Chasing the Buck

28 Nov

Good Evening.

There is an old Irish/Scottish Gaelic word that ranks amongst my favourites. It is Shanachie!

A Shanachie, is defined in the dictionary as “a skilled teller of tales and legends” or “A traditional Irish story teller!”.

I remember clearly the night I first decided to post a comment on an internet site that related to Glasgow Celtic or football in general. Whilst I had written online before for some time on music sites or travel sites, I had never written anything about football or indeed about Celtic.

I had no desire or urge to write about the ins and outs of legal precedents, tax cases, business matters or anything like that. I simply wanted to be an online Shanachie— to tell a story.

Anyway this night, I decided to fire in a post. Yet I noticed that all the posters had strange names– all– or most — relating to football with some being clearly a bit — well— daft!

So, I thought to myself, what name will I use here then?

Well I had a friend who posted on this same site– and it was really a post of his that I was replying to– and he often said that if we were in the pub, I could rarely get through a conversation without introducing the name of a certain party into the mix somehow or other. We could be talking about football, travel, ice hockey, painting, films, tennis,golf, hill walking or any other topic under the sun– and I just had to mention yer man and get him into the conversation irrespective of the topic of conversation, with the allegation being that I could somehow work him into any story at all!

Whatsmore, the guy had made his name in a sport that I did not even play and didn’t even follow that closely, so why I should choose to mention his name on a regular basis was more than a bit odd!

So, I thought I would build my “online” name around him to an extent, make it a completely daft name at that, make my post– and wait to see if my pal would pick up on the fact that it was me!

He didn’t– and ever since I have been stuck with BRTH—thus fulfilling the prophecy that I could somehow fit him into any conversation at all!

Anyway, a Shanachie is meant to be able to tell a story just the once— but in a fashion and with content that makes the story stick in the brain– even though the listener has only heard the story that once.

Storytelling is easiest to do with great material– and the greatest of material is, in short,— people. Or if you prefer  — Heroes!

I personally have always admired those who came from nothing and nowhere as it were, were the underdog, were never perfect, and who in many ways were ordinary yet capable of extraordinary things.

They need not be famous—- in fact preferably not—- but of those who were famous or had at one time achieved a degree of fame then the best were always those who remembered who and what they were before they were famous. That is a sign of class in my view.

The story below is one that many will have read before. However, I repeat it here because– well because I just like it– that’s all. It is a story that sticks in the brain for all the right reasons.

I think it captures the flavour of the subject–hopefully- or at least the subject as I choose to see him- having done a little research and having taken the view of the man as expressed by others who know him.

So– this is the tale of the “Buck”– someone who the rest of the field can chase for all they want, but who, for me, will always be in a class of his own for the reasons explained below.

I cannot recall the date it was first posted but the events described will provide the necessary time reference.


Good Afternoon,

Amidst all the hullabaloo of the weekend you may have missed the fact that a Glaswegian came second at the TPC at Sawgrass. The Tournament players championship has the richest prize in Golf with the winner walking away with a cool $1.71 Million!

Martin Laird’s failure by two shots still saw him collect a healthy cheque for over $1M and raised his world standing, which isn’t bad for a lad who played his junior Golf at Kirkintilloch and then at Hilton Park outside Bearsden,—- a course I often pass as I drive around the countryside.

Sandy “last round” Lyle remains the only Scot, and the first non-American to have won at Sawgrass. Seve Ballesteros once said that if all the then current golfers played at their best at the one tournament then the winner would be “Lyle by two”– but of course it is very hard to have all the great golfers play at the top of their game at the one tournament. It doesn’t actually happen very often.

Golf is a strange game. The late Bob Collinson, who was the professional at Wndyhill Golf Club tried to teach me the rudiments when I was a boy. It was a thankless task. “Keep your left arm straight!”. “Don’t lift your head!”  “Don’t swing too fast!”  and so on.  For a time I listened and actually put it into practice but I just didn’t have the temperament. A bad shot would see a complete loss of temper as a teenager. Consistency was as close as an undiscovered country and eventually the game really was a good walk spoiled. I got to hate it.

