News & Opinion

Trevino launches career at ’68 U.S. Open

Fifty years ago, Lee Trevino arrived at the U.S. Open as little more than a former driving-range pro from deep in the heart of Texas. After shooting an opening-round 69, Trevino sat by the practice green in a golf cart drinking beer at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y., watching spectators stream past him under the pale light of obscurity. 

"Everyone thought I was with the maintenance crew," Trevino said. "I never signed an autograph, nothing. They had no idea who I was."

What he couldn't recognize then was that this would be his final brush with anonymity. His life was about to change. In the months leading up to the U.S. Open, Trevino had pocketed more than $50,000 on the PGA Tour, but he had squandered several opportunities to earn his maiden victory. To some this led to the conclusion that Trevino, at 28, might make a pleasant living on the pro golf circuit, but that he would never win a major championship. Not with his unorthodox homemade swing or what Daily Telegraph golf correspondent Leonard Crawley described as Trevino's "agricultural methods." 

Only Trevino, with a second-round 68, and Bert Yancey broke par in the first two rounds, with Yancey's 135 total after thirty-six holes matching Mike Souchak’s 1960 U.S. Open midway record. With 26 holes to play, Yancey stretched his lead to five strokes and threatened to run away with the tournament. But he couldn't shake Trevino, who rallied to post a 69 and trailed by one as Yancey and Trevino separated from the pack. The next-closest competitors were Charles Coody and Jack Nicklaus, who stood seven strokes off the lead.

On the range before the final round, Trevino removed his blue alpaca sweater. Beneath it, he was wearing a bright, fireman's-red shirt with matching socks and black pants, the cuffs cut too high. Long before Tiger Woods made Sunday red fashionable, Trevino introduced a red-black combo that would become his traditional Sundayoutfit, or as he referred to them, "his payday colors."

Many observers thought Trevino might be overmatched and self-destruct once he realized the full weight of what he was about to face. Especially when Nicklaus began nipping at his heels. Nicklaus, the defending champion, canned a 25-foot birdie putt at the third and reached the front edge of the par-5 fourth hole in two. He made another birdie. Yancey, who made two early bogeys, and Trevino shared the lead, but in the space of four holes, Nicklaus had trimmed his deficit from seven shots to three. But as had been the case during the first three days, a failing putter betrayed Nicklaus. He was inside 12 feet on nine occasions on Sunday but kept coming up empty. Trevino, on the other hand, seemingly couldn't miss.

"Every time I turned around, he was making another putt," Nicklaus recalled at last week's Memorial Tournament. "He holed 20-footer after 20-footer. It was his week."

Trevino seized his first lead of the tournament at the par-3 fifth hole when Yancey missed a short putt. For the first time since Thursday, Yancey no longer was in front. A splinter of doubt had perforated Yancey's perfect sphere of concentration, and he skied to a 76, finishing third.

As the round unfolded, something amazing happened as the galleries adopted Trevino as one of their own. He was their gay caballero, a newborn hero from the depths of poverty. No less than The New York Times, in an editorial column, wrote: "Just when the button-down collar set is threatening to turn the sports scene into a dour stockholders' meeting along comes Lee Trevino to put the fun back in fun and games."

When Trevino arrived at the tee for the 18th hole, a 449-yard dogleg right, he needed a closing birdie to break the Open scoring record set by Nicklaus a year earlier. But his drive screamed left into thick rough. Trevino's second shot required a carry across a wide, deep depression to a green set at the top of a steep hill. Upon arriving at his ball, Trevino contemplated punching out to the fairway with a wedge. His caddie, an 18-year-old local product and Cornell rising sophomore named Kevin Quinn, favored a more daring shot. “Why not go for it?” he suggested.

Trevino nodded in agreement. "You're right," he said. "I don't want to be remembered as the U.S. Open champion who laid up." 

Trevino grabbed a 6-iron and smother-hooked it, advancing the ball a mere 70 yards, and still in the tall grass. With the pin situated five paces beyond a kidney-shaped, right greenside bunker, Trevino aimed for the middle of the large green dominated by a swell in its right side and played his third from 100 yards like a champion, to 3 feet.

"That was about my first time I realized if I made the putt, I would tie the record of 275 set by Nicklaus the previous year," Trevino said.

Just as Nicklaus had six years before, Trevino made the U.S. Open his first victory of consequence, and in doing so became the first player in tournament history to shoot four rounds in the 60s (69-68-69-69).

Trevino would go on to win five more majors and $13.3 million in prize money during his career, but he'd never forget how winning his national championship opened the doors to a life he never could have imagined growing up without electricity or indoor plumbing. USGA president Hord Hardin presented the Open trophy to Trevino, who dutifully posed for pictures. Trevino waved his lone $20 bill with one hand and the USGA-endorsed check for $30,000 in the other.

"Isn't this a helluva way to make a living?" he said.

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: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak