know that his dream could come true.
Lee also had a very outgoing, friendly, happy go lucky personality! It did not go unnoticed in the world of golf. He developed followers who related to him. They were not the people that had the means to get expensive lessons. They were hard working people that loved the fact that he worked for everything he received. Lee would talk to anyone on the golf course. In fact he was constantly talking. It was almost like his golf swing interrupted his constant conversations. He played very loose and it was that constant chatter that kept him loose. Players on the tour didn’t like to play with Lee because he talked too much when they were trying to focus. That was just the way Lee was and it kept him loose whether he was talking to a fellow player or the crowd. He made golf entertaining and the gallery always enjoyed him because he brought them into the game!
Lee won the U.S. Open in 1968 and became the most talked about golfer in the world at that time. A true rags to riches story who didn’t start on the Tour until he was 28 years old. Three years later he won the Open again! In that tournament he tied with the great Jack Nicklaus and they played an 18 hole playoff the next day. Lee was very loose that day. Nobody expected him to win so he just relaxed. He had put this fake rubber snake in his bag and before the match he was entertaining the crowd with it. He had put the thing at the end of his golf club and the crowd was laughing. Nicklaus was sitting on the other side of the tee box and called for Lee to throw the snake over to him which he did. Although Jack claimed he wasn’t affected by the episode, he must have seen how loose Lee was.
The very first hole Lee fell behind when he made a bogey. Lee played his steady golf and the match was pretty even when on the 7th tee box they were told play would be suspended. There was a lightning storm coming and they would wait it out. The storm and the rain that followed was actually a big break for Lee. He recognized it right away. Since he hit such a low ball many times he had to land before the green and roll them up. Now with the greens wetter he could hit his balls on the green without fear they would roll off. When play resumed Lee remained his steady self while Jack got caught in sand traps two holes in a row. Both times he was unable to get out of the traps on his first attempt. Lee ended up winning the playoff by 3 strokes.
While the U.S. Open fit Lee’s game like a glove there was one Tournament that didn’t fit at all. Many people thought that Lee didn’t play the Masters for years because of the segregated history the Tournament had. Actually Lee didn’t play because his game wasn’t suited for the course. The course was designed for players who hit a high draw (right to left) shot and Lee hit a low fade (left to right). In 1970 Lee was playing his first Masters with Kermit Zarley. Zarley was a Christian and Lee was having a bad day. As Lee hit his normal low shots they were not resonating with the Georgia course. Lee was getting upset and the swear words were streaming from his mouth. Near the end of the round Kermit had a talk with Lee. “Lee”, he said, “I don’t like you talking bad about a friend of mine.” Lee caught by surprise knew one guy we’ll say Charley who they both knew. “I didn’t say anything about Charley.” “No it wasn’t Charley”, Zarley continued, “it is my friend Jesus Christ.”
That same year Zarley was paired with Lee again at the Houston Open. Lee told Zarley “Well, Moon Man, I’ve cleaned up my act. No more smokin,’ drinkin’ or cussin’.” I replied, “That’s all very well and good, Lee, but that won’t get you through the pearly gates. You’ve got the cart before the horse.” Lee quickly changed the subject sighting the failures of the Catholic Church. When the round was over the reporters wanted to know if the tough conditions of the course affected Lee’s play? Lee’s answer was surprising. He looked at Zarley who was seated a few feet away and said “It isn’t easy playing with John the Baptist.”
When Trevino was struck by lightning at a Tournament a few years later, he said “I’m not worried. God is protecting me because he’s in me”, Zarley was excited to see Lee at a Tournament shortly after and asked him about his statement. Once again Lee changed the subject and it was clear there was not that relationship Zarley had hoped for. Years later Zarley heard that Lee was going to church with his whole family by his home in Dallas. Zarley was hopeful that maybe Lee would be able to talk not only about things that will soon pass, but about his other rags to riches story. You see like Trevino we start in life very poor. We are poor because we have no relationship with God. When we find that relationship it is truly a rags to riches story! As satisfying as it was for Trevino to go from poverty to riches imagine how it will feel when we enter the pearly gates and see what real riches look like!