However, I did become fascinated by the people who played this crazy sport at the top level, the courses they played on and the truly mental people who designed a golf course.

Take the 17th hole at Sawgrass with its island green? Just what on God’s earth is that all about? And to think people actually pay to face such a trauma!

Sawgrass – or the Stadium course to be precise- is now the permanent home of the TPC. It is not quite the fifth major — Lyle once said the difference between Sawgrass and the 4 majors was a mere 150 years — but it is a hellish hard tournament to win. To do so, you have to be at your very best, against the best, and at least once Sawgrass saw that most unique of all things- when-all the big guys in the field were at their very best at the one time and on the one course.

The occasion that I am thinking of took place in 1980, although on this occasion the TPC was hosted across the road from the Stadium course at the Sawgrass Country club, and the winner didn’t get $1.71Million — but a respectable $72,500 — still the biggest prize in Golf at the time.

By the last day of play, the following players were tied behind the leader for second place, and on the last round they all trailed by just one shot at one point in the day.

Tom Watson, Hubert Green, Ben Crenshaw, Hale Irwin and Seve (The reigning Open Champion) were all in that group. Unbelievably the last threesome of the day had another two players on the same score… and they just happened to be one Jack Nicklaus and the wee South African globetrotter Gary Player. For good measure, both Player and Nicklaus both birdied the first hole!  These seven guys, all in the world’s top ten bar Player I think, were chasing the TPC championship but they were also chasing the “Buck”. Crenshaw chased that hard that he fired a superb 66 but….. Alas it was just not enough.

At the end of the day, all seven, like Laird, came close but not close enough, with the nearest being Crenshaw at the end, who remained that one stroke behind the eventual winner. In the papers, the last round was defined as a Dog Fight, a conglomeration of Stars, eight of the best in the world all going at it, and for it, on the one day and at the one time. In the world of golf — it was said to be one of the greatest days of competition—- ever!

As I said, Crenshaw fired 66; Green equalled the the previous course record for 4 rounds with a matching 66. In the third round Nicklaus had birdied 4 out of the last 5 holes and started the day where he left off with the birdie on 1. Watson was never more than two away at any stage. Player Made birdies but slid to a 73. Nicklaus gambled— and the gamble didn’t pay off— and he fell away under pressure. Seve flashed to a 69 and tied for third with Watson, and others like Curtis Strange, Nick Faldo, Peter Jacobson and Tom Kite were left behind as also rans. At the end of the day, none of them could catch the front runner who smashed the previous course record by an amazing 5 shots.

At the front of the field was a 40 year old who had no right to be there and who had every right to be there.

Lee Buck Trevino by this time had a chronic back. He had had several operations, and would eventually have two spacers inserted between his vertebrae and a permanent metal plate inserted into his neck to relieve the pain from long displaced discs. He has said that eventually he will be cremated and that his wife has to reach into the urn and find the spacers, the plate and various other bits of metal that hold his back together, and if they ain’t there then the ashes ain’t him!

Having been struck by Lightning at the Western Open in 1975, Trevino should not have been playing golf at all, and certainly not to tournament standard. Playing Golf was painful and no matter what surgery might do for him, he could not hit through the ball as hard as he did when he was at his zenith between 1967 and 1975— and it has to be remembered that this 8 year period was the only period when the world saw a fit Lee Trevino, as beyond that he was always handicapped because of that lightning strike. However, post lightning, what he could do was hit the ball with deadly accuracy from the tee, and so while “shorter” than everyone else he hit fairway after fairway after fairway relentlessly loading pressure on the others over 4 days.

