Lee Trevino's summer of ’71 deserves to be celebrated among the best seasons of golf ever.
Trevino arrived at Royal Birkdale for the 100th British Open having defeated Jack Nicklaus in an 18-hole playoff to win the U.S. Open. An exhausted Trevino finished near the back of the pack the next week, at the Cleveland Open, but he claimed his second national title in three weeks with a sudden-death playoff victory at the Canadian Open.
How confident was Trevino of his chances of hoisting the Claret Jug for the trifecta? Well, just before Trevino teed off in the second round, longtime running mate Arnold Salinas appeared in the locker room. Trevino was sitting on a bench, slipping his cleats on, when a voice behind him asked, "Hey, are there any Mexicans in this tournament?"
Salinas had flown across the Atlantic to surprise Trevino, who shared the first-round lead at 4-under 69. As they chatted, he noticed that Trevino was missing four cleats from one of his golf shoes.
"How long has it been like this?" Salinas asked.
"A couple of days, I guess," Trevino replied.
Salinas was dumbfounded. Confidence swelled in Trevino's voice. "Man," he told Salinas, "I don't need a full set of cleats to beat these cats. I'm going to win this thing barefoot, if I have to."
Nor did Trevino fret about needing a week to get acclimated to links golf. He had competed in the 1969 Ryder Cup at Birkdale. It reminded him of home in Texas.
"Hell, Birkdale was Tenison Park without trees," Trevino said of the Dallas muni where he cut his teeth.
In the second round, Trevino shot a ragged 37 on the outward half. Bending over a birdie putt, he mused, Maybe it's time somebody else got the money. If I win every week, they might cancel the golf tour. He missed the putt but refused to fold. He wheeled to caddie Willie Aitchison and said, "Well, now we need four or five birdies. But we've done it before, so we can do it again."
Trevino rebounded with three birdies before a 40-foot bomb for eagle-3 at 18 to shoot 70. Instead of flirting with the cut, the comeback tied him with Englishman Tony Jacklin atop the leaderboard at the halfway point, at 139.
Trevino did it again in the third round, pouring in six birdies on the second nine en route to a 4-under 69 and a 54-hole aggregate of 11-under 208, for a one-stroke advantage over Jacklin and Taiwan’s Lu Liang-huan – Mr. Lu, for short – who was bidding to become the first Asian to win the British Open.
No one else was within four strokes of the lead, and none mounted a strong bid during the final round, a gorgeous, summery, windless day framed by a soft, blue sky.
Jacklin exited the picture early, making a double-bogey 6 on the second hole after hooking his drive into the rough. He finished alone in third at 280. Trevino, in contrast, took only six putts on the first six holes.
"If you look at the films of those tournaments, you'll notice I took no practice strokes," he explained in a 2013 Golf Digest interview, referencing the U.S., Canadian and British opens. "I took very little time after I got over the ball, because I immediately saw the line. I'm sure golfers at some time or other have stepped on a green and almost seen the line of the putt. It's almost painted. And that's what it was like for me."
After an outgoing 31 that included five straight 3s, Trevino appeared to be in an unassailable position, having stretched his lead to four over Lu and six better than anyone else.
Dropped shots at the 10th and 14th trimmed Trevino's lead to three strokes over Lu. Trevino skated along until he reached the 510-yard par-5 17th, where he nearly fumbled the title away.
Trevino's drive darted dead left, and the ball lodged in one of Birkdale's infamous sand dunes. Trying to blast his second like a bunker shot, Trevino thwacked a clump of heather and his ball dropped back almost at his feet. Trevino butchered the hole, making double bogey, and was fortunate that Lu took three strokes to get down from the front edge of the green and settled for par. Trevino's lead was down to one. But he made birdie at the last and held on to become the “champion golfer of the year.”
In three countries and on two continents spanning from June 21, 1971, the Monday of the Merion U.S. Open playoff, to July 10, Trevino had done the unprecedented. He had won his triple crown.
"I've got the U.S., the British, and the Canadian opens. But, darn it, I've got to wait all the way until October to win my own Grand Slam," he said, with a smile. "That's when the Mexican Open is."
Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @adamschupak