TROON, Scotland — He is everything that’s great about American golf and everything that’s wrong with it. Lee Trevino is a natural competitor and a more natural entertainer, a man who can bang a few heads together and say,
“Hey, guys, why so serious? This is sports. Enjoy it!”
That’s the great part. The problem is, there are so few like him. He is almost 50, in a young man’s game. By rights, there should be a host of less-wrinkled Americans with bigger followings.
Instead, Lee Trevino came off the 18th green of this British Open as a surprise early leader Thursday with a four-under 68 at Royal Troon — and people went nuts. Fans roared. The interview room quickly filled. You would think they never get to hear someone this funny, witty, passionate. . . .
REPORTER: Lee, you recently went on a diet. Was the extra weight affecting your bad back?
TREVINO: It affected my front. I couldn’t tie my shoes. It was either go on a diet, or find loafers with spikes.
REPORTER: Lee, the conditions out there were rather warm today, weren’t they?
TREVINO: Yeah. It’s pretty hot in this tent, too. What are you guys doing in here, frying eggs?
REPORTER: Lee, can you describe what winning this tournament would mean to you?
TREVINO: It would be unbelievable. God. I couldn’t even describe. . . . I mean, to win it at 50 years old? I don’t know what I’d do. I might never leave! I might build a little house up on the 17th green and stay here forever. A leader in charisma, too
Trevino trails leader Wayne Stephens by two shots. Two years ago, at Muirfield, Trevino was also in the front pack after the first day. But then he was alone in charisma, as he is now. It is a matter that should concern the powers-that-be of U.S. golf because the fact is, Trevino has not won a tournament since then — he hasn’t won anything since his miracle PGA Championship in 1984 — and he still can outdraw victors such as Scott Simpson, Steve Jones and Chip Beck. Combined.
So can Jack Nicklaus or even Arnold Palmer — who Thursday shot the worst round of any golfer out there, 82. Heck. The Senior Tour in America is threatening to outshine the regular PGA version. In baseball or basketball, young studs such as Bo Jackson and Michael Jordan have fans all aflutter. But in golf, the young Americans win, and we yawn. They seem so serious, so dull, so lacking in color. When’s Jack coming? When’s Arnie coming? Where is Super Mex?
Now, to be fair, not everyone can be as colorful as Trevino. Not everyone can grow up as a dirt poor Mexican kid, wear a tattoo, hustle folks with a Dr Pepper bottle taped to the end of his club. Not everyone can find putters in junkyards and attics.
Not everyone can be asked, as Trevino was Thursday, about a low-flying plane that rattled players and spectators.
“Yeah, man, did you see that thing? I wasn’t sure it would stay in the air. Those poor people in the bleachers, they had nowhere to hide. I was planning on diving into a bunker myself.” With experience comes patience
And of course, not everyone can play golf like Trevino. In his day, few could. He is aggressive, stylish and loves playing these British bump-and-run courses because “I hit low, so I have an advantage.” He has already won two British Opens (1971 and ’72) and says he has learned the key to a third:
“Patience. That’s what experience brings you, patience. You’re gonna get in trouble here. Sooner or later, you will hit the rough or the bunker. But the guy who tries to make a birdie from there will wind up disappearing. You play for the bogey and maybe be pleasantly surprised with par. When I’m in the rough here, I don’t even look for the flags.”
Less is more. Trevino has discovered that on the golf course; he has discovered it around his waistline as well. A diet last year dropped 22 pounds off his jolly frame. He says he used to tackle the dessert cart at British hotels.
“And now?” he was asked.
“Now I just ask for the strawberries. No cream, either.”
Less is more — but not always. The American golf scene could use a lot more Trevino types. It desperately needs more personality, more humor, men who can get struck by lightning, as Trevino was in the 1975 Western Open, and laugh about it. Here and around Europe, players such as Seve Ballesteros, Jose-Maria Olazabal, Nick Faldo and Greg Norman are electrifying the galleries. And while young Americans such as Bob Tway, Jay Don Blake and Tom Byrum are terrific golfers, to be honest, I’m not sure if lightning would have much effect on them.
Next year, Trevino and Nicklaus will be 50. They will join Palmer on the Senior Tour. “I’d be there tomorrow if they let me play,” Trevino said. “Then I could stop competing with these flat-bellied guys and start competing with the round-bellied guys like myself.”
Let’s hope that by the time he goes, someone will have stepped forth to equally capture our attention. Otherwise, the round-bellies might be more fun.