Trevino, the man, is a fascinating study. He was born poor — and I mean really poor— in a dirt floor shack. He never knew his father, had little schooling and was earning money for the “house” by the age of 5 picking cotton, by 9 selling golf balls he found on the local golf course, and beyond that by shining shoes. From an early age he used to caddy and eventually he went to caddying full time, finally leaving what passed for a school life at 14.

He never had a golf lesson in his life and started to play with other caddies on the three holes behind the caddy shack of the local course where he caddied. It was there that he started to hustle, taking on all comers with either clubs, or most famously playing with a taped up Dr Pepper’s bottle on the end of a bit of string. He would drive with the thick end of the bottle, and put with the thin end using it like a snooker cue. In later years he was sponsored by Dr Pepper and he still drinks the stuff to this day.

At 17 he joined the marines for 4 years. During that time he became an expert marksman and held the marine shooting record for many years as a result of the same attitude he showed to golf — practice- practice and practice. When he left, he returned to golf and got a job as an assistant pro in El Paso. It was whilst at El Paso that he really started to hustle in between playing and giving lessons. He never thought himself good enough to be a tournament player until he started beating tournament pros for money. One story goes that a young Ray Floyd was persuaded by his backers to come and play against the unknown Trevino. Floyd had just won a PGA tournament earning a healthy cheque. However he and his backers promptly lost the lot and more to the wee Texican who carried bags, worked behind the bar and waited at table in between rounds.

Trevino didn’t hit the US PGA tour until the ripe old age of 27. He was rookie of the year in his first full year and in his second year he won the US open by 4 strokes from Nicholas. He would win at least one PGA event every year for the next 14 consecutive years. Duff back or no duff back.

In the early 70’s, he was Nicholas’ greatest nemesis, simply because he would drive the ball so consistently, and because around the greens he had– put simply — a “magic”  touch. It seemed he could bump and run the ball, or chip it straight into the hole from just about anywhere and from any angle. By this time the world was used to his out to in swing that was all wrong and technically ugly together with his relentless fade of the ball from left to right. So called  “Experts” said that the style and technique of that swing would never last, only to eventually agree that he was the “sweetest” and most reliable hitter of the golf ball since Ben Hogan who he had seen at distance as a boy, and on whom he modelled the “shape” of his fade.  Had he not suffered the lightning strike in 1975 and the resultant back problems…. Then who knows? In truth, he was only able to play golf at the top level, without injury, for a mere 8 years!

His practice routine was… well…. Crazy.  He would set up an ordinary household door some 250 yards down the fairway and allegedly practice his drive until he could hit the door 30 times out of 30! He never took on a coach, stating that he had never found a coach he couldn’t already beat — though the truth is he just kept teaching himself.

But it all should have ended after the lightning strike.

Yet, despite the pain, he won 29 tournaments on the regular tour, many of which came after God had given him a volt or two. However,  when you look beyond the regular tour that is when the stats get a bit mesmerising. You see he also won numerous unofficial tournaments- although many like the Lancombe, The Canadian PGA, Sun City Classic and the Golf world cup would later receive official status.  By 1980, despite the bad back and at the age of 40, he was back to playing at his best. That best included playing in 22 tournaments overall that year,—- winning 3, being 2nd 4 times, 3rd once, 4th twice and fifth twice. By the end of the year, the 40 year old was only second on the money list to the much younger Watson.

Over his career on the professional tour he played in 466 tournaments, made the cut on 409 occasions, finished in the top 25 on 286 of those, the top ten 166 times and the top 3 on 83 occasions! He won the Vardon trophy for having the lowest average score over the year on 5 occasions. Only Tiger Woods has won it more often. Overall he is credited with 89 tournament victories. However what the stats reveal is that he very VERY rarely failed to collect a cheque— cause when you were born poor — you never wanted to be poor again!

However, it was his “televisionality” that really made Trevino, especially in unofficial skins games which were televised and which offered BIG prize money. With his sense of humour, non-stop talking and quick wit, the TV channels were desperate to get him for such events. However this was also a chance for Trevino to hustle of old, and he regularly played others on the tour in such challenge matches and walked away with dollars aplenty. One famous occasion was when he played a skins match with Nicklaus, Palmer and Fuzzy Zoeller and won every single cent that was available as prize money on the second day. His haul for the two days amounted to a massive $310,000 dollars plus a Cadillac. His round included a hole in one at an island green not unlike Sawgrass’ 17th. By this time he was 47 years old and clearly past his best— except when the tournament was over two days instead of 4—– and there was serious money on the line.

By the way, in cars he has won a total of 6 Cadillacs, 2 Toyotas and 3 Mitsubishi’s on the senior tour alone  He sold them all, especially the Cadillacs because he said that where he came from if the Police saw a Mexican in a Cadillac they would presume it was stolen!

By his mid to late 40’s he had given up on competitive golf, citing back pain and the fact that he could no longer compete with the young “flat bellies” who were using the modern equipment to hit the ball miles further than  he could.

However, his wife reminded him that his Golf clubs didn’t know what age he was, and so when he qualified for the senior’s tour at the age of 50 he took to competing again against “These older guys”.

He won 5 out of the first ten tournaments he competed in and all in all he went on to amass another 29 wins and remarkably similar stats to those of his PGA days. He played in 396 tournaments, making 387 cuts, finishing in the top 25 some 235 times, the top ten 153 times and the top 3 on 70 occasions.

At one point on the senior’s tour he had won more official prize money than anyone else in the History of golf. He claims that the most he has ever lost in a golf bet was $600 and describes real pressure on a golf course as being when you have made a bet of $20 and you only have $5 to your name.

The public perception of Supermex is the wise cracking forever talking entertainer. Crenshaw finished second to him on a number of occasions but always said that you could never be mad at him, and that he was great for golf. Always laughing, joking and chirping away. He was the kind of guy that made the stupid game look fun — so much so that even I tried it!

However, that view hides an altogether different Trevino. He is actually fiercely competitive and could be quite remote away from the course. He is a sociable but private man, whose study of the game and his ability to see tiny things make him a great commentator on golf or anything else.  For example he was once commentating on a tournament where Jack Nicklaus was about to putt. It was a short putt, but Trevino said on air that he thought Jack would miss it because of the tiniest movement he was making with his head. Trevino said that when Jack made that movement he usually missed the putt!  Sure enough, Nicklaus missed. When he later heard what Trevino had said Nicklaus was furious — not furious at Trevino for his comment, but because he was furious that Trevino knew so much about him as a player, and because he (Nicklaus) was not conscious of any type of head movement at all! Nicklaus would say of him that he was genuinely afraid of him at his peak because he seemed to know so much about courses, players, caddies and just about everything else.

The American journalist and sports commentator Loran Smith cites Trevino as his favourite conversationalist in sport of all time — even above Ali— stating that he could speak before congress easily without a note and that he would put folk with a PhD to shame.

Trevino’s self-depricating wit is legendary. He says that until his twenties he thought that Manual Labour was another Mexican and that on occasion he plays one under golf — one under a bush, one under the water, one under a tree and so on.

It was this personality and his prowess with a golf club that lead to such programmes as the one club challenge where he and the emerging Seve just played St Andrews with only  a five iron— and of course the two would team up again on the pro celebrity golf series from Gleneagles.

However, it is neither his wit nor his golfing ability that make Trevino a stick out for me. Instead it is his unbounding and absolutely limitless humility. As I have said he was born with absolutely nothing and spent his formative years in and around black caddies– something he never ever forgot.  His long time caddy was Herman Mitchell, a 300 pound black giant who was more personal friend than employee. When Herman had to give up the job because of health problems, Trevino kept him on the payroll till the day he died. What is more, he bought him a house, a car, and paid his medical bills. Yet he would joke to Herman after a bad shot “You can’t caddy for shit!” only for Herman to reply “I can clearly caddy better than you can play!”

The 1980 Open at Muirfield saw him finish second to an inspired Watson, but in front of a trailing Crenshaw, Nicklaus, Bean, Stadler, Newton, Lyle, Faldo, Ballesteros, Pate, Nelson and everyone else. I remember watching that last round and being impressed by Watson but astounded by Trevino. He had been paired with Ken Brown of Scotland whose play was notoriously slow. Trevino wanted to get round quick, especially when it was cold, as that affected the back. Brown could have won the open that day but for a disastrous 76 before his home crowd. Trevino himself could maybe have won at Muirfield for the second time. However, Ken took forever with every shot and had the Texican out on the cold course for hours. Despite this Trevino shot 69 – the same score as Watson, Crenshaw, Nicklaus and Carl Mason. I remember him whistling as he went round and revealing that he was keeping the cold out by wearing his pyjamas underneath his clothes!

However, what I remember most of all from that day was his shouts of “get in the hole—get in the hole” as a ball went towards the cup on each green. It was Brown’s ball — he simply didn’t want the Scot to lose face or struggle before his home crowd. People counted to Lee Trevino.

He would win the last of his 6 majors in the heat of Birmingham Alabama in 1984. By this time Trevino was mostly a commentator rather than a serious tournament Pro. At his height he would play well over 30 tournaments per year — by 1984 that was down to maybe 20 because of his back.

Whatever happened in the course of that week in Birmingham Alabama, Trevino hit the front early and the world’s best once again chased “The Buck” in vain. By the end, he won with a course record and was 4 shots clear of Player, Lanny Wadkins, Calvin Peete, Seve Ballesteros, Hal Sutton, Ray Floyd,  Larry Mize, Scott Simpson and everyone else.

The good news was that he was $125,000 richer in prize money. The bad news was that the reigning US PGA Champion is expected to defend his title, which was to be held the following year at the Cherry Hills Country Club Colorado.

In that next year, Trevino could only manage to play 13 tournaments such was the pain in the back, but he was determined to at least turn up to defend his title. After another 72 holes against the best, Hubert Green would be crowned champion with the ageing Trevino trailing in………..2nd……. just one stroke behind!

That would be his swansong on the major stage…… not bad for an old guy with a bad back!

The one place he was never ever comfortable was at Augusta. It is said that it is only in recent years that he has even entered the clubhouse there. In days of yore, he would change his shoes in the car park, and would refuse to enter the building because of its “white only” rules. When he finished a round at Augusta he would immediately get in the car and drive off — no hanging about, no signing autographs – nothing. He didn’t like the place or the people — and to Lee Trevino people counted. Officially he has said that to win at Augusta you needed to have a hook — and he didn’t have a hook in his locker. Unofficially, others say he simply despised Augusta National for its openly racist policy and all that it stood for. He said of Augusta “That place rejected me like a skin transplant!”.

All Trevino’s charitable donations (and there are many) and works for good causes, have to be kept strictly private and he insists on absolutely no publicity. He has established numerous foundations and charities for the benefit of Mexican Americans. He cannot stand the snobbishness that can be part of golf, and now at 72 he plays golf with pals — a guy that fixes fences, a bail bondsman, and others. He prefers their company to the circus of celebrity. George W is a pal who stays close, but Trevino openly admits to crying like a baby when Barack Obama became President as he did not think he would see a black President in his lifetime. He always had time for the locker attendants and the cart boys — sure he had been one himself! People matter more than anything else.

Today, he lives in a house which is within vision of the shack he was born in. It’s a big house right enough, but it is down the road from where “home” always was. It is a house where he used to play in the gardens when he was a child, never thinking that he could one day own such a home. On that March day at Sawgrass with the world’s best at his heels, Trevino slapped the ball to within 18ft of the fifteenth green. Herman Mitchell turned to him and said “Let’s go home, Lee!” and Lee duly sank the putt. Two in front with three to play— The rest could only watch— and chase as they often had before.

Apparently he has a habit of referring to Arnold as “Mr Palmer” and says that if you look up the word “class” in a dictionary you will find a photograph of Arnold Palmer opposite the word.

He says the words “Jack Nicklaus” with a reverence and cites him as the greatest golfer ever- despite saying that his short game could have been better.

He mentions Gary Player, in glowing terms describing him as one of the greatest ever golfers- but a pain in the neck for always trying to get him to eat roots and nuts and “healthy stuff”.

And that, at last, brings me to the reason for this very long article…. And it is this.

Lee Trevino is the author of the single greatest sporting quote I have ever heard. It ranks just above Stein’s desire to play football in a style which would make the neutral want Celtic to win and be glad that they did so. Remember that Trevino was a fierce competitor, with an absolutely resolute determination to win. He believed that he could beat anyone on the day, and when that belief left him so did his desire to play competitive golf. From then on it would be exhibition golf with old friends and ever wiser cracks—– “The older I get, the better I used to be!”

He took the view that the greatest achievement that any golfer could ever achieve was to beat Nicklaus — that was the sole measure of his time.

Today, we live in a time when so called “sporting integrity” can be sold by supposedly educated men for the sake of a TV contract or a few quid here and there, and when it is widely recognised that certain people will break all sorts of rules to ensure a better chance of winning in a sporting competition. It is the wise cracking, uneducated shack dweller who reminds me best that sporting achievement is about human endeavour, about people and amounts to nothing at all without complete and total respect for your game, your opponent and a huge chunk of humility. Trying your best in fair competition is one thing, whereas winning at any cost and blowing your own triumphalist trumpet is another. One is to be absolutely admired without qualification, the other is to be condemned and discarded without a seconds consideration.

The quote concerned was made in an interview on TV. Trevino has said things close since but not exactly like this. The scene is a bar and Trevino is having a beer and talking golf to the interviewer and camera — and as he gave up alcohol 20 plus years ago the quote is not one from a reflecting old man, but rather from someone who is being interviewed because of a success and a status fairly recently attained within his chosen sport. The interviewer simply asked him how he would like to be remembered?

His reply was brilliant if it was off the cuff and spontaneous, but even better if it was considered and rehearsed.

“How would I like to be remembered?”. He paused, reflected and then said ” I would want to be remembered as having played with and against the very best when they were at their very best. I would want people to remember that I was lucky enough to play against Nicklaus, Palmer and Player when they were at the very top of their game— and I didn’t always lose!”.

The 4 old guys last played together—- for charity I believe— on 5th May 2012 with Palmer, Nicklaus and Player forming a winning team.

Before that, 72 year old Trevino played in a tournament on 17th April 2012. He did not win it and did not expect to. He did however play sufficiently well to collect a cheque for $22,500.

His unofficial “hustle” winnings are not recorded.


4 Responses to “Chasing the Buck”

  1. anneaptl November 29, 2012 at 1:23 pm #

    Even reading this for the second time this is a terrific piece of writing about a truly inspiring man. The links to Stein were I think inevitable as I expect your conversations are peppered with tales of Stein as often as they are about Trevino. Have you written anything about Stein? Love reading your bios. What about a book?

  2. zoyler November 29, 2012 at 6:35 pm #

    Again a delight! I second that ‘What about a book?’ You may not have been much of a golfer but you sure can write.

  3. ayerightnaw November 29, 2012 at 11:33 pm #

    Fabulous article. Trevino was my golfing hero in my youth. My first set of clubs, received for Xmas 35 years ago, were John Letters Lee Trevino Supermex. I was so thrilled and still have them somewhere. Thanks for recalling the great man.

  4. Pat Gritton December 1, 2012 at 11:04 am #

    What an enjoyable read . Lee Trevino was an inspiration to all and his opinion of Augusta is similar to the great reporter ,Charles Wheeler who commented from the US . Even better than Alistair Cooke . But your writings over the past months have been informative and well worth waiting for . So thank you and please keep going.